More Literally

I’m still thinking about the semantics of “literally”, as if the intervening night’s sleep between posting the previous entry and now hadn’t happened at all.1 This morning I realize that I had been so focused on literallyemphatic that I failed to give literallytruth its due. There’s some interesting semantics there too.

“Literally” is an adverb. Adverbs can be analyzed as adding a property to an event. “I called him back” is true in all situations in which I called him back, while “I reluctantly called him back” is true in all situations in which I called him back and I did so reluctantly. Translating into simplified event semantics we get a predicate conjunction like this.

I reluctantly called him back.
∃ event e such that ICalledHim(e) ∨ IWasReluctant(e)

On the other hand, literallytruth X means “in situations in which the sense of X is ambiguous, take the non-metaphorical meaning”. So in “I literally threw him out the door” the literally is not a property of the throwing event, but rather an indication that I intend the literal sense of throw (his feet left the ground) rather than the metaphorical (I forcefully convinced him to leave). Translating again.

I literally threw him out the door.
∃ event e such that IThrewHimOutTheDoorliteral(e)

The adverb is no longer a predicate on its own but rather an index on the predicate it modifies.2 Literally’s meaning is a kind of meta-semantics. Maybe that’s one of the reasons people get so touchy about literallyemphatic. It doesn’t just add another word sense, but makes it unclear how to follow a rule, and when people talk about language they tend to get anxious about following the rules. (Ignoring the fact that we’re all constantly following whatever set of rules is necessary for us to be able to communicate.)

For literallytruth X to apply, then, there must be ambiguity in the meaning of X. The following would likely elicit blank stares.

This morning at breakfast I literally put jam on my toast.

It makes no sense because how do you put jam on toast figuratively? Furthermore whether that ambiguity exists and how to resolve it seems complicated and context-dependent. Consider the following examples.

She was so angry about the affair that last night she literally threw him out the door.


The bouncer literally threw the obnoxious drunk out the door.

In the first I think we’re probably dealing with literallyemphatic, even in a situation where the wife was physically capable of picking up her philandering husband and tossing him. In the latter, however, I’m pretty sure we’re seeing literallytruth, because figuratively throwing people out of a bar is what bouncers get paid to do, so the “literally” here has the greatest impact when it exploits the ambiguity of “throw out”.

So here’s an (unverifiable) hypothesis on how literallyemphatic came to be. Literallytruth presupposes a figurative sense for its object. In order to contrast with something literal, figurative things are a fortiori unexpected, weird, and interesting. Literallyemphatic pivots off that sense of oddness. It says, “Listen up, the thing that follows me is weird and unexpected, just like the metaphorical sense that might ensue if I was actually literallytruth”. Which brings me back to my objection from the previous post. If you’re going to say something interesting, just say it. Don’t first tell me that you’re going to say it. That’s sloppy usage, and is so annoying it makes my head explode.

1See how lame it is if instead I say “literally as if…”?
2This business with indexes versus predicates is not as thought through as my use of mathematical formalism would imply, but with it I intend lexical and parsing assertions. First off, I am claiming that the English lexicon contains literal versus figurative senses of “throw out” but does not contains reluctant versus non-reluctant senses of “call”. As for parsing, note that it is implicitly assumed that the predicates in a semantic representation such as the one here are already disambiguated: the represent word senses, not words. The process of arriving at this disambiguation I’ll just generally call parsing. It involves some combination of lexical, syntactic, and background information, and is usually not locally compositional. (To know that the sentence “The deck was shuffled by the dealer” is not discussing boats, we must take the whole thing in and mull it over.) In general, you need access to the entire utterance, plus maybe world knowledge, to disambiguate all its constituent senses. Literallytruth is an exception. It allows you to sense-disambiguate its argument without any further information.

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