Literally vs. Figuratively: What’s the Difference?

Literally is a word that is thrown around quite loosely these days. You will often hear it dropped into casual conversation to describe circumstances or events that cannot by any means be meant literally. So in order to keep our writing precise and accurate, today I want to go over the differences between literally and figuratively.

After reading today’s post, you should have all of the information you need to make sure people are using these two words correctly in their writing and in their speech.

When to Use Literally

how to use literally in your sentencesLiterally is an adjective that means “actually, without exaggeration.” In best usage, it should only be used when you are speaking about something in an exact sense. For example,

  • I made a literal translation of this essay.
  • I told him to go jump off a cliff; I hope he didn’t take me literally.

Despite meaning exact, without exaggeration, metaphor, or allegory, literally has been used to varying degrees of inexactness since the early 19th century.

Today, many people use it as an intensifier, although its intensive use often has nothing to do with what is “literal.” For example,

  • They were literally thrown to the wolves.

Unless the people in this sentence were actually being thrown to a pack of wolves, the sentence should be rewritten. Here are a few more common examples,

If someone were on a hot streak on the basketball court, he might say,

  • I was literally on fire.

Or if someone tells a funny joke at the office, he might say,

  • I was laughing so hard that I literally almost died.

This is a phenomenon that is quite common in people’s speech, but in formal writing—such as school papers, news articles, and professional journals—it is not accepted.

When to Use Figuratively

Figuratively is also an adjective, but its meaning is quite different from literally. Figuratively is defined as based on or making use of figures of speech; metaphorical. So while literally means free from any metaphor or allegory, figurative deals specifically with these kinds of figures of speech. For example,

  • She broke the figurative ceiling that was holding her back.
  • I could figuratively eat an entire cow right now.

As you can see, figuratively means in an analogous sense, not an exact one. In fact, some dictionaries even define figuratively as departing from a literal use of words, so these two words could not be any more different in their meanings.

Remember the Difference

A good way to remember the difference between these two words is to look at the word figuratively. It has the word figure in it and using figurative language is using language with figures of speech, like metaphors and analogies.

Summary

If you’re going to maintain precision in your writing, it is absolutely essential that you keep these two words separated and make sure to use them only when appropriate.

Literally means word for word and means in an exact sense. It should not be used loosely as an intensifier.

Figuratively has the exact opposite meaning of literally and means in an analogous, but not exact, sense.

 

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