Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

What is happening in the US with the misuse of the word literally?

Find out how today and learn how to NOT jump on the bandwagon.

Today we are responding to a listener question:

“I don’t really know how to use technically, literally, basically. I see native speakers using these words when they gesture with their fingers by making air quotes in a conversation. It looks really natural to me but I am not sure when and how to use them.”

-AEE Listener


  • Technically: Use this when you are about to break something down or correct someone. You can use it if someone misuses something.
    • A: Oh Michelle I like your leather jacket.
    • B: Oh thanks Lindsay. Technically it’s not real leather. It’s vegan leather.


  • Basically: Use this when you want to simplify something and you want to give someone the basic essence of the message
    • A: Michelle can you help me with these instructions? I just read this manual and I am confused.
    • B: Oh Lindsay basically you need to make sure the cord is plugged in and turn on the TV. It’s not that hard.


What’s happening in the US with the word “literally”?

Literally means “in the strict meaning of the word” but now in the US people are using it incorrectly.

They are using “literally” when they actually mean “figuratively.”

It’s being used as an intensifier.

This happens all of the time these days.

For example, “I couldn’t believe how crowded the dance floor was. There were literally thousands of people there.”

We might say this when there were only hundreds of people, not thousands.


We found a great article in called Literally, the Most Misused Word.

According to the article this mistake goes back to the 1920’s.

The article suggested that the reason for this is the fact that we are always looking for drama and “literally” creates a sense of drama. But when we use literally in this way it makes us sound unoriginal and not very articulate.


What should you do if you are using literally incorrectly? 

Use other intensifiers and do it in a different way.

Start your phrase with “It was incredible. There were so many people in the club!” or “It was astounding! There were so many people in the club.”


Have you picked up this mistake from natives?

Are you using “literally” incorrectly?

Let us know in the comments below.

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