Literally vs Figuratively: What’s The Difference?

There are a lot of words in the English language that are incorrectly used interchangeably but actually have different meanings. Literally and figuratively are two of these English words. People sometimes think that they can use the word literally even when something did not actually happen. Let’s explore the meaning of these words and when to use each of them correctly along with some grammar tips.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What Does Literally Mean?

One of the best ways to understand a word better is to define it. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines literally as, “in a literal sense or literal manner” or, “used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or description.” It is an adverb.

The word literally was first recorded in the 1500s, but the usage of the word began to change during the 1800s. It became known as an “intensifier for effect”, which completely goes against its original meaning. says in regards to literally, “this is irreconcilable with the word’s etymological sense and has led to the much-lamented modern misuse of it.”

The thing about language is that it changes over time along with the culture. As culture evolves, so do words and their meanings. Many people who are aware of the exact sense of the meaning of literally are easily annoyed by people who misuse it so frequently. 

What Does Figuratively Mean?

On the other hand, the word figuratively means, “in a way intended to represent the form or figure of something or someone having objective reality: in a way that is not purely abstract.” Figuratively is used when describing something in a metaphorical sense that did not literally happen. 

The word figurative comes from the Old French word, “figuratif” which meant metaphorical. It was first used in the late 14th century. 

When to Use Figuratively

A lot of words have literal and figurative meanings to them. Once you understand the difference between these two, it is easy to tell the difference. For example, if you figuratively run into someone, then you happened to see this person while you were out.

Another example of figuratively is if you were to “open your heart” or be vulnerable with someone. 

When to Use Literally

In contrast, you should use the word literally when referring to something that actually happened exactly as you described it. If you literally run into someone, that means you physically hit them by accident. If you literally open something, that means you are opening a box, or a door which can be physically opened, rather than figuratively. 

Examples of Literally and Figuratively

One of the best ways to understand two words is to see example sentences of the words used in context. Here are some examples of the word literally:

  • There were literally hundreds of people watching the news today.
  • People can literally drown in their own body fluids.
  • I was so excited about school being canceled that I literally jumped for joy.
  • You literally put it in the microwave for three minutes and then it’s ready.

The word literally is often not needed in a sentence but is added for dramatic effect. Any of the above sentences would still make sense without the use of the word literally.

Here are some examples of the word figuratively:

  • Figuratively speaking, my hands are tied. 
  • As Josh put it figuratively, he put all his eggs in one basket.

When it comes to using a word in a figurative sense, the meaning is often implied without actually mentioning the word figuratively. One can usually gather context clues and infer when someone is talking figuratively rather than literally. For example, when someone says they’re hands are tied, and it’s used figuratively, they mean that there is nothing they can do. 

Why Do We Use Figurative Language?

Figurative language is somewhat of a broad category which includes all the different figures of speech used in literature and writing. A trope is a figure of speech that uses words in a way that extends beyond the literal meaning of the word. Tropes include hyperboles, idioms, metaphors, oxymorons, and similes. 

  • Hyperboles use exaggeration for emphasis or humor. 

An example would be, “He was drowning in homework.”

  • Idioms are a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deductible from those individual words.

An example would be, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

  • A metaphor makes examples between two unrelated things and states that one thing is the other thing.

An example would be, “The clouds are balls of cotton in the sky.”

  • Oxymorons combine two opposing elements into a single phrase. 

Some examples would be, “known secret” or “awfully nice”.

  • Similes are comparisons that use like or as to highlight a common quality or characteristic.

An example would be, “He was as strong as an ox.”

Usually, children are taught how to use figurative language in fourth or fifth grade. This is the time when they are able to grasp more complex topics and are able to understand the difference between literal language and figurative language. 

In Summary

A lot of times when culture impacts the meaning of a word, it gets misused. This is certainly the case with the word “literally”. It has come to mean the exact opposite of its intended meaning which drives people who like to be grammatically correct up the wall.

 If you incorporate a word into your vocabulary enough, it becomes difficult to get rid of it. This is often the case with people using the word “like” as a filler word in a conversation. People often use the word “literally” when they don’t even mean to. For example, someone who says, “I literally don’t even know what I’m going to do today.”

Remember, concise language exemplifies professionalism and intellect, so practice using both of these words correctly and at the proper time.