I remember reading, some time in grade school, that there was a controversy about proper usage of figuratively and literally when used to denote meaning of a word in its strictest sense — but I've totally forgotten what those arguments said.

Some my questions are: What are those arguments? Are they taken very seriously by pedants? When should I use either word? I remember figuratively being pushed, but I've never really heard it conversation....

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    Related: “Literally” and “decimate” misuse. – RegDwigнt May 3 '11 at 13:29
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    Which those arguments are? Figuratively and literally have opposite meanings. – kiamlaluno May 3 '11 at 13:36
  • @F'x No, I meant grade school... – Uticensis May 3 '11 at 13:40
  • sorry! I learnt a new expression today :) – F'x May 3 '11 at 13:51
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    I'm confused that anyone could confuse the words. As @kiamlaluno said, they have opposite meanings. – TRiG Dec 11 '13 at 16:11

"Figuratively" should never be used to denote strict meaning. "I figuratively killed that guy" means you didn't actually kill that guy, but rather killed his character in a video game or beat him handily at some activity or something similar. You're indicating that you're using a figure of speech, and are not using the literal meaning of the words. Most of the time, "figuratively" can be left out; whether or not you did literal killing should be clear from the context.

Likewise, "literally" should never be used to denote anything other than strict meaning. "I literally killed that guy" means you committed murder or manslaughter. It's often misused to add emphasis; for example, comparing the figurative killing to literal killing. Such a comparison doesn't make sense, since doing a super combo on a game character is nothing like murdering your friend. This is apart from scenarios where it would be entirely inappropriate to draw the comparison. (If you beat someone at a video game and for whatever reason they become distraught and take their own life, you probably want to avoid saying "I literally killed that guy.") Thus it's better to leave "literally" for its intended purpose.


There is a long discussion about this topic over at Language Log.

They discuss how some writers use "literally" and how its meaning has shifted through four stages. From Merriam-Webster:

The first … means "in a literal manner; word for word": the passage was translated literally. The second … means "in a literal way": some people interpret the Bible literally. The third … could be defined "actually" or "really" and is used to add emphasis. It seems to be of literary origin. […] The purpose of the adverb in [these] instances is to add emphasis to the following word or phrase, which is intended in a literal sense. The [fourth,] hyperbolic use comes from placing the same intensifier in front of some figurative word or phrase which cannot be taken literally.

It is the fourth use that some people object to. In the hyperbolic sense, "literal" is "figurative" and that is a contradiction.

I've rarely encountered "figuratively" except when people are using language that they want to ensure ISN'T taken literally.


Literally's literal definition (as given by the New Oxford American Dictionary) is:

literally (adverb)
• in a literal manner or sense; exactly
• (informal) used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true

I believe all is said here: except in informal speech or writing, literally should only be used for things that are really, exactly true if read word by word.

The “usage” notes of the same source further state:

In its standard use, literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a nonliteral or exaggerated sense’: I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn't expect him to take it literally. In recent years, an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect: they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English.


Good answers above. Let me add that "literally" is used as a straight adverb (he literally wet his pants), and as an informal intensifier (I literally died last night). It's the latter use that people generally object to.

The word "figuratively" doesn't work this way. That is, one rarely needs to prepend it adjectively to a statement: "He figuratively ate breakfast" is possible, but highly unusual. Rather, it's usually added as a clarification, e.g., "She said the price of the car gave her a heart attack, figuratively speaking."

  • “as a straight adjective”: did you mean adverb? – F'x May 3 '11 at 15:26
  • @F'x: Yes. My penalty for responding too early in the day. – The Raven May 4 '11 at 17:46

Literally means "really" or "actually" or "in the strict sense of the word." Don't confuse it with figuratively, which means "in an analogous or metaphorical sense," not in the exact sense.

Very young children eat their books, literally devouring their contents. This is one reason for the scarcity of first editions of Alice in Wonderland and other favorites of the nursery." (A. S. W. Rosenbach)

"The most important thing in art is the frame. For painting: literally; for other arts, figuratively--because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins." (Frank Zappa)

Literally in the sense 'truly, completely' is a SLIPSHOD EXTENSION. . . . When used for figuratively, where figuratively would not ordinarily be used, literally is distorted beyond recognition.. (Bryan A. Garner, "literally" in Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, 2003)

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    The last paragraph are not your words. Please give credit to whoever wrote them. – Uticensis May 3 '11 at 13:48

To "literally kill" someone is not the same thing as to "literally murder" someone. As the word "literally" suggests, the words have different exact meanings, so it is possible to literally kill someone without literally committing murder or manslaughter. The "literal" loyalists take it too far when they suggest that you cannot "kill" someone (bring about a death) without committing a crime. There are other ways to lead someone to death, and in fact, you could be literally killing someone if you help to cause his or her death.

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 11 '13 at 16:10

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