Literally vs. Figuratively – How to Use Each Correctly
What’s the Difference Between Literally and Figuratively?
These two words have opposite meanings. At first glance, they don’t seem to have enough in common to make them confusing.
Literally is an adverb that means in the exact sense and without exaggeration.
- Usain Bolt is literally the fastest man who has ever lived.
Figuratively is an adverb that means metaphorically or not literally.
- She’s a witch, figuratively speaking.
The reason these two words merit their own article is because of the way people use literally in colloquial speech. When speaking in an informal way, many people use literally in the sense of figuratively as an intensifier. This makes it hard to know for sure exactly what a person means when they use literally. This usage is nonstandard and not fit for academic English.
Let’s practice a few ways you can use these words correctly in Standard American English.
Using Literally in a Sentence
When to use literally: Use literally to describe something that is factually accurate, without exaggeration or embellishment.
- This course is literally the most difficult one in the whole university. It was rated as hardest by a survey of all the undergraduates.
- This company spent literally millions of dollars on this lawsuit. In fact, they spent exactly 3.4 million dollars.
A couple synonyms for the correct usage of literally include actually and really. Synonyms for the colloquial usage of literally include in effect or virtually. Using either of those last two expressions would be appropriate in academic English.
Using Figuratively in a Sentence
When to use figuratively: Figuratively refers to language that is hyperbolic or metaphorical. It can also refer to a figure of speech.
- His face turned as red as a beet, figuratively speaking of course.
- Don’t be scared! When I said I wanted to kill you I was speaking figuratively. What I literally meant was that I was very angry at you. That’s all.
Another way to describe figuratively is that the words have a meaning that is different than their dictionary definition. Idioms are a good example of figurative language. For example, the expression it’s raining cats and dogs simply means it is raining very hard.
Remembering Literally vs. Figuratively
The spellings of these two words can help remind you of which meaning relates to which word.
Figuratively contains the letters fig, like the expression figure of speech. Both figuratively and figure of speech relate to metaphorical expressions.
On the other hand, literally comes from the Latin word for letters. Therefore, if you read the letters of a word, and do not think about any symbolism behind the word, you would know the literal meaning.
- ‘‘Literally got along with everybody,’’ reliever Chris Beck said. ‘‘It didn’t matter. You just walked in the locker room? You’ve been here all year? He treated you the same. He wasn’t the most vocal leader, but he led the right way.’’ –Chicago Sun Times
- PSG is literally owned by a oil-rich country, who are willing to shell out as much as it takes to win, without a thought. –LA Times
- The Patriots have apparently decided that figuratively owning the Jets isn’t enough for them. –New York Daily News
- In addition to Bitcoin, there are now hundreds of cryptocurrencies in circulation, some more liquid than others. Not all seem quite kosher in the figurative sense of the word. –Wall Street Journal
Quiz: Figuratively vs. Literally
Instructions: Fill in the blank with the correct word, either figuratively or literally.
- At the drop of a hat doesn’t really mean anything about a hat. When people say this, they are speaking ______________ and mean quickly.
- When I say that she is as fast as a cat, I mean that ____________. We had a race between her and my pet cat, and they tied.
- He broke her heart, but of course I don’t mean that ________________. It’s just a figure of speech.
See answers below.
Should I use literally or figuratively? Despite the fact that some people use literally to mean figuratively, you should never mix the meanings of these two words in professional or academic writing.
- Literally refers to the exact meaning of the words, with no metaphorical or symbolic meaning.
- Figuratively refers to a metaphorical or hyperbolic meaning.
In other words, use figuratively for idioms or exaggerations, and literally when there is no change from the dictionary definition of the words.
Answers from Quiz