Know the Difference Between Literally and Figuratively

Literally CHILLin’ Figuratively CHILLin’


Literally or Figuratively?

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually have very different meanings.



Literally should only be used to describe a true situation.

Literally Correct

The examples above are describing actual situations that happened exactly as explained.

Literally Incorrect

These examples (above) are untrue and therefore are not literal scenarios.


Figuratively Correct

The examples above are not true. Therefore, the term “figuratively” correctly describes these situations.

Figuratively Incorrect

These examples (above) are facts. Thus, “literally” should have been used because “figuratively” should only be used symbolically.

Although people often use “literally” to mean both actually and symbolically, the term has only one correct definition.

So is the whole world wrong?

The easy answer is “yes.” Figuratively should be used for metaphors and hyperboles, while literally should be reserved only for true statements.

However, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Traffic was so terrible that I figuratively died of old age before I made it home.” People just don’t use “figuratively” in daily speech. Does that mean that no one on this planet understands the meaning of the word?

Of course not. In my opinion, people say, “I literally died of old age while sitting in traffic” in the same way that they would say, “I spent 1000 hours in the car trying to get home from work today.” The term “literally” is simply used in daily speech as an exaggeration. No one means they actually died when they say they literally died because, of course, people can’t speak once they’re dead.

While “figuratively” should be used for these exaggerations, the term just doesn’t have the same effect as “literally.” After all, people really only exaggerate for effect, right? Sorry fellow grammar Nazis.

Think of the difference between these two exaggerations:

Waves example

While in reality the waves were only six feet high, which statement really drives the point home? I think of using “literally” versus “figuratively” in an exaggeration in the same way. Sure, you could say, “I’m so hungry I could figuratively eat 12 large pizzas.” But does it really make you sound as famished as, “I’m so hungry I could literally eat 12 large pizzas?”


In conclusion…

Do I notice when someone says “literally” and probably means “figuratively?” Of course, I am a certified grammar Nazi after all. Do I assume that person does not understand the meaning of the word he used? No. In most cases, the individual is just trying to make a point through exaggeration.

Then why bother?

It is still important to know the difference between “literally” and “figuratively.” You certainly don’t want to get them wrong in your writing or unintentionally use the wrong term in a professional situation.

Thomas Edison quote

If there are any words that you find particularly confusing, let me know in the comments. (Choose COMMENT in the top right corner of this blog.) You just might see it addressed in another blog.

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