Renata Adler is enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now because her novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark have been reissued by New York Review Books. (Here are reviews from The Daily Beast, New York, The Millions.)  In Speedboat she says of contemporary book reviewing practice “’Literally,’ in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally. This film will literally grab you by the throat. This book will literally knock you out of your chair.”

Now I’m not one to get too bent out of shape by the hyperbolic use of literally, or most grammatical infractions for that matter. The purpose of writing is communication, and I don’t think anyone gets too confused about what injuries they might be risking if a reviewer says “This book will literally knock you out of your chair”. However, we have been being told not to do this sort of thing ever since people started telling us what we should and more importantly should not do when writing — splitting infinitives for notable example. But the times they are (apparently) achanging.

Jason Boog on GalleyCat brings us the news that Cambridge has accepted this emphatic use of “literally”, whereas Oxford is being slightly more tentative about the matter. Here’s his post:

‘For years, readers and writers have debated a common informal use of the word “literally.”

In conversation, some people use the word to provide exaggerated emphasis for a statement: “I love Haruki Murakami so much I literally read South of the Border, West of the Sun one hundred times.” Back in 2011, we even published a grammar PSA about the word.

Reddit reader andtheniansaid shared three separate dictionary definitions that include this informal usage, arguing that “it is okay to use the word ‘literally’ for emphasis.”

Here are three major dictionaries that mention the exaggerated “literally” usage…

Merriam-Webster Dictionary added a second “virtually” sense for the word, explaining with this note: “Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

Cambridge Dictionaries Online added this informal usage to its definition: “used to emphasize what you are saying: He missed that kick literally by miles. I was literally bowled over by the news.”

Oxford Dictionaries begrudgingly admitted the shift: “In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.”

UPDATE: Reader Ann Glaviano added this note on Twitter: “‘Literally’ Creeping Since 1914. cf. usage in the opening line of ‘The Dead.’ She passed along an annotated link showing how James Joyce used the word literally in his famous short story.’

I just bought (for $1.46 from Amazon.com) a second-hand copy of Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, the bible of practice in the olden days at Oxford University Press, before they had stopped, in 1989, having compositors or any other print workers. This is a book of great charm to the likes of me (who are involved in print, and have been for rather a long time). It pulls few punches — you kind of imagine apprentices running about pulling it out of their back pockets at regular intervals to discover what it is they are meant to do next in response to this or that situation. It gives you straight answers, only once or twice admitting that doubt might be acceptable, at which juncture you are advised to consult your supervisor. On “literally” I swear that I read in it an absolute interdiction — but now I can’t find it. This is typical of the book actually. Rather like the Brown Book at school (from which we had to memorize headmasters, prefects, special holidays, etc. etc.) it’s the sort of book which is useful only after you know it by heart. Looking for something in it is challenging. You’d use it by whipping it out and trumping the erroneous opinion of some tyro not yet privy to the arcana.

Hart leans on Fowler’s Modern English Usage, among many other OUP publications, and the Fowlers (coincidentally ex-teachers at the school I attended) mince no words on the subject of “literally”. “We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression ‘not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking’, we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate; cf. VERITABLE; such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.” There follow lots of examples. I do think that Fowler is here coming it a bit strong with that about false coin, but then of course he’s in business to establish rules and make nasty boys adhere to them.

We should all be allowed to write in whatever way seems best to us. If my style literally makes you throw up, then of course you can resolve to never again read a word I write. But I think those who try to elevate such stuff to the equivalent of moral turpitude are literally prissy idiots.