Can the facts literally speak for themselves, or is that phrase figurative? I'm unsure, because I'm not sure whether 'speak' or 'speak for' always involves speech.

In the OED entry for 'speak' (subscription required) (there is no entry for the idiom):

  1. a. fig. Of things: To be expressive or significant; to make some revelation or disclosure.

This is figurative. However, 15a seems to cover it

  1. a. To indicate, denote, or betoken; to reveal, make known. 1856 R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits iii. 40
    The solidity of the structures..speaks the industry of ages

But that is transitive, and I think that there's no direct object in that phrase.

However, there is also an entry to "speak for"

  1. To indicate; to betoken.

1832 Philol. Museum I. 335 The great mass of evidence that speaks for an intimate affinity between the Pelasgians and the Hellenes.

So it could be literal, but says something slightly weird, that the facts indicate or are in some sense a sign of themselves, perhaps their being facts.

  • Are you asking about the expression The facts speak for themselves or about The facts literally speak for themselves? if you are asking about usage of the word literally, there are plenty of questions and answers elsewhere on this site: english.stackexchange.com/search?q=literally – Shoe Sep 5 '18 at 8:12
  • i am asking whether the phrase facts speak for themselves can be literal. – concerned Sep 5 '18 at 8:23
  • not unless you are listening to a talking book. – WendyG Sep 5 '18 at 8:58
  • Yes. Why should you be unsure? Have you tried to look up the meaning and usage of the idiomatic expression? – Kris Sep 5 '18 at 9:20
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    Can you explain in what sense the phrase could be argued to be considered literal? – Lawrence Sep 5 '18 at 11:05

Facts can certainly speak for themselves:

speak for itself and speak for themselves
[for something] not to need explaining; to have an obvious meaning. The facts speak for themselves. Tom is guilty. Your results speak for themselves. You need to work harder.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.

However, such usage is figurative, not literal. Your use of the term literal is misplaced and confusing.

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    Because, as already noted, things cannot actually speak. – michael.hor257k Sep 5 '18 at 9:53
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    This is not going anywhere. You either don't understand what literally means, or you think that things can actually speak. – michael.hor257k Sep 5 '18 at 14:54
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    @user3293056: I think don't use the same definitions of "literal" and "figurative" that other people do. If you stick to your unsual definition (which you have not made explicit to us), I don't think the discussion will make any sense. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 5 '18 at 21:33
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    @user3293056: I notice you haven't provided the definitions of "literal" and "figurative" that you use. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 5 '18 at 22:03
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    That is a wrong definition: in English, a dictionary is (or attempts to be) descriptive - it does not prescribe. No matter how many times you ask this, the answer is the same: the only literal sense of speak is when humans communicate by vibrating air using their speech organs. A speaking clock is figurative use. Even Stephen Hawking "spoke" figuratively only. – michael.hor257k Sep 5 '18 at 22:19

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