Literally and Figuratively: What’s the Difference?

The English language’s waters can be muddy. So too can the difference between this pair of words: literally and figuratively

Literally and figuratively aren’t the same thing, despite what some people may think. Literally used to denote a literal, or letter-by-letter, meaning. People didn’t start to use literally in a figurative sense until about 200 years ago. Even now, both grammar experts and people who aren’t experts still think this is a bad way to use words. In its 1977 issue, The New Yorker even made fun of this.

So, how are these words different? Read on to find out.

What Does Literally Mean?

Major dictionaries list two main definitions for literally:

1) A qualifier for when we mean something in the exact sense

2) An intensifier for when we say something but mean the opposite

The following examples will hopefully clarify how to use literally:

“I literally died from laughter,” the woman said.

Our boss literally gave us a week to complete the project.

Now, had the woman died from laughter, her words wouldn’t have reached us. So logically, the first instance is an example of the second definition. The second instance uses literally to emphasize a fact, so it falls under the first definition.

In formal language, authors sometimes use literally as a qualifier but generally avoid it as an intensifier, unlike in informal language:

An atom has literally three elementary particles.

Kindergarten literally translates to children’s garden.

On the one hand, we’d delete literally when it takes up extra space and potentially confuses the reader, as in the first sentence. On the other hand, we’d keep it to avoid confusion, such as to indicate a word-for-word translation.

What Does Figuratively Mean?

Figuratively, fortunately, is more self-explanatory than literally. It is used to label a word or phrase as figurative (i.e., metaphorical). One example where it can be used is with idioms.

The man flew out the front door, figuratively.

At last, she had figuratively found her feet in business.

Although both sentences are figurative, they’d do fine without figuratively. Whether we should use figuratively is a matter of clarity and context. If the sentence clearly stands out as figurative, it’s fine to omit figuratively. And if the sentence falls under, for instance, an academic context, where clarity is of the utmost importance, then the sentence may need figuratively.

Sometimes, we use both words together to emphasize a literal and figurative meaning.

This victory literally and figuratively granted the soldier another feather in his cap.

Like with all other examples, as a freelance proofreader, you should take care before dropping the editorial hammer. Consider the text, its context, and its setting, and then make a change or leave a comment if necessary.

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