A news anchor after the congressional hearing on Roger Clemens’ alleged use of steroids, February 13, 2008: You‘ve been watching Roger Clemens, the rocket of baseball, literally in the hot seat.
I don’t think so.
Literally means that something occurred exactly according to the words used; that is, it means that it actually happened. Do not use it for exaggeration or for figurative expression. When the news anchor said that Clemens had been in the hot seat, he was speaking figuratively, not literally. If he had been speaking in a literal sense, then we would have seen a campfire burning under Clemens’ chair.
What the anchor meant was You’ve been watching Roger Clemens, the rocket of baseball, figuratively in the hot seat. He also could’ve just said …the rocket of baseball, in the hot seat (minus the word figuratively).
As another example, I saw a commercial on the TV Guide channel in which the participants talked about their show being literally in the heart of Hollywood.
A heart is literally an internal organ; heart as it refers to the center of something is a figurative term. Literally in the heart of Hollywood conjures up all kinds of images of some 1960’s science fiction B-movie in which a giant heart from outer space swallows Los Angeles and then sits in the middle of the city, its ventricles and valves spilling over with blood while the hosts of the show make their ways through the twists and turns of the superior vena…. Well, you get the picture.
Just saying that the show is in the heart of Hollywood (minus the word literally) would’ve done the trick since it can be assumed that it’s figuratively when a literal example is impossible.
Sherry’s Grammar List and Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever