Literally and Figuratively

Commonly Confused Words

literally and figuratively
The figurative expression (or idiom) "to have steam coming out of your ears" means to be very angry about something. In this photo, however, the woman appears literally to have steam coming out of her ears. David Waldorf/Getty Images

The word literally is well on the way to becoming a Janus word—that is, a word having opposite or contradictory meanings. And despite the best efforts of language mavens, one of those meanings is... "figuratively." Let's see if it's still possible to keep these two words straight.  

Definitions

Traditionally, the adverb literally has meant "really" or "actually" or "in the strict sense of the word." Most style guides continue to advise us not to confuse literally with figuratively, which means "in an analogous or metaphorical sense," not in the exact sense.

However, as discussed in the article How Word Meanings Change and in the usage notes below, the use of literally as an intensifier has become increasingly common.

Examples

  • "Very young children eat their books, literally devouring their contents. This is one reason for the scarcity of first editions of Alice in Wonderland and other favorites of the nursery."
    (A. S. W. Rosenbach, Books and Bidders: The Adventures of a Bibliophile, 1927)
  • "In the infamous essay 'A Modest Proposal,' . . . what [Jonathan Swift] really means is that the rich should care for the poor instead of figuratively 'devouring' them with their policies of neglect and exploitation."
    (Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010) 
  • "With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off mimeograph worksheet and I would be the education system’s willing slave for up to seven hours."
    (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, 2006)
  • "The most important thing in art is the frame. For painting: literally; for other arts, figuratively--because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins."
    (Frank Zappa)
  • "John went to one window, unfolded his paper, and wrapt himself in it, figuratively speaking."
    (Louisa May Alcott, Good Wives, 1871)
  • "During his extended visit to the area, [poet Gérard de] Nerval got (figuratively) drunk on the ambiance and (literally) drunk on Black Forest Kirschwasser (an awful thought, actually)."
    (David Clay Large, The Grand Spas of Central Europe.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
     

Usage Notes

  • "Literally . . . means just what it says, which is to say: 'meaning just what it says.'"
    (Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)  
  • "Literally in the sense 'truly, completely' is a SLIPSHOD EXTENSION. . . . When used for figuratively, where figuratively would not ordinarily be used, literally is distorted beyond recognition."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • "For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of 'in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.' In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example 'The 300,000 Unionists . . . will be literally thrown to the wolves.' The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself--if it did, the word would long since have come to mean 'virtually' or 'figuratively'--but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended."
    (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)
  • "Like 'incredible,' 'literally' has been so overused as a sort of vague intensifier that it is in danger of losing its literal meaning. It should be used to distinguish between a figurative and a literal meaning of a phrase. It should not be used as a synonym for 'actually' or 'really.' Don't say of someone that he 'literally blew up' unless he swallowed a stick of dynamite."
    (Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage. William, James & Co., 2003)
  • "'Literally' is a bad intensifier, almost always overkill."
    (Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993)  
  • "'Literally' has been misused for centuries, even by famed authors who, unlike youngsters posting duckface photos of themselves shot in their bathroom mirrors ('Your 2 sexy!'), had a good handle on the language.
    "Misuse began gathering legitimacy by 1839, when Charles Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby that a character 'had literally feasted his eyes in silence on his culprit.' Before you knew it, Tom Sawyer was 'literally rolling in wealth,' and Jay Gatsby 'literally glowed.' Come on, the guy grew up in New York lake country, not a New Jersey toxic waste dump."
    (Ben Bromley, "Literally, We Have a Language Crisis." The Chippewa Herald, April 3, 2013)
  • "What would the world say? Why, it would say that she didn't think our money was clean enough to mix with old man Gooch's. She'd throw it in our faces and the whole town would snicker."

    "Figuratively speaking, young man, figuratively speaking," said one of the uncles, a stockholder and director.

    "What do you mean by that?"

    "That she--ahem! That she couldn't actually throw it."

    "I'm not so literal as you, Uncle George."

    "Then why use the word throw?"

    "Of course, Uncle George, I don't mean to say she'd have it reduced to gold coin and stand off and take shots at us. You understand that, don't you?"

    "Leslie," put in his father, "you have a most distressing way of--er--putting it. Your Uncle George is not so dense as all that."
    (George Barr McCutcheon, The Hollow of Her Hand, 1912)
  • "The solution, of course, is to eliminate literally. Most of the time the word is superfluous, anyway, and it's easily replaced with another adverb."
    (Charles Harrington Elster, What in the Word? Harcourt, 2006)
     

Practice

(a) Some students are getting swept out of the library, _____ speaking.

(b) The word photography _____ means "drawing with light."

Scroll down for answers below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers to Practice Exercises: Literally and Figuratively

(a) Some students are getting swept out of the library, figuratively speaking.

(b) The word photography literally means "drawing with light."