Literally and Figuratively: Definitions and When to Use Each

Literally and Figuratively: Definitions and When to Use Each

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.


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

About the author

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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.

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