Literally vs. Figuratively

Get an easy-to-understand breakdown of the difference between literally and figuratively, and why their definitions may be evolving.
Author:
Publish date:
Get a FREE download on grammar answering more questions like: Literarly vs. Figuratively

FREE Download: Grammar Tips

Q: I’ve been accused of misusing the word literally. Can you explain the correct usage? —M.M.

If you watch the TV show “Parks & Recreation,” you know the running joke that Rob Lowe’s character’s favorite word is literally. He says it constantly—but he rarely uses it correctly. (“Pawnee is literally the greatest town in the country,” he says. “There is literally nothing in this world that you cannot do,” he says.)

The definition of literally is, “in a literal sense; exact.” So if you say something literally happened, by definition you mean it actually happened. [Help spread the word — Click here to Tweet it!]

Of course, when most people say “I literally fell on the floor laughing,” they don’t really mean that. Instead, they’re using hyperbole, or exaggeration, to give emphasis to their point.

There’s a big contemporary argument as to whether or not you can use literally as hyperbole. Sticklers for grammar (and many editors) who don’t believe in using literally when you mean figuratively will call out your grammatical misstep.

But many professional writers have long used literally to emphasize points. For example, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain writes, “Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” It’s clear that Tom wasn’t actually flopping around in a pile of coins. And if Twain can do it, we can too … right?

Maybe. Its usage is evolving. Some major resources, such as Merriam-Webster, now include a second definition: “in effect; virtually.” So if you do use it for exaggeration, you’re no longer incorrect by all accounts. But there will still be folks who will literally wag their fingers at you for using it figuratively.

Want other Grammar Rules? Check out:
Who vs. Whom
Which vs. That
Since vs. Because
Sneaked vs. Snuck
Ensure vs. Insure
Home in vs. Hone in
Leaped vs. Leapt
Lay vs. Lie vs. Laid

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

brian-klems-2013

Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian's free Writer's Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

ryoji-iwata-QKHmi6ENAmk-unsplash

I Spy

Every writer needs a little inspiration once and a while. For today's prompt, someone is watching your narrator ... but there's a twist.

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

In this article, Brian Freeman, author of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, discusses how he took up the mantle of a great series and made it his own.

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Learn how to distinguish the sole from the soul with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

In this brave new world of virtual learning and social distance, Kristy Stevenson helps us make the most of the virtual conference.

When Is Historical Accuracy Inaccurate?

When Is Historical Accuracy Inaccurate?

Writers of historical fiction must always ride the line between factual and fictitious. Here, author Terry Roberts discusses how to navigate that line.

What Is Creative Nonfiction in Writing?

What Is Creative Nonfiction in Writing?

In this post, we look at what creative nonfiction (also known as the narrative nonfiction) is, including what makes it different from other types of fiction and nonfiction writing and more.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Four WDU Courses, a Competition Deadline Reminder, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce four WDU courses, a Competition deadline reminder, and more!

Funny You Should Ask: What Is Going to Be the Next Big Trend in Fiction?

Funny You Should Ask: What Is Going to Be the Next Big Trend in Fiction?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she discusses the next big fiction trend, and whether or not all books are the same.

From Script

A Change in Entertainment Business Currency and Disrupting Storytelling with Historical Significance (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, learn about how crypto currency is making a wave in the entertainment business, what percentages really mean in film financing, the pros and cons of writing partnerships, an exclusive interview with three-time NAACP Image Awards nominee, co-creator and former showrunner of CBS’ 'S.W.A.T.' Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and more!