"Literal Meaning" and "Literally"

"Literal Meaning" and "Literally"

The term "literal meaning" tells us that all words are in strict accordance with their original meanings.

literal meaning literally

Many words (e.g., to depart) have a literal meaning (to leave) and a figurative one (to die). To apply the literal meaning is to take the words in their most basic sense, i.e., not in their figurative sense or in any additional meaning.

Easy Examples of Literal Meaning

  • The comedian died on the stage.
  • (In the literal meaning, the comedian actually died. In the figurative meaning, the comedian struggled to make the audience laugh.)
  • We will all be in the same boat.
  • (In the literal meaning, all people will be in a boat. In the figurative meaning, they will all be facing the same issues.)
  • I have thrown the proposal out.
  • (In the literal meaning, the proposal paper was physically thrown out of the room. In the figurative meaning, the proposal was dismissed, but the proposal paper stayed in the room.)

More Examples of Literal Meaning

The literal meaning of a word contrasts with any figurative meaning. (Remember that figurative language is the use of words in an unusual or imaginative manner.)
  • John managed to escape the wolves.
  • (In the literal meaning, John succeeded in getting away from some real wolves. In the figurative meaning, he may have avoided a verbal bashing from aggressive colleagues at a meeting.)
The literal meaning of a word also contrasts with any additional meaning (i.e., not the original meaning).
  • Can I play outside, grandma?
  • You can, dear, but you're not allowed.
  • (Here, grandma is taking the word can in its original, literal sense, i.e., to mean to have the ability to. The grandchild used can in its more recently developed, additional meaning of may or to have permission to.)
Read more about can and may.

What Does "Literally" Mean?

The word "literally" used to mean in a literal manner or sense or exactly. It was used to highlight that the surrounding words were not being used figuratively (e.g., metaphorically).
  • John literally put all his eggs in one basket.
  • (In the past, the word literally could only be justified if John placed all his eggs in a basket.)
However, nowadays, "literally" is regularly used for emphasis (i.e., as an intensifier). Therefore, the example above would be understood to mean something like the following:
  • John really did put all his eggs in one basket [fail to spread his risks].

Why Should I Care about Literal Meaning?

Here are two noteworthy issues associated with "literal meaning":

(Issue 1) Strive for words in their literal meanings (i.e., avoid figurative language) when writing for an international audience.

Non-native speakers of any language often fail to understand the non-literal or additional meanings of words. Therefore, if you're writing to an audience that includes non-native English speakers, you should tune your diction (i.e., choice of words) towards literal meanings. This can be challenging.
  • Janet was thrown to the wolves.
  • (Obviously, Janet wasn't thrown to any real wolves. She was sacrificed. Well, she wasn't actually sacrificed. She was abandoned to harm. Well, she wasn't physically abandoned.)
Here's a confession. I can't find a definition of to throw to the wolves that employs all the words in their literal meanings. So, avoiding figurative meanings and additional meanings will be difficult.

Here's a tip: You're not striving for a text of literal meanings. You're just looking to find alternatives to any non-literal terms that could hinder a non-native speaker's understanding. Saying "Janet was sacrificed" (even though sacrificed is not being used in its literal sense) would be safe.

(Issue 2) Be aware that "literally" literally does not mean literally these days.

Nowadays, the adverb literally does not always mean in the literal meaning. It is often just used as an intensifier.
  • She was literally on fire during her lecture.
  • (This means she put in an excellent performance. She wasn't actually on fire, despite the use of literally.)
  • I literally died when they announced my name.
  • (This just means "I was highly embarrassed.")
The modern use of literally as an intensifier is well captured in the following quotation:
  • Using "literally" metaphorically is literally spreading like wildfire. (Journalist Adam Lewis, The Guardian)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

What is a euphemism? What is figurative language? What is a figure of speech? What is hyperbole? What is an idiom? What is a metaphor? What is personification? What is a simile? Glossary of grammatical terms