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What is the Difference Between Literally and Figuratively?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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"Literally" and "figuratively" are words whose primary meanings are opposites. The term "literally," however, also can be used as hyperbole to mean the same as "figuratively." By its main definition, "literally" means that an expression or phrase is not exaggerated or embellished — it means exactly what the words suggest. The definition of "figuratively" is that the words are metaphoric — they are a figure of speech meant to convey something different from their literal meaning. Many words and phrases can be used both literally and figuratively.

Examples of Literal Phrases

A person might use "literally" to emphasize that what is being said is the absolute truth. For example, a man might say, "I literally pass out at the sight of blood" to emphasize that he does not merely get queasy when he sees blood, he actually loses consciousness. A girl might say, "My sister literally took every dress I had in my closet" to emphasize that her sister did not leave a single dress in the closet.

Figures of Speech

When a person says something that is not meant to be taken literally — or meaning exactly what the words say — the phrase is being used figuratively. For example, a boy might say, "When I heard the ice cream truck outside, I flew out the front door and out to the street." Of course, the boy did not fly, he merely ran quickly, so the word "flew" is being used figuratively. When someone says, "I died laughing," he or she did not actually die, so the phrase is only a figure of speech.

When people use figures of speech, they often do not point them out, especially when they are obvious. For example, a woman probably would not say, "I froze to death, figuratively speaking," because if she had actually frozen to death, she would not be speaking. Likewise, the boy who "flew out the front door" would not need to point out that he cannot actually fly. At times, though, it is necessary to include a disclaimer such as "figuratively speaking" to clarify whether something is being said literally or figuratively.

"Literally" as Hyperbole

Confusion sometimes arises when the term "literally" is used as hyperbole, to exaggerate what is being said beyond its literal meaning. Although some people consider this usage of "literally" to be incorrect, this definition does appear in major dictionaries. An example of this usage might be a theater critic who says that an actress "literally stole the show." Adding "literally" emphasizes or exaggerates the fact that the actress was the highlight of the performance, rather than implying that she was guilty of some type of theft. Another example might be a teenage girl who says, "I literally wanted to die when my parents showed up at the party." The word "literally" adds emphasis to the girl's embarrassment rather than implying that she actually had suicidal thoughts.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon993230 — On Oct 30, 2015

This is literally what happens when ignorance is embraced as "art."

Lazy intellects, poorly educated and/or lazy teachers, and a lack of editors have led to acceptance of poor grammar.

It's hard to find a newscast or commentary, even by so-installed Ivy League elites, that doesn't contain grammatical errors.

By anon161035 — On Mar 17, 2011

Actually, we *do* teach this in school. Whether it sticks or not is a different story.

By anon159776 — On Mar 13, 2011

I must say that these two words were a bit confusing. I too was using them in the wrong context. The explanation given was very clear. thank you! keep doing what you are doing. i am sure others are benefiting from it as well.

By anon85269 — On May 19, 2010

I must say that, as an entertaining program, Top Gear is literally the best in the world.

By anon84606 — On May 16, 2010

I was literally getting annoyed by hearing the word literally every day, at least figuratively. -Neo

By anon82633 — On May 06, 2010

The explanation of the use of literal being tied to fiction as the source of misuse is a little contrived. I believe it is more likely from some who would use it deliberately to intensify hyperbole. Others pick up on this usage and simply mimic it. --xBeanie

By anon76821 — On Apr 12, 2010

If you correct someone, take care of the consequences!

By anon72436 — On Mar 23, 2010

Exactly the same situation i have faced. Not only in kids -- even grown ups use literally in every sentence, thinking it is improving the impact their words are having. Unfortunately, mostly they are wrong. Nice explanation though.

By cinder — On Feb 21, 2010

I wish they taught this to kids in school nowadays! It is so annoying when every sentence includes "literally"--"I was so embarrassed, I was literally going to die!" etc etc. They seem to have no concept of the proper use of the word-literally!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor,...
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