‘Literally’ vs ‘Figuratively’: Understanding the Key Differences

Marcus Froland

Words can be tricky little things. They flip. They flop. And sometimes, they even dress up in each other’s clothes. Take “literally” and “figuratively,” for instance. These two often find themselves swapped, mixed up, and misused in daily conversations and writings. But what happens when we pull them apart, hold them up to the light, and really look at what they’re trying to say?

In our journey through the English language, understanding the difference between these two can be a game-changer. It’s not just about sounding smarter or writing better; it’s about honing our ability to convey exactly what we mean. After all, saying you’re “literally dying of laughter” might get you some concerned looks unless, of course, you’ve found the joke that tickles your life away.

The words literally and figuratively are often confused, but they mean different things. When you say something is literally true, it means it actually happened or is happening exactly as you say. For example, if you are literally jumping for joy, you are physically jumping because you are so happy.

On the other hand, when you use figuratively, you’re not talking about something that’s actually happening. Instead, you’re using a figure of speech to make a point or show how something feels. If you say you’re figuratively dying of embarrassment, it means you’re very embarrassed but not actually in danger of dying.

In short, literally speaks to facts and real events, while figuratively deals with symbolic or metaphorical expressions.

The Core Definitions: Setting the Stage for Clarity

In order to use language precisely and effectively, it is essential to understand the core definitions of the often-confused adverbs literally and figuratively. Grasping their distinct meanings will ultimately lead to improved language clarity and proper usage of language.

Literally is defined as “in the literal or strict sense” and “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy.”

Figuratively refers to something that is “of the nature of or involving a figure of speech,” and is generally metaphorical rather than literal.

These distinct definitions highlight the difference between the two adverbs and their intended usage. While literally emphasizes a direct, factual meaning, figuratively suggests a more metaphorical or symbolic interpretation.

Literally Figuratively
Used to describe a situation or event that actually occurred, without any exaggeration or distortion. Represents a concept or situation not to be taken at face value, instead reflecting metaphorical or symbolic meaning.
Appropriate in contexts demanding precision and clarity, such as technical writing or factual reports. More suited to creative or casual language, where exactitude is not the primary focus.
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Knowing when and how to apply these core definitions will lead to a deeper appreciation for language and the nuances of communication.

  1. Literally: Use this adverb when describing an event or situation that truly occurred in reality, to stress the factuality and exactness of the statement.
  2. Figuratively: This adverb is fitting when discussing metaphorical or symbolic meanings that are not intended to be taken in a literal sense.

By understanding and incorporating the core definitions of literally and figuratively into your communication, you will enhance your language clarity and overall effectiveness in conveying ideas and emotions.

Navigating the Historical Evolution of ‘Literally’ and ‘Figuratively’

Understanding the historical evolution of ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ sheds light on their origins, adaptations in the English language, and their current usage. Delving into the etymology of these terms and exploring their respective linguistics ancestry provides insights that can help you better distinguish between them and use them appropriately.

The Origins and Adaptations of ‘Literally’

‘Literally,’ which means “in the literal or strict sense,” was first recorded around 1525. Its original usage adhered to a strict sense without exaggeration, making it a valuable adverb for emphasizing precision and exactness. However, the 19th century saw a significant shift in this word’s usage as it started being used as an intensifier – an adaptation that transformed its classic meaning.

  1. Original use (circa 1525): “in the literal or strict sense”
  2. 19th century adaptation: widespread use as an intensifier

Notwithstanding this change, ‘literally’ remains the preferred choice in formal writings when conveying “the exact sense” of a word or phrase without any exaggeration.

Tracing the Etymology of ‘Figuratively’

On the other hand, ‘figuratively’ can be traced back to the figurative language history of Middle English, which flourished around 1350–1400. This term, replacing the Middle English ‘figuratif,’ originated from the Late Latin word ‘figūrātīvus.’

Figuratively: an adverb denoting a usage that is not literal but metaphorical or symbolic

Thanks to its etymological lineage, ‘figuratively’ allows you to express abstract, metaphorical, or symbolic ideas in your language, whether you’re discussing conceptual topics or engaging in creative storytelling.

Term Origin Time Period Language
Literally First recorded usage 1525 English
Figuratively Derived from Late Latin: figūrātīvus 1350–1400 Middle English

In summary, the historical evolution of ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ has been shaped by various linguistic forces and adaptations. To improve your language proficiency and clarity, it is essential to understand the unique origins and purposes of these adverbs, ensuring their proper deployment in different contexts.

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Common Misuses and Why They Matter

While the misuse of literally might seem harmless on the surface, it can lead to confusion and misinterpretation in both written and spoken communication. In the long run, language precision is crucial to maintaining clarity and preventing common errors in language. Let’s explore some of these misuses, along with the contexts in which they often arise.

“I was literally dying of laughter.”

In this example, “literally” is used to exaggerate the intensity of the laughter, which is both erroneous and potentially confusing. The correct term to use here is “figuratively,” as the speaker is not truly in a life-threatening situation due to laughter. This is a common example of how literally is incorrectly used as an intensifier, deviating from its original strict sense of “without exaggeration.”

It’s worth noting that the misuse of “literally” doesn’t only affect personal conversations but can also cause misunderstandings in professional settings. For instance, when a manager claims they are “literally buried in paperwork,” the employees may wonder whether it’s possible for the manager to be physically covered in piles of documents. This lack of clarity and precision makes it challenging for readers or listeners to discern the intended meaning.

Misused Phrase Correct Replacement
Literally starving Figuratively starving
Literally at my wit’s end Figuratively at my wit’s end
Literally bursting with excitement Figuratively bursting with excitement

As the table illustrates, correctly using “literally” and “figuratively” in their respective contexts is essential to convey the intended meaning accurately. While it’s easy to dismiss these common errors as trivial or inconsequential, they can significantly impact the success of communication and hinder the development of precise language skills.

Literally Speaking: Identifying Proper Usage

Understanding and applying the proper usage of literally in real-world contexts is essential for effective, precise communication. This entails employing the term to convey exact, concrete expressions without room for interpretation or exaggeration. Let’s explore some scenarios where ‘literally’ is the appropriate choice.

Literally: In a literal manner or sense; exactly: The driver took the turn literally, moving the car exactly along the road’s curve without any deviation.

Literal Explanations in Real-World Contexts

When using ‘literally’ to describe a situation, it’s crucial to ensure the statement fully aligns with the term’s intended meaning: a direct, factual, and unexaggerated depiction of events. Below are some examples to better illustrate this concept.

  1. Describing an outcome: “She literally scored 100% on her exam.”
  2. Expressing a specific action: “He literally walked 10 miles in a single day.”
  3. Quantifying a result: “The concert was literally sold out within minutes.”
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In each of these instances, ‘literally’ highlights the factual, non-metaphorical nature of the described events, ensuring readers or listeners understand their exactness. The term adds credibility and clarity to your message, helping you avoid potential misunderstandings.

Incorrect Usage Correct Usage
I am literally starving. I am very hungry.
She is literally on cloud nine. She is ecstatic.
I literally cried a river. I cried a lot.

By correctly identifying and implementing the proper usage of ‘literally’ in real-world applications, you can enhance your language precision and effectively convey the intended meaning of your words. This not only enriches your communication skills but also bolsters the authenticity and clarity of your message.

The Art of Figurative Language: When to Use ‘Figuratively’

Understanding the appropriate context for using figurative language can improve your linguistic skills and lead to more effective communication. ‘Figuratively’ should be used when the intended meaning of a statement is metaphorical or symbolic, rather than being taken in the literal sense. It allows room for interpretation and encourages creative expression in conversation.

For instance, when you hear a phrase like “knocking down walls for you,” the speaker is not literally demolishing physical barriers. Instead, they are figuratively communicating that they will go to great lengths to help you. By grasping the essence of figurative language, you can better appreciate the sentiment expressed and relate to the experiences of others.

It’s essential to note that figurative language is more commonly used in casual and creative writing or conversation, and its use should be avoided in formal contexts where precision and clarity are paramount. By recognizing when to use ‘figuratively,’ you can enhance your linguistic prowess and express yourself with greater accuracy and flair.