Literally and Figuratively: Definitions and When to Use Each

by Liz Bureman and Sue Weems | 68 comments

The English language is full of idiomatic phrases and figurative expressions that sometimes take on new life in casual conversation. One of those expressions that often irks grammarians is the use (or misuse) of literally and figuratively. Have you noticed the overuse of literally in everyday speech? Today let's look at these two terms and how to use them to our advantage as writers.

Let me give you a perfect example of someone overusing and misusing the word literally for comedic effect. If you've ever watched the show Parks and Recreation, you've probably noticed that Rob Lowe plays a character whose favorite word is “literally,” and he wildly misuses it on a regular basis.

Lowe's character overuses it as a character flaw, and it makes the audience laugh (or cringe). Literally is sprinkled all too liberally in modern conversations, and for some of us grammar purists, it drives us nuts.

Definitions: Literally and Figuratively

Let's look at why the overuse of literally bothers some people, beginning with some basic definitions.

Literally: using a word or phrase in a straightforward, strict sense of the literal meaning. The exact sense of a word.

Example: When something is literally occurring, that means that it happening exactly as described. Someone who is literally passing out from excitement has their eyes rolling back in their head, collapsing to the ground as we speak. They may need medical attention.

Figuratively: using a word in its metaphorical sense to capture a more vivid description of an object or idea. This is also known as a figurative meaning.

Example: Figurative language is often used to express ideas and concepts that may not be easily conveyed in the literal sense. Think of the phrase “I'm dying of embarrassment,” for example. Obviously, you are not actually passing away (if you are, please call 911). You are using hyperbolic language to express the depth of your embarrassment.

Why Does It Matter?

It's not that literal and figurative language is wrong or right—we use words in their figurative sense all the time to express a range of human experience.

The problem comes in when we pair figurative language WITH the word literally.

Example: I am literally on pins and needles in excitement for this Taylor Swift concert to start!

Someone who is figuratively on pins and needles with anticipation is really looking forward to something. Someone who is literally on pins and needles is currently experiencing small puncture wounds on their body. See the problem?

When we overuse the word literally, we are making statements that are not actually true. For example, if someone said “I'm literally dying of laughter,” they're implying that they are in the process of passing away from laughter, which is obviously not true.

No, you are not literally going to explode from excitement at finally seeing Taylor Swift live (even if it feels that way). You are figuratively exploding.

Unless you spontaneously combust when Taylor Swift takes the stage, literally is not accurate. Just use the phrase, “I'm about the explode from excitement!” figuratively and leave off the word literally.

Can You Ever Use Literally, Figuratively?

Now, don't shoot the messenger, but there's also another way dictionaries record common usage of the word literally. You don't have to like it, but we would be remiss not to mention it.

You may have read one of several articles like the one here on Merriam-Webster that points our how literally has been used as an intensive (meaning it's used for additional emphasis) with figurative language for hundreds of years, and by writers as admired as Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Uh oh.

I can already feel the blood-pressure rising in some of our more traditional grammar readers. (Figuratively? Perhaps literally, too.)

It's true. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition listed this way:

literally, adv. 1c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: “virtually, as good as”; (also) “completely, utterly, absolutely.”
Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Sept. 2011

Argh! Language. So fun. So frustrating. Literally.

However you choose to use the word literally, be aware of the effect it will have on your audience. If you choose to use literally, well, figuratively, then know why you are using it that way and limit its use to maximize effectiveness.

What do you think? Have you heard the word literally being misused or overused? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Set your timer for fifteen minutes. Take ten minutes and write a holiday or dinner party scene using as much figurative language as possible. Then take five minutes and rewrite the scene taking the figurative language to its literal extremes.

Share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here, and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us here



How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.

68 Comments

  1. Chihuahua Zero

    You and I share a peeve… literally.

    -peeve goes rabid and starts taking down writers-

    …Maybe not literally. :p

    Reply
  2. Palabama

    That is hilarious. What a great post and I learned something to boot – literally.

    Reply
  3. Rose Gardener

    This is interesting. I think most people know that they aren’t literally exploding with excitement- which is exactly why they say it! It adds emphasis; it’s a deliberate exaggeration. So, yes, undoubtedly we shouldn’t use it incorrectly like this in our narrative writing, but can an exception be made in dialogue when it is part of the character’s personality to exaggerate wildly?

    Reply
    • Pat Washington

      No!
      Never!
      No soup for you!

      Just a-teasin’, there, Rose. (Although I would like to add that an exaggeration is taking a piece of truth and expanding it in such a way so that it is, literally, not true anymore. A bit different than saying someone “literally exploded.”)

    • PJ Reece

      The issue of course is not the exploding, but the word “literally”, which, for me, only compromises the drama of the moment by shining a light on the illiteracy of the utterer. Same issue with “like” “really” etc. Just explode away without any qualifier. Regarding its use in dialogue… in my experience (and I have lots of experience removing useless words!) it would be one of those annoying little words that would eventually be removed by the editor. One usage would be enough to peg the character as literally semi-conscious.

    • Rose Gardener

      Thank you, PJ. That answers my question. I have previously been advised to omit all words an editor will remove anyway. 🙂

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      It’s like these words are deeply fused inside of today’s generation z culture, and they can never escape from it.

  4. Pat Washington

    I must drop by (figuratively) to share that I have seen U2 live two times (so far) and each time I, literally, did not explode. Although I kinda felt like I might.
    The third time’s a charm, maybe.

    “Listen for me, I’ll be shouting

    Shouting to the darkness, squeeze out sparks of light”
    ~ U2

    Reply
  5. LetiDelMar

    I literally love Parks and Rec and figuratively die of laughter when I watch it! Great post!

    Reply
  6. themagicviolinist

    Ha ha! One of my mom’s friend’s pet peeves, as well. ;P There was a scene in Modern Family (my favorite show) where Mitchell pointed out that Cam’s head was not LITERALLY going to explode. His delivery is awesome! (Literally). 😉

    Reply
  7. Jake

    I don’t use it, it’s an overused phrase. But I do understand that using literally incorrectly is a form of hyperbole and irony. I wasn’t just dying from laughing, in the usual figurative sense. Cying from laughter doesn’t do it justice. It was something much more profound, I was laughing at the core of who I was. I thought I would literally die from laughter. Or in today’s dialogue shorthand: I was literally dying from laughter.

    Sure it’s overused, and not very elegant. But it also should not give you a sense of grammar superiority over those who use it, just as I don’t think you are a simpleton every time you use metaphor or anthropomorphism. I understand it isn’t literal.

    Reply
    • Rekdscrub

      “I don’t use it, it’s an overused phrase”

      You mean ‘term’, not ‘phrase’.

    • Jake Earl

      “term” and “phrase are usually interchangeable and this can be seen by looking up the definition of “term”.

    • Mo86

      @ Jake

      “But I do understand that using literally incorrectly is a form of hyperbole and irony.”

      That used to be the case, back when both writers and audience actually knew what the word meant. These days it’s not only overused, but people LITERALLY don’t seem to know what it means! That’s why they use it the way that they do!

    • Aaliyah Wells

      I am one of those people who use it in every other sentence I speak, I know what it means, as do my friends who also use this term often. I use it because it’s humorous. When you say you are dying of laughter people assume you are saying it figuratively, as you are, but when you add literally it seems to exploit the humor in the metaphor or phrase. For example, this a conversation that could happen:
      Person 1 “Dude, I literally ate 50 slices of pizza and I feel like exploding.”

      Person 2 *Laughs* “Same, I am literally about to burst.”

      Person 3 *Laughs* “I know, right?”

      It is simply a different type of humor that uses metaphorical irony. You don’tsound have to agree with it, but don’t assume we use it because we are all ignorant. Some, sure, but not all.

    • Shirley Chan Tang

      mmm, Jake and Aaliyah, it is not about feeling superior, the word is misused,
      please don’t try to sugar coat what is obvious. Even if you know what it means, (Aaliyah) that conversation you just put as an example, sounds like two dumb people talking… ignorant to be fair or kids of 5 yrs old. People need to learn how to speak, it is embarrasing as it is that adults cant even write well, we need to set an example for future generations. You can be fun but not like that. In the future people will only have a vocabulary of what. 10 or 11 words? LOL, WTF, Literally, YOLO, I KNOW, right, DUH, whatever, uh huh… ??

  8. Karl Tobar

    Little Timmy and his sister Suzie woke up Christmas morning literally quaking with anticipation. Their mother opened the door bright and early. “Why are you shaking, dear me!” Timmy said, “We’re just excited apparently!” His mother pulled the curtains open and said, “Rise and shine! Present time!” White snow from outside reflected into their bedroom. It was so bright Timmy literally went blind, effectively rendering most of his Christmas gifts useless.

    Suzie having lead him through the hall literally could not wait to open presents and she ditched him, dashing through the hall and falling to her knees in front of the tree, squealing with glee. Timmy felt his way along the wall and joined his family in the living room.

    Their father sat in his chair, smoking his pipe. “Are you kids excited to open your presents?!” Timmy said, “I’m not.” Their father continued, “Sorry if they seem a little strange. Santa said he literally could not find anything you wished for this year… but he said he found better things for you!”

    Suzie, quaking with excitement, could barely hold the gift in her hands without dropping it. “Suzie, calm down dear. Here, let me help you.” Their mother put a hand on Suzie’s trembling shoulder and opened the first present. “Oh!” she said. “Look here, Suzie!”

    Suzie said, “Motor oil?” Their father said, “That’s right! Hold on to that, now. It’ll come in handy when you have a car.” Timmy stood up and yelled. He said, “This is the worst Christmas ever!” and he literally exploded from anger. Suzie and her parents cried.

    The end.

    Reply
  9. Katie Axelson

    Amen!
    I heard a friend say, “I literally bend over backwards to help her” and I wanted to know how that helps…

    Reply
  10. Ana

    On Christmas day, the people waiting for the ice rink were packed like sardines.
    The smell of fish and oil filled the air; passersby gave them odd glances and
    scurried along, some covering their noses. Children clung to their mothers’
    arms, squealing and shrieking as if they were little birds. The ones that
    literally were fluttered in excitement and poked their parents with their
    little beaks.

    The situation on the rink was no different. The huge crowd skated in step like a
    Roman regiment marching into battle. Their armours clattered, their swords
    grating in their sheaths. Everyone was wrapped in their warmest clothes to keep
    the piercing cold at bay; they bore a startling similarity to butterfly
    cocoons. A woman suddenly stopped skating, tore out of her cocoon and spread
    her new burgundy wings. The crowd clapped and cheered as she flew away. Redness bloomed on everyone’s cheeks like roses; when they rubbed their face to warm it, more than one person groaned in pain – as we know, every rose has its thorns.

    Two young lovers had stopped near the railing. Her skate had come undone and he knelt before her, attempting to tie it. When he looked up at her and met her eyes with his own, which were as blue as the sea (though not as wide), she felt
    butterflies flutter in her stomach.

    She pulled him up, drawing her lips closer to his. And then, she puked a flight of
    butterflies into his face.

    ***
    No, I wasn’t high when I wrote it, what makes you say that?

    Reply
    • Karl Tobar

      This was awesome. I love the part when the lady flies away.

    • Ana

      Thank you! 🙂

    • Lex Daimôn

      Oh god, this is hilarious. Is there even a word to describe this?

  11. madrugada

    The last scrap of gift paper fluttered to the ground, winging its way to a growing nest of cream, gold, and green. Jean watched the cat’s pupils swell into oceans, teeming with fish the color of tar.

    “Don’t let Mustard eat the ribbon.”

    Krista looked up from a fort of gift boxes, adjusting a poster tube cannon.

    “I’m serious. If that cat eats any of the Christmas stuff, you’re on litter box duty for the next year.”

    Krista’s mouth converted to a tight little frown. She moved from behind a Nordstroms-brand parapet and exited the fort, snatching a length of tinsel from the cat. A pupil-colored wave pulled at her toes.

    “Thank you, Krista.”

    “You’re not welcome.”

    Jean sighed and returned to her coffee. The peppermint Krista insisted on adding had become an oily sheet obscuring the kona. There was no way to drink around it. She picked up the phone to alert the EPA.

    Krista was busy stuffing her arm in a tank top trimmed with leopards. The beast sewn to the cuff purred gratefully as her hand passed its scruff. There was still no sign of Mr. Late-to-Pick-Up-His-Daughter.

    “Okay, sweetheart,” said Jean, “Why don’t you go grab a trash bag, and we’ll get this stuff picked up before grandma gets here.”

    “Is she going get all drunk again?”

    “Every year, baby. Come on,” she urged. “Leave that shirt and put on something warm.”

    Krista pulled her arm back out of the tank top, laying it reverently atop an unopened Cat-A-Day calendar. She would need to write a letter to the SPCA soon. 365 cats was too many, even if they could adapt to survive in Mustard’s limpid oceans.

    “Bring the shop vac, too,” she added, setting her mug on the edge of the shore. The sand had begun to accumulate.

    Reply
  12. Lizzie

    Thank you, Liz. I was embarrassed for an author in a national magazine who wrote about I-don’t-remember-what-now “literally exploding on the page” of something he was reading. I wanted to throw up.

    Also, we would all count the number of times my 11th grade U.S. History teacher would use the word “literally” in class each day. Some of my favorites: “Folks, these people were coming over on boats… I mean literally” (re: the pilgrims); while appropriate usage, we all thought “Why would we think they were coming over on figurative boats?”

    Reply
    • Karl Tobar

      This literally made me laugh.

  13. Greg Kemble

    Why can’t the word “literally” be used figuratively, like any other word?

    Reply
  14. Su Williams

    I love the comment ‘why can’t we use literally figuratively…’ (my paraphrase.) I have an idea. All of us ought to now go around using the words ‘figuratively’ and ‘metaphorically’ in place of ‘literally’ and see how people respond.

    Reply
    • Yvette Carol

      ha ha, brilliant, Su!

  15. Yvette Carol

    I agree, Liz, the use of ‘literally’ in just about context is a common problem. The issue is it’s become so much part of the modern lexicon that it requires personal discipline not to use it. I have to hold myself back a lot of times, from ‘slipping’ into using it too!

    Reply
  16. Shawn

    It is becoming annoying. People seemed to start using “literally” to be sarcastic or ironic, but now I think some people are just not understanding the difference and using it all the time. This morning there was a story about a guy who was caught in an avalanche, all over the news, saying things like “it was literally like a freight train hitting me”… he didn’t seem to have any idea what he was saying. Ugh.

    Reply
  17. Josh Blauvelt

    Great article. Stassi on Vanderpump Rules says this all the time, and it makes me want to scream-literally.

    One small note. From your article:
    “Someone who is literally on pins and needles is currently experiencing small puncture wounds on their body.”

    Your subjects don’t match. Someone is singular, their is plural. It should be he or she instead of their.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • FirstZombie

      WHAT? “He” or “she” implies gender. At no time does the author of the quote in question refer to a gender. “Their”, as used in the quote in question is utilized as an indefinite singular antecedent used in place of the definite feminine form “her” or the definite masculine form “his”.

      Alternatively this pronoun is a form of the possessive case of “they” used as an attributive adjective before a noun.

    • Josh Blauvelt

      Their/They are not a generic singular pronouns. Maybe in the future they will be. Every writing style guide I’ve looked at says to avoid this scenario and make the antecedent plural, as in using the plural “people” instead of “someone.” Example: “People who are literally on pins and needles are currently experiencing small puncture woods on their bodies.”

    • Margot Spiller

      is their plural?

    • Josh Blauvelt

      Yes. “They” would imply more than one person, which would be plural.

      Plural: They said their goodbyes.
      Singular: He said his goodbyes.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      But ‘someone’ is unidentified (as of gender), thus making ‘their’ a suitable exception.

      You can also use “on one’s body”, but that would be inconsistent.

  18. josh

    Starting complete thoughts with the word “So” is also highly annoying.

    Reply
    • Margot Spiller

      Yeah, what happened to “Well,”

  19. David

    When my niece informed me that she was also agnostic I said “I’ll be damned…. literally” did I use literally correctly?

    Reply
  20. kofybean

    The word “literally” is the new “like”. It is not just misused, it is over used.

    Reply
  21. josh

    THANK

    YOU

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  22. Ste Ríkharðsson

    The reason I don’t use “literally” in this way is not because it’s wrong, but because it’s overused. This usage is a form of hyperbole and may even be seen as a metaphor. We say “I’m absolutely starving/famished” without actually living in a land where there is a drought or famine.

    Even though I don’t think it’s wrong to use it at all in that hyperbolic sense, I’d prefer if people used it less as when you exaggerate too often, words lose their meanings. Look at the state of the word “awesome” in American English. It’s been so grossly overused it merely means “great” or “nice” now.

    Reply
    • John Paul Nielsen

      Your comment though old, is literally awesome.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      I wholeheartedly concur. Once a word has entered pop culture, it immediately becomes “de-authenticized” and causes a word to become so overused that its original meaning is entirely lost.

  23. Mazen Kudsi

    My issue with the usage of the word “literally” doesn’t lie with when it is purposely used in the wrong manner. That’s because I understand it’s used as a sarcastic remark, or just a form of exaggeration. Probably because people are too lazy to make up a simile that would fit the situation correctly.
    It annoys me way more when people use the word when it’s completely unnecessary!
    For example; A YouTube commenter makes a negative statement about how they feel about the content of the video they just watched. Someone replies to said comment and says, ” Literally nobody cares”
    She/He would’ve sent the same message had they just said ” No-one cares”.

    So the basically, if there is no possible metaphorical or allegorical alternative meaning to your sentence there is no need to clarify by stating “Literally”. Because mindless redundancy is the bane of all forms of communication.

    Reply
  24. Brandon

    I literally am going to exit out of this page now, good day

    Reply
  25. Jamie Graninger

    Hmm, perhaps addressing the way you use the word ‘anticipation; ?

    Reply
  26. Half-Blood Princess

    I just don’t get the big deal like several people have said why can’t you use literally figuratively, or at the very least over look it because you’re smart enough to realize that some one isn’t going to explode from laughter. I literally can not stand people who are proud grammar snobs. It’s like they just sit there waiting for someone to use a word incorrectly just so they can show off. Yes i do know the importance of proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, but grammar snobs seem not to care so much about that as they do proving other people wrong and inflating their own egos. We get it you’re a grammarian. Just go through any comment section and there’s sure to be that one person who has to correct someones comment. (or perhaps even mines I am far from perfect when it comes to grammar). We get it you speak the Queen’s English and are the far superior being and therefore out class us serfs. You go Glenn Coco!

    Reply
    • Mo86

      “I just don’t get the big deal like several people have said why can’t you use literally figuratively”

      Because words have meanings. They don’t mean whatever you decide they mean at any given moment.

    • Half-Blood Princess

      I’m not suggesting that you change the meaning of the word, I just saying get a grip, you still know what the word means despite how incorrectly the person uses it. Words have meaning change ALL the time. Language does too. Gay has changed it’s meaning. So has Hopeful, Intercourse, and Awesome, so yes words have meaning but they change over time. Not to mention Shakespeare LITERALLY made up words. So yeah words can become what people decide they are at any given moment.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      You are the archetype of a generation z thinker.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      You seem to possess a vernacular sense of ways of communication, which by all means is okay, just try not to use your vernacular vocab when writing something formal like an essay.

      You need to recognize that you are using the dialect of the working class, which its goal is to convey expressive and personal meaning rather than ‘ ubiquitously understandable’ and ‘high-class/professional’ meaning.

      And so although the term “literally” used in a figurative sense is wrong, it expresses a rather strong human emotion that only friends and family (and the internet) can understand.

      In my opinion the constant use of “literally” is deteriorating our culture of language, and that’s due to the “overexpressiveness” of the generation z people. And when I say generation z, I’m referring to the teens and young adults of right now.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      And dude, you’re not getting Mo86’s point. Sure blablablah changed this word, but it was so that more people could understand. You have to change the meaning of words for a GOOD reason, just changing the definition of words just because you “feel like it” is just absurd.

  27. Mo86

    Thank you! This misuse of the word “literally” drives me figuratively insane!

    Reply
  28. bptr

    You are correct that “literally” is the opposite of “figuratively”. However, no one actually peefaces statements with “figuratively”. It just goes without saying.
    Young people need to know that the test of whether the word “literally” can be properly used is whether the same thing can be said figuratively. If not, the word “literally” makes no sense.

    Reply
    • RheezleBee

      Peefaces 😀

  29. Tom

    I recently noticed on my computer keyboard, the letters l, i, t, e, r, a and y are literally the most worn out keys

    Reply
  30. guy

    As long as people react this way, people will continue to use literally wrong, just to bother you.

    It’s like telling people, “I have this specific OCD trigger. Please don’t toy with me for your amusement.”

    And by like I mean literally.

    Reply
  31. ImaMe

    Yep, DRIVES. ME. CRAZY!!! I’m guessing the word epic has been replaced with the word literally :/ It’s almost like some people “found” words, assume they are new and that that makes them smart. It does not.

    Reply
  32. Jerry Rascal

    This is offensive. I am literally blowing up with frustration at this.

    Reply
  33. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

    For all the Gen. Z peeps out here who disagree with this article, you need to recognize that you are using the dialect of the working class, which its goal is to convey expressive and personal meaning rather than ‘ ubiquitously understandable’ and ‘high-class/professional’ meaning.

    And so although the term “literally” used in a figurative sense is wrong, it expresses a rather strong human emotion that only friends and family (and the internet) can understand.

    In my opinion the constant use of “literally” is deteriorating our culture of language, and that’s due to the “overexpressiveness” of the generation z people. And when I say generation z, I’m referring to the teens and young adults of right now.

    Reply
  34. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

    No mean to spread hate, but I truly despise today’s teens and young adults who use the word “literally”. Sure I get that it helps express their thoughts and emotions, but it pretty much helps induces the “typical white American/Canadian person” stereotype.

    I dislike stereotypes.

    Reply
  35. Jean-Pierre Adrien Fortin

    You have a mistake here, literally: “When something is literally occurring, that means that it (is) happening exactly as described.” Also, “that means that” is awkward.

    Reply
  36. Joe Mamaya

    I F’n can’t stand my your co-workers using this word every time they talk. It is driving me nuts.

    Reply
  37. brendan

    I am annoyed by it being said .. celebrities say it so kids copy them and people using LIKE excessively or incorrectly too

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
2
Share to...