Figurative language is when people use words or phrases to communicate an idea not meant to be taken literally, such as speaking in metaphors. Sometimes, people do not realize the figurative nature and take them literally.

A more juvenile and fictional example of this is found in the book A Chocolate Moose for Dinner. In the book, a little girl is very confused when grown-ups use phrases such as "chocolate mousse for dinner last night" or "playing the piano by ear". The girl really believes that her mother ate a big chocolate moose for dinner, and that someone played the piano with their ear.

Is there a word or phrase for when someone misses the intended point because they took the figurative phrase literally?

  • The chocolate mousse thing is not an example of figurative language. And to consider by ear figurative is also a bit of a stretch. – TRomano Feb 18 '19 at 12:35
  • This probably dates me but, I usually say something like: "Who are you... Amelia Bedelia?" (Popular children's book about a maid who took her instructions - like, "dust the furniture" literally.) – Oldbag Feb 18 '19 at 12:41
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    You talk like "missing the point" is a bad thing. If I dodge an arrow, is that bad? – Hot Licks Feb 18 '19 at 12:51
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    @Oldbag - I liked “draw the drapes” – Jim Nov 15 '19 at 17:31

The noun used to denote the "disposition or tendency to accept a text, statement, etc., literally" (OED, paywalled), or an instance of such, is 'literalism'.

The adjective used to denote the quality of 'literalism' is 'literalistic'.

The noun or adjective used to denote a person inclined to interpret the figurative literally is 'literalist'.

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You may say such people are not reading between the lines. Of course, if you tell them this, they will wonder which lines you are referring to.


read between the lines
COMMON If you read between the lines, you understand what someone really means, or what is really happening in a situation, even though it is not stated openly.

Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012

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  • This idiom has nothing to do with the literal versus figurative distinction. Rather it goes to hints and innuendo. – TRomano Feb 18 '19 at 12:38

We can say:

Don't be so literal-minded all the time!

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