I'd like to understand the correct meaning(s) of the word literal. And by literal, I mean to ignore the colloquial pollution of the word in which one uses it to mean "virtually".

According to a dictionary, "literal" means "taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory."

So does this mean, a literal interpretation is one that is

  1. according to the dictionary,
  2. according to the most primitive senses of the words in the dictionary,
  3. or both 1. and 2. depending on how literal is being used.

Example: "I look at tennis as a means of exercise."

  1. "I gaze at tennis as a means of exercise."
  2. "I regard tennis as a means of exercise."

The first interpretation is meant to take look in its most basic or simplest form. So look means "to gaze" and nothing else. If this is the way we interpret literal, then the second interpretation would be non-literal.

In the second interpretation, look is interpreted in a dictionary sense. So literal means according to the dictionary.

Another example, a literal translation of text is usually interpreted as a naive word-for-word translation, using the most basic senses of the words. And finally, expository writing is usually interpreted literally, but in this case, meaning according to the dictionary.

So is it really 1. and 2.?

  • I think that there is a flaw in this question. You are assuming that a dictionary definition cannot be figurative. And, too look at something in this sense is clearly figurative! But, I will attempt to answer the parts of the question I can below. – David M Feb 13 '14 at 6:12
  • @DavidM This is exactly the point of confusion - I didn't make it clear above so thanks for pointing it out and addressing it below. The confusion is resolved with a Venn diagram: Literal and figurative are complements, lexical is in the intersection. :) – gnomechomsky Feb 14 '14 at 18:43

In the definition given, "...without metaphor or allegory" is a key portion.

In your example, "look" can be used in its most basic, non-metaphorical sense of "to gaze / to focus your vision upon" or it can be used in a metaphorical sense of "to regard / to think about something as having a particular quality."

If we are sticking with the dictionary definition of "literal", we have to go with the first option:

I look at tennis as a form of exercise


I attempt to improve my physical fitness by watching other people play tennis.


Literal means the words are used according to their exact definition. I don't know that the dictionary per se is the critical factor here.

For example:

That restaurant is hot!

Literal interpretation: The temperature of the restaurant is elevated. (Presumably due to ineffective air-conditioning.)

Figurative interpretation: That restaurant is suddenly very popular!

In your example that you use:

I look at tennis as a means of exercise.

Literal interpretation: I look upon people playing tennis and evaluate its effectiveness as a means of exercise.

Figurative interpretation: I believe that tennis is a good way to stay physically fit.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.