Literally vs. Figuratively – What’s the Difference?

Because of their double definitions, many people, especially younger people, find it challenging to know what a term or phrase means. Especially when the terms are being used incorrectly with phrases like, “I’m literally dying”. Yes, it can be true, which makes it literal, but it’s often a figure of speech to exaggerate how you feel, making it figurative.

It can be confusing so I’ll break it down further. Keep reading to know the difference between literally and figuratively. I also provided examples of how to use these words in a sentence.

Literally vs. Figuratively: The Facts on Differences and Use

Some words’ usage have double meanings. Literally is an adverb that refers to the literal meaning or exact sense of a word or phrase. Meanwhile, figuratively means in its figurative sense or metaphorically.

Similes, hyperboles, and metaphors are examples of words and phrases with figurative meanings. “Costs an arm and leg” is a phrase whose meaning is entirely different from the literal meaning.

For me, you’ll often hear me saying, “these edits are killing me.” This is usually in regard to the notes my editor sends back and I have to rewrite half my book. It’s not actually killing me, but it gets the point across.

What Does It Mean When Someone is Literal?

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When someone is literal, it means they are communicating words and statements primarily or ordinarily. There’s no need to use much imagination to understand their speech or writing.

In the same way, when you’re literally speaking, it means you’re speaking in a literal or strict sense. Other words for literally include in black-and-white terms, verbatim, word for word, to the letter, exactly, and faithfully.

Literally comes from the Late Latin word litteralis or literali. This means of or belonging to letters or writing. It comes from the word litera or littera, meaning letter, alphabetic sign, literature, or books.

Examples:

  • The university literally welcomed ten thousand new students because of its new building.
  • I’ve literally been watching crime documentaries since 6 AM.
  • I literally met him when I was eighteen years old.
  • Foreign students who worked at Oxford University Press literally worked ten hours a day.
  • My aunt from Nebraska is literally my last living relative.

Literally was first used in 1525. However, it changed its meaning over time in the 19th century, becoming an intensifier.

Another standard American English use of literally is an expression of strong emotion or humor. This contradictory meaning opposes the central meaning of literally, without exaggeration.

In colloquial speech, we can say that literally can mean its exact opposite, figuratively.

Examples:

  • Generations of students literally bawled their eyes out after the death of their beloved professor.
  • I miss you so much I could literally run to your city right now.
  • Twelve lemons cost ten cents. They’re literally a dime a dozen.

While dictionaries recognize this, literally’s informal meaning is unacceptable in formal writing or speech. It’d help if you only used it to add humor to nonliteral statements.

What Does It Mean to be Speaking Figuratively?

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When someone speaks figuratively, it means what they’re saying isn’t precisely what they mean.

Aside from meaning not literally or not in a literal sense, figuratively means involving a figure of speech or of nature of in the English language. The word also refers to a hyperbolic meaning or symbolic meaning of a term or phrase.

That means when you are figuratively speaking, you are referring to a figure of speech or figurative language because you’re not talking about the exact meaning.

Other words for figuratively include metaphorically, nonliterally, allegorically, emblematically, imaginatively, and poetically.

The adjective form of the adverb figuratively is figurative. This word originates in 1350-1400 from the Middle English word figuratif. It also comes from the Latin word figūrātīvus.

Example:

  • The opportunity will figuratively knock at your door.

This statement does not literally mean an opportunity will knock at your bedroom door.

The figurative usage or inexact usage of this statement refers to when a chance of success happens. You can use this expression when you get the opportunity to do something you need or want to do.

Here are other examples of figuratively in a sentence:

  • I hope we cross paths again, figuratively speaking.
  • Leaving your steady job to start a business is figuratively life or death.
  • Mrs. Gilmore has a lot on her plate, figuratively speaking.
  • A nautical star tattoo will figuratively help you navigate through life.
  • Old writers used a beehouse or hive figuratively to mean a place of industry.

You don’t need to use the word figuratively if your reader might not instantly understand that you’re speaking figuratively. Here are some sentence examples that use figures of speech without the word figuratively.

  • My neighbor’s plants are begging to be watered.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • Swim like a fish.

The correct usage of figurative language is in creative writing or casual conversation. You can also find it in colloquial usage.

Bad usage of figurative speech is when you convey the wrong message or tone. Some texts require you to make your writing precise.

For example, avoid using figurative language like “I will knock down the walls for you” in cover letters, business documents, academic writing, and other formal writing. These documents do not need the use of idiomatic phrases or any hyperbolic phrase.

Another meaning of figuratively is represented by a drawing, sculpture, figure, or emblem.

Here’s an example of figuratively in a sentence:

  • The researchers expressed the statistics figuratively through a bar graph.

Literally and Figuratively at the Same Time

A word or phrase’s secondary usage notes that something can be taken literally and figuratively simultaneously. This is an example of verbal irony. Other examples of verbal irony include sarcasm and pretending to be ignorant to show that someone else is ignorant.

How to Remember the Difference

A way to remember the difference is to look at the first few letters of the words. Figuratively has the word figur in it, and so does figures of speech. Both figuratively and figures of speech relate to metaphorical statements.

Final Word on Literally and Figuratively

Discussions of language can be challenging but still possible to learn. Now you know the difference between the meaning of literally and figuratively. I’ve also shown you examples of how to use them in sentences.

Use literally when referring to the actual-non-metaphorical meaning or primary sense of a term. Use figuratively when you mean not literally or when referring to the metaphorical sense of a phrase or word.

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