Learn English – Is it valid to use “literally” to mean “actually” when composing a hyperbole?


Whenever I see someone corrects another person on their use of "literally", it often seems to me like the corrector did not realize the sentence was supposed to be a hyperbole, and in fact depends on the correct usage of the word "literally" (to mean "actually") in order to be a hyperbole. For example:

"It is so amazing it will literally make your head explode".

Sure, nobody's head is going to "literally" explode from the sheer awesomeness of whatever "it" is, but isn't that exactly the point? If heads do not explode from something being awesome, then something would have to be extremely awesome in order to actually explode someone's head. This sentence basically says:
"The intensity of how amazing this thing is is so great, that your head will actually explode from it."

This seems semantically correct to me, but people seem to criticize this use of "literally", as if it actually isn't semantically correct. Why is that?

Best Answer

This is my take:

In language, there is hyperbole and there is error. They are not the same.

It is so amazing it will make your head explode. - hyperbole
It is so amazing it will literally make your head explode. - error

The first is clearly hyperbole. Nothing is so amazing that it will make your head explode. The second is error. It is a contradiction in terms. It is self-defeating as an intensifier. Consider:

It is so amazing it will, in an actual or true sense, as opposed to an imaginary or figurative sense, make your head explode.
It is so amazing it will not make your head explode.

Does that sound strange, or confusing, or convincing?

Intensifiers are fine, even in hyperbole.

It is so amazing it will freaking totally make your head explode. - intensified hyperbole

Literally just isn't a great intensifier. Even though its use in this way has made it into a couple of dictionaries (with a caveat).