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

Elyssa Friedland: On Letting Setting Guide You

Elyssa Friedland: On Letting Setting Guide You

When author Elyssa Friedland settled on the setting for her latest novel, Last Summer at the Golden Hotel, the characters and plot came to her. Here, she discusses the importance of setting.

Alyson Gerber: On Writing Difficult Topics for Young Readers

Alyson Gerber: On Writing Difficult Topics for Young Readers

Critically acclaimed author Alyson Gerber discusses how she tackled the topic of disordered eating in her latest middle-grade novel, Taking Up Space.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Annual Writing Competition, Submission Guidelines, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce the extended Annual Writing Competition deadline for 2021, details on how to submit your writing to Writer’s Digest, and more!

Amorak Huey: On Stalling Out After Publication

Amorak Huey: On Stalling Out After Publication

Poet Amorak Huey hit a creative roadblock after publishing his latest poetry collection Dad Jokes From Late in the Patriarchy. He shares his cure (and more!) in this article.

From Script

New Original Podcasts, Videos, and Understanding Data as a Screenwriter (From Script)

In this week’s round-up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, Script releases brand new audible and visual content!

Summer Writing Activities for Writers

8 Summer Writing Activities for Writers

Summer is upon us, so here are 8 summer writing activities for writers to consider as the temperature rises.

Books and Authors to Check Out in 2021

71 Books and Authors to Check Out in 2021!

Need a book to read in 2021? Want to find a new author to check out? Then, explore this list of 71 books and authors featured in our author spotlight series in a variety of genres.

How Do I Get My Poetry Published?

How Do I Get My Poetry Published?

Learn how to get your poetry published, whether you're trying to get a poem or an entire book of poems published.

Dyslexia Is a Writer's Superpower (With Help)

Dyslexia Is a Writer's Superpower (With Help)

Author PJ Manney shares how dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia should not be viewed as impediments to becoming a writer. Rather, they should be viewed as writing superpowers, especially when paired with certain technologies.