E.g., if you use an idiom (in a context) like: "To throw the baby away with the bathwater." and your conversation partner says: "Huh, seems I don't have a baby/bathwater!" Also, when you explain the meaning of the idiom, the other guy will still say: "Oh, but I really don't have a baby/bathwater!"

Or say something sarcastic like: (context: excellent tennis player on his way to a match. Everyone knows he wants to and it will be easy for him to defeat his opponent. Yet, on their way (tennis player and friend in his car) to the court, they are stuck in traffic and there is no way the excellent tennis player can turn up at his match in time (which means he will be disqualified). He goes "well, I am glad, at least I don't need to get all changed and tired to play my tennis match now." On which the other guy says "But I thought you wanted to win the trophy? You could have easily beaten that other player!! Why did you say that?!"

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    – Robusto
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 19:31
  • 4
    Sounds like the fellow has a dry sense of humor, and you are the one that is too literal minded.
    – Oldcat
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 20:25
  • 19
    Yes there is such an expression.
    – OJFord
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:20
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    @Mitch Yes, I do.
    – OJFord
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:53
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    This is a fairly common symptom of Autism
    – James
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 18:11

8 Answers 8


A literalist is one that engages (from Merriam-Webster) in literalism,

adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression


What comes to mind is the expression take everything/things at face value.

take things at face value: to believe that the ways things appear is the way they really are.

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    Hmm. If I'm told that Sally takes things at face value, I infer that she's not terribly inquiring or sophisticated in her analysis of a situation. I'm not sure I'd interpret it as meaning someone as described in this question.
    – avid
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:05

Pedant might be appropriate, depending on the context.

Edited to add: A pedant often takes phrases literally, so they might complain that you kept them waiting 7 minutes when you said "I'll be back in 5 mins". It may be less suited to circumstances where the person seems unable to understand/recognise idiomatic phrases.

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    This answer could be improved if you tell us more about why this is a good answer. You mention context - for example, you could give an example of context where pedant works well, or when it might not fit the situation.
    – aedia λ
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 21:37
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    This is just wrong. A pedant pays attention to formal learning, rules, and often trivia. But nothing requires a pedant to be literal-minded.
    – Drew
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 2:54
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    I've edited the answer in response to this.
    – avid
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 11:03
  • @avid Some pedants may be literal minded, but I'd hardly say it was an attribute of all pedants, and I wouldn't say that all who are literal minded are pedants. You've identified an unrelated but overlapping attribute.
    – user867
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 1:31

A clod would be a person who just doesn't get it because they aren't very bright. 'prosaic' would describe someone who doesn't get it because they have no poetry in their soul.


In British English you can describe someone as literal (meaning 5).

e.g. 'He's a very literal person'.

This conveys the meaning of someone unable to readily (or at all) grasp abstract or comparative methods like simile, metaphor, analogy, idiom and the suchlike. Many of the more florid comparisons in speech and writing are thus lost on such an individual.

e.g. 'I tried to explain how a plane works by using the analogy of a ship's rudder, I thought I was getting somewhere, but then he said, "But that only works in water," I was at a loss.'


slow on the uptake, obtuse, autistic

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    This answer could be improved if you tell us more about why you think these expressions answer the question - perhaps give an example, or explain the different situations in which you could use each of these.
    – aedia λ
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 21:35
  • I like obtuse. a
    – dwjohnston
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 21:44
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    Autism is a mental condition that may cause someone to "take things literally", but you should be careful in using it as a descriptor for that, one could easily cause offence.
    – OJFord
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:23
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    +1 for obtuse, but using "autistic" in this way is pretty offensive, as @Ollie pointed out. Commented May 28, 2014 at 23:37
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    Even thought the behavior expressed in the question is a very common symptom of autism (and Asperger) use of autistic in a non-medical context is highly offensive. I strongly recommend only to use the term autistic when referring to a person who truly has that condition.
    – Tonny
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 17:25

For someone who takes sarcasm literally, you could say they are sarcasm-impaired. Wiktionary defines it as "Unable or deficient in recognising or understanding sarcasm."


"Obtuse" is good for some of these examples; for others, "overly concrete" or "overly literal."

  • 1
    Your contributions would be greatly improved by providing an explanation as well as linking to appropriate sources. I strongly encourage you to visit the help center for guidance on how to improve your answers.
    – choster
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 13:51

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