How often have you heard a phrase like, “I was so busy, my hair was literally on fire.” The speaker wasn’t trying to fool you into believing his hair was on fire, he was just trying to make a point. If he had stopped at “I was soooo busy,” you would have felt compelled to ask “How busy were you?” and wait for the punch line.
Literally—and contrary to what some believe—is appropriate if you are trying to emphasize your point. It is a contronym or “auto-antonym,” meaning a word used in a contradictory way. I did a little research and further learned the literary likes of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Samuel Clemens (who literally was Mark Twain) all used the word in this context. Of course, few of us sit in the same linguistic pantheon of those 19th century greats, so I expect the use of literally in formal business writing to be literal, meaning “word for word,” or “in the actual sense.”
Of course the other side of the literal coin is figurative. Same coin, completely different idea. If literally emphasizes, figuratively de-emphasizes. In other words, it puts the fire out. Figuratively calls attention to the use of metaphor. And if you have to call a joke a joke, it just isn’t funny anymore, is it?
Now if that same speaker had said, “my hair was actually on fire,” you really would have been concerned for his welfare. You may even worry about how hair could spontaneously combust when you are overworked and consider taking that early retirement, market be damned.
Now add to this my personal pet peeve of the use of virtually to refer to the virtual (i.e., not real) world of cyber space. If your hair is “virtually on fire,” it may mean your avatar is a follicular flambé. More likely that you are just as harried as the guy with his hair literally on fire.