Use literally to be literal. Use figuratively to mean “metaphorically” or “departing from the literal sense of a word.”
What is the difference between literally and figuratively?
The adverbs figuratively and literally are traditionally opposite terms that derive from the adjectives figurative and literal. Here’s the difference:
- “Literally” implies something is “exact” or “true to its meaning.”
- “Figuratively” suggests something operates metaphorically or departs from the word’s literal sense.
What does literally mean?
The word “literally” is an adverb related to the adjective “literal,” which describes something as “free from exaggeration” or “at its most basic meaning and without metaphor.” Therefore, the standard use of “literally” means “in a literal manner or sense” or “exactly.”
- “A and B are literally letters of the alphabet.”
- “The instructions literally say to include a citation.”
- “The sculpture literally has dust on it.”
- “If folks literally need a sanction to protest, are they really protesters?”
Alternatively, we may find the adverb “literally” in sentences that emphasize how a statement is true and accurate despite being surprising. In this sense, the adverb is synonymous with words like “truly” or “completely.” However, it’s good to know that formal grammar sources like Garner’s Modern English Usage describes this usage as a “slipshod extension” (aka careless or sloppy).
- “The news articles literally state otherwise.”
- “There are literally wolves outside eating candy.”
- “Despite flunking grade school English, she’s literally now writing for professional journals.”
Informal meaning of literally
The informal use of “literally” emphasizes or expresses a strong emotion without being factually accurate. In this sense, the adverb is synonymous with “virtually” or “in effect” to exaggerate a point.
- “The text you sent was literally a novel.”
- “Grading these school papers is literally the worst.”
- “New Jersey is literally right next to D.C.”
- “Your vocabulary is literally trash.”
Writer beware: While this informal use of “literally” is a popular way to add humor to nonliteral statements, the New Oxford American Dictionary notes declares this usage as unacceptable for formal English.
Actually, accurately, ad verbum, directly, exactly, genuinely, precisely, really, truly, verbatim, veritably.
Imprecisely, inaccurately, inexactly, loosely, metaphorically.
Etymology of literally
The adjective “literal” originates from Middle English through Old French or late Latin litteralis (from Latin littera). The informal use of “literally” is thought to have appeared in the early 19th century.
What does figuratively mean?
“Figuratively” is an adverb derived from “figurative” (adjective), which describes something as metaphorical or leaning away from the literal use of a word. In most cases, “figuratively” appears in sentences to mean the opposite of literally.
- “The pillars in the emblem figuratively represent the perseverance of justice.”
- “Figuratively speaking, the tragedy made him a fortunate man.”
- “Without a community, the children were figuratively raised feral.”
- “We were left figuratively in the dark.”
Alternatively, the word figuratively may suggest the other meaning of “figurative,” which describes an artist or artwork as “representing forms that are recognizably derived from life.”
- “Picasso inspired the students to paint figuratively using blue tones.”
- “His most recent work figuratively mirrored the carnage of the Second World War.”
*Note: Synonyms of figurative (adj.) include allegorical, emblematic, literary, metaphorical, nonliteral, ornate, and symbolic.
Etymology of figuratively
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word figurative (adjective) originates from Middle English from late Latin figurativus via figurare (‘to form, fashion’) and figura (‘shape, figure, form’).
Can we use literally before a figurative expression?
One of the more controversial takes on the word “literally” involves its use as an intensifier before a figurative expression. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary noted this usage through the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens, leading editors to adjust the adverb’s definition to include “virtually” and “in effect.”
Webster’s new definition of “literally” upset readers because they understood this change to suggest that “literally” now means “figuratively” or “metaphorically” (the definition of “figuratively”). However, Merriam-Webster points out how this acknowledgment is nothing new, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides a similar distinction:
Literally, adv. 1c. (colloquial): Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely.’
The OED additionally states how this use of “literally” is “now one of the most common uses,” despite it’s irregular presence in standard English when it reverses the original sense of the word.
Similar definitions appear in other dictionaries as well:
Literally, adv. 1b. (informal): Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.
— New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition, 2010
Literally, adv. 3.: Actually; in effect; practically. Used as an intensive to emphasize a figurative statement in an exaggerated way.
The bottom line?
Popular or not, most dictionaries acknowledge how using “literally” as an intensifier for non-literal or figurative statements is improper for formal English (perhaps even more so for British English).
Collins English Dictionary, for example, attributes the “often criticized” use of “literally” to American English, noting how it frequently “appears in all but the most carefully edited writing.” Still, Collins does not argue that the informal use of the adverb is literal blasphemy:
“Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense ‘actually.’”
However, Garner’s Modern English Usage (a British English source) provides a very neutral take on the matter:
“When literally is used figuratively –– to mean emphatically, metaphorically, or the like –– the world is stretched paper-thin (but not literally)” (Garner 568).
In summary, it’s fair to say that it’s best to use “literally” for its traditional definition within formal writing (whether it’s for British or American audiences). Otherwise, we should practice caution for the adverb’s informal meaning, and limit this usage to very casual circumstances.
How to use literally vs. figuratively in a sentence?
Here are the basic rules for using “literally” and “figuratively” in a sentence:
- Use “literally” to mean “exactly,” “in a literal sense,” or “according to the strict sense of a word.”
- Use “figuratively” to mean “metaphorically” or “in a style representing forms that are recognizably derived from life.”
- Limit “literally” to informal writing or casual conversation when it means “truly,” “completely,” “virtually,” or “in effect.”
Published examples of literally
“I’m sure we’ve all heard of Rent the Runway by now, but as someone who literally shops for a living, I wanted to discover even more options.” — Vogue
“The duo took the emotive track’s title literally, evoking a mourning event on the late night show’s stage.” — Rolling Stone
“Then time stands still, literally. To relieve her anxiety, she removes the battery from a wall clock in her work space.” — The Wall Street Journal
Published examples of figuratively
“Figuratively, it can be used to convey how one feels after an embarrassing interaction with a crush, the exhaustion of living through a pandemic and, of course, sarcasm.” — The New York Times
“By the 1920s, Greek life had become a way for wealthy Southern belles like Zelda Fitzgerald to escape the restraints (literally and figuratively) of cotillion corsetry.” — Harper’s Bazaar
“Democratic Senator Corey Booker on September 22 figuratively threw his hands up, saying efforts to craft legislation to address our national crisis of abusive and racist policing had failed.” — Reuters
FAQ: Related to literally vs. figuratively
What is a figure of speech?
A “figure of speech” is a literary device in which a word or phrase is used in a nonliteral fashion to produce a vivid effect. A figure of speech can appear in many forms, such as a:
- Metaphor: compares two dissimilar things through words that carry a symbolic meaning.
- Simile: compares two dissimilar things with the word “like” or “as.”
- Personification: the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman or inanimate objects.
- Hyperbole: an exaggeration to emphasize a quality or feature of something.
The opposite of a “figurative language” is literal language, which is free of metaphor, allegory, or any figures of speech that rely on suggestive or symbolic meanings.
If you enjoyed learning the difference between literally and figuratively, be sure to check out similar lessons by The Word Counter, such as:
Test your comprehension of literally vs. figuratively with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: The informal use “literally” is considered a nuance of British English.
- True or false?: A figurative description is representative of something at face value.
- Which of the following definitions for “literally” is a part of standard American English?
- In the exact sense or literal meaning of a word
- Departing from a literal use of words
- The figurative sense of the word
- Degrees of inexactness
- Which of the following definitions best relates to the adverb “figuratively”?
- The actual meaning or usual sense of a word
- In a figurative way
- Denoting the symbolic meaning of a word
- B and C
- Which of the following statements exhibits literal language?
- “The culprit sits on a throne of shame.”
- “Lilies are growing on the cliff.”
- “The ring promised a future with a family.”
- A and C
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“Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
“Figurative.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 644.
Garner, B. “Literally.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 568.
Jambhampaty, A. P. “The Melting Face Emoji Has Already Won Us Over.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 29 Sept 2021.
Kanu, H. “Congress fails on police reform. Now what?” Reuters, reuters.com, 12 Oct 2021.
“Literally.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021.
“Literally.” Collins English Dictionary, Penguin Random House LLC and HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2019.
“Literally.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p.
“Literally.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
“Literally.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, Sept 2021.
Morgenstern, J. “‘Bergman Island’ Review: Working Things Out at a Shrine.” The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, 14 Oct 2021.
Zemler, E. “James Blake Holds a ‘Funeral’ on ‘Fallon.'” Rolling Stone, rollingstone.com, 12 Oct 2021.