Literally vs. Figuratively: The Facts on Differences and Use

The word literally often shows up when the speaker means figuratively. Both words are adverbs, and both are often found around common expressions and sayings. So why do grammar sticklers cringe when they're used incorrectly? Keep reading to learn the difference between literally vs. figuratively and when you should use each word in speech and writing.

figuratively versus literally figuratively versus literally

Literally: When Something Actually Happened

The adverb literally means "exactly true," or that something actually happened, without exaggeration. If you say it takes "literally two minutes" to arrive at a destination, you don't mean "a short amount of time" — you mean precisely two minutes.

Additional examples of literally in a sentence include:

  • My grandmother is literally my last living relative. (There is no one else related to you.)
  • Kendra has literally lived in New Jersey for her entire life. (She has never lived anywhere else.)
  • We need to go shopping because we have literally no food in the fridge. (The refrigerator is completely empty.)

Literally in these cases helps readers to know that you're not exaggerating what you're saying. It also helps when your statement appears to be an idiom or common expression, but it's actually true. For example:

  • Twelve limes cost ten cents; they're literally a dime a dozen. (The idiom "dime a dozen" means "very common," but here it just means ten cents for twelve limes.)
  • Patty literally has sticky fingers after every meal. (The idiom "sticky fingers" means "steals a lot," but here it just means "fingers with food residue.")
  • The baby had a fever yesterday, but today he is literally as cool as a cucumber. (The idiom "as cool as a cucumber" means "relaxed," but here it means "not warm.")

In these cases, literally lets the reader or listener know that you're not using a metaphor. You want them to apply the actual, non-metaphorical meaning of the words you're using. The main difference between literally and figuratively is that literally basically means "not figuratively."

Figuratively: When Something Metaphorically Happened

Figuratively is also an adverb, but it relates to figurative language. It refers to the metaphoric and non-literal meaning of words. For example:

  • I hope to run into you again, figuratively speaking. (You want to see the person again, but not literally run into them.)
  • When it rains, it pours — more figuratively than literally in California. (A lot of events often come at once, but it's not literally raining very much in California).
  • That detective is a hard nut to crack, figuratively speaking. (It's difficult to figure the detective out.)

You only need to use the word figuratively if there is a risk of your reader or listener accidentally taking you literally. Most idiomatic expressions are so common to the English language that you don't need to clarify that you're using them figuratively. For example:

  • My father doesn't want to admit that the car dealer sold him a lemon. ("Lemon" is a term for a car that doesn't work well.)
  • Fiona really twisted my arm to get me to join the team. ("Twisted my arm" means "convinced me.")
  • I'm sorry, that name really doesn't ring a bell. ("Doesn't ring a bell" means "I don't recognize it.")

If you add literally to these sentences, you completely change their meaning. For example, the car dealer literally selling a lemon means he's selling a piece of fruit, not a junky car. That's why knowing how to use figuratively vs. literally is important.

Incorrect Uses of Literally

If you ask strict grammarians or avid readers about their grammar pet peeve, most will probably say "using literally incorrectly." There are three main ways that people use literally wrong — when they're using it in an idiomatic expression, when they are exaggerating and when they're using it as an intensifier.

Wrong: Literally in Idiomatic Expressions

The most common misuse of literally occurs when people are using idioms. If you take out literally from these sentences, they work as common expressions.

  • Incorrect - I literally died laughing. (You didn't actually die.)
  • Correct - I died laughing. (It's an expression; you laughed a lot.)

Wrong: Literally in Exaggerations

Exaggerations, also known as hyperboles, are another form of figurative language. People often use literally to emphasize their point, but it's incorrect when that point is exaggerated.

  • Incorrect - There were literally a million birds in the sky. (If you didn't count up to one million birds, there aren't literally a million of them.)
  • Correct - There were a million birds in the sky. (It's an exaggeration; there were a lot of birds in the sky.)

Wrong: Literally as an Intensifier

You'll also find that people use literally to mean "very." This usage typically appears alongside superlative adjectives when someone is making a strong point.

  • Incorrect - This is literally the best sushi I've ever had. ("Best" is already a superlative adjective.)
  • Correct - This is the best sushi I've ever had. (Your point is made without literally.)

As you can see, the solution to all of these misuses is to remove the word literally. When in doubt, not using the word is your best solution.

Both Literally and Figuratively

Writers enjoy idiomatic phrases that work both literally and figuratively in a sentence. That means they actually happened, and the metaphorical meaning applies as well. You may see "figuratively and literally" used in these instances, which include:

  • Don't take such big bites of that burger; you've bitten off more than you can chew, literally and figuratively.
  • Julius Caesar was literally and figuratively stabbed in the back by Roman Senators.
  • Charlotte was hiding the kitten in her backpack, but now it was time to literally and figuratively let the cat out of the bag.
  • I was supposed to present my project next, but when the lunch bell rang, I was both literally and figuratively saved by the bell.

It takes a strong knowledge of English idioms to use these double meanings. But if you can get it right, they add a lot of depth to your writing.

It's (Figuratively) a Headscratcher

If you're torn about using literally vs. figuratively, just consider whether the event actually happened. Because literally is used incorrectly so often, it's a good rule of thumb to only use it when you want someone to know that you're not speaking figuratively. Clear up more confusing grammar differences with an explanation of alright vs. all right. You can also become a grammar master with this easy trick for using who vs. whom.

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