What "Literal Meaning" Really Means

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Woman sitting on bench in flood
It's not really raining cats and dogs.

Pete Saloutos/Getty Images

The literal meaning is the most obvious or non-figurative sense of a word or words. Language that's not perceived as metaphorical, ironic, hyperbolic, or sarcastic. Contrast with figurative meaning or non-literal meaning. Noun: literalness.

Gregory Currie has observed that the "literal meaning of 'literal meaning' is as vague as that of 'hill'." But just as vagueness is no objection to the claim that there are hills, so it is no objection to the claim that there are literal meanings." (Image and Mind, 1995).

Examples and Observations

"Dictionary definitions are written in literal terms. For example, 'It is time to feed the cats and dogs.' This phrase 'cats and dogs' is used in a literal sense, for the animals are hungry and it is time to eat. "Figurative language paints word pictures and allows us to 'see' a point. For example: 'It is raining cats and dogs!' Cats and dogs do not really fall from the sky like rain... This expression is an idiom." (Passing the Maryland High School Assessment in English, 2006)

"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat." (Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic, 1981)

Zack: "I haven't been to a comic book store in literally a million years."
Sheldon Cooper: "Literally? Literally a million years?"
(Brian Smith and Jim Parsons in "The Justice League Recombination." The Big Bang Theory, 2010)

Processing Literal and Non-Literal Meanings

How do we process metaphorical utterances? The standard theory is that we process non-literal language in three stages. First, we derive the literal meaning of what we hear. Second, we test the literal meaning against the context to see if it is consistent with it. Third, if the literal meaning does not make sense with the context, we seek an alternative, metaphorical meaning.

"One prediction of this three-stage model is that people should ignore the non-literal meanings of statements whenever the literal meaning makes sense because they never need to proceed to the third stage. There is some evidence that people are unable to ignore non-literal meanings... That is, the metaphoric meaning seems to be processed at the same time as the literal meaning." (Trevor Harley, The Psychology of Language. Taylor & Francis, 2001)

'What's the Difference?'

"[A]sked by his wife whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under, Archie Bunker answers with a question: 'What's the difference?' Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by patiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under, whatever this may be, but provokes only ire. 'What's the difference' did not ask for the difference but means instead 'I don't give a damn what the difference is.' The same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning." (Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust.​​​ Yale University Press, 1979)

Literally and Figuratively

"People have used literally to mean figuratively for centuries, and definitions to this effect have appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary since the early 1900s, accompanied by a note that such usage might be 'considered irregular' or 'criticized as a misuse.' But literally is one of those words that, regardless of what’s in the dictionary—and sometimes because of it—continues to attract an especially snooty breed of linguistic scrutiny. It is a classic peeve." (Jen Doll, "You're Saying It Wrong." The Atlantic, January/February 2014)

Distinction Between Sentence Meaning and Speaker Meaning

It is crucial to distinguish between what a sentence means (i.e., its literal sentence meaning) and what the speaker means in the utterance of the sentence. We know the meaning of a sentence as soon as we know the meanings of the elements and the rules for combining them. But of course, notoriously, speakers often mean more than or mean something different from what the actual sentences they utter mean. That is, what the speaker means in the utterance of a sentence can depart in various systematic ways from what the sentence means literally. In the limiting case, the speaker might utter a sentence and mean exactly and literally what they say. But there are all sorts of cases where speakers utter sentences and mean something different from or even inconsistent with the literal meaning of the sentence.

"If, for example, I now say, 'The window is open,' I might say that, meaning literally that the window is open. In such a case, my speaker meaning coincides with the sentence meaning. But I might have all sorts of other speaker's meanings that do not coincide with the sentence meaning. I might say 'The window is open,' meaning not merely that the window is open, but that I want you to close the window. A typical way to ask people on a cold day to close the window is just to tell them that it is open. Such cases, where one says one thing and means what one says, but also means something else are called 'indirect speech acts.'" (John Searle, "Literary Theory and Its Discontents." New Literary History, Summer 1994)

Lemony Snicket on Literal and Figurative Escapes

"It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between 'literally and figuratively.' If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it’s happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters. The Baudelaire orphans walked back to Count Olaf’s neighborhood and stopped at the home of Justice Strauss, who welcomed them inside and let them choose books from the library. Violet chose several about mechanical inventions, Klaus chose several about wolves, and Sunny found a book with many pictures of teeth inside. They then went to their room and crowded together on the one bed, reading intently and happily. Figuratively, they escaped from Count Olaf and their miserable existence. They did not literally escape, because they were still in his house and vulnerable to Olaf’s evil in loco parentis ways. But by immersing themselves in their favorite reading topics, they felt far away from their predicament, as if they had escaped. In the situation of the orphans, figuratively escaping was not enough, of course, but at the end of a tiring and hopeless day, it would have to do. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny read their books and, in the back of their minds, hoped that soon their figurative escape would eventually turn into a literal one." (Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning, or Orphans! HarperCollins, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What "Literal Meaning" Really Means." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/literal-meaning-language-1691250. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What "Literal Meaning" Really Means. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/literal-meaning-language-1691250 Nordquist, Richard. "What "Literal Meaning" Really Means." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/literal-meaning-language-1691250 (accessed June 10, 2023).