Literal: Taking words in their usual or primary sense without metaphor or allegory; following the letter, text or exact word; so called without exaggeration. (Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Second Edition)
Has anyone ever told you they were literally scared to death after riding a new roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland? You may well ask how they managed to come back to life to tell you about it.
A common misuse of the word “literally” is confusing it with something that is actually not literal at all.
This error occurs when someone wants to emphasize the impact of their statement and is usually followed by an idiomatic phrase or an exaggeration.
“These people are literally from another galaxy”.
“The musician literally bleeds rock and roll”.
“He’s literally the worst person on earth”.
In these incorrect examples of “literally,” the meaning is actually figurative, as in a figure of speech. It would certainly be awkward to say: “I was figuratively scared to death on that roller coaster” as it’s obvious the speaker is still alive. If you want to use an idiom or exaggerate to make a point, just let it stand alone.
The word “literal” can be handy when you want to emphasize that you are speaking the truth. For example: “Can you help me out? I literally have $20 in my bank account.” This person wants you to know this is an accurate fact, though the amount is so small it could be mistaken for an overstatement.
Using “literal” in a figurative statement is actually so common that some grammarians argue that the meaning has changed, and it’s, therefore, acceptable to use it this way. This is a risky position for a writer to take as your readers may think you’re just ignorant of the correct meaning, instead of accepting the shift in language.
To play it safe, and accurate, save the word “literal” for when you want to leave no doubt that you are describing an actual fact. However, if you can avoid the word completely without changing the meaning to your sentence, that’s probably the best choice.