Skip to main content

Literally vs. Figuratively

Get an easy-to-understand breakdown of the difference between literally and figuratively, and why their definitions may be evolving.
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

Popular Fantasy Tropes for Writers

21 Popular Fantasy Tropes for Writers

Here are 21 examples of fantasy tropes for writers to consider and subvert when writing fantastical fiction.

Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Make this year your most successful writing year ever by considering the following questions to set your goals and intentions.

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Journalist Alison Hill answers the question of whether or not the personal essay is considered journalism by defining the genre and offering examples. Plus, outlets for you to publish your own personal essay.

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use forth vs. fourth in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make the setting the antagonist.

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting can work its way into the backstory of a character, but it can also be misused. Here, author Emma Barry discusses gaslighting in romance.

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Author and veteran Brad Taylor discusses the research that led to his new thriller novel, The Devil’s Ransom.

How Roleplaying Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

How Role-Playing Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

As co-writing partners who fully embody the stories they tell in their writing process, authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka share how role-playing helps their writing, and their marriage.

How To Get Started in Copywriting

How To Get Started in Copywriting

From writing and reading to majoring outside of journalism, copywriter and author Robert W. Bly shares how to get started in copywriting.