Word Confusion: Figuratively versus Literally

Posted September 5, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 17 February 2018

Figuratively and literally are the opposite of each other. The former means not exact while the latter does mean exactly that. So if someone says “kill me, just kill me now”, don’t take it literally!

Of course, we’ve all seen examples of using literally for effect: “They bought the car and literally ran it into the ground” or “we were literally killing ourselves laughing”.

And how many times have you begged someone to stop cracking jokes lest you pee your pants laughing. Now that’s one that could be figurative or literal!

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Figuratively Literally
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com
La Vendange by Kathy Davie

“La Vendange” courtesy of Kathy Davie and The Eye’s Delight.

Figuratively, this fiber art piece is typical of Kathy’s representational style.


“Firenze, Ponte Vecchio” is Aldo Ardetti’s own work under the GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ponte Vecchio sounds so romantic, and yet literally, it means “old bridge”.

Part of Grammar:
Adverb Adverb
A figurative statement is symbolically, metaphorically true

Used to indicate a departure from a literal use of words

  • Metaphorically

In a style representing forms that are recognizably derived from life

A literal statement is actually, physically true with no exaggeration

In a literal manner or sense

  • Exactly
  • [Informal] Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true
Jane figuratively fell out her chair when she heard John’s surprising comments.

We left a lot of people literally and figuratively in the dark.

I did bump into — figuratively speaking — quite a few interesting people.

Chinese art influenced her to paint figuratively.

The driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle.

If you translate tiramisu literally, it means pick me up.

I have received literally thousands of letters.

Jane literally fell out of her chair and bruised her ankle.

I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally.

Adjective: figurative
Noun: figurativeness, figure
Verb: figure
Adjective: literal
Noun: literality, literalness
Verb: literalize
History of the Word:
Middle English from late Latin figurativus, which is from figurare meaning to form or fashion, from figura. Late Middle English from Old French or from late Latin litteralis, which is from the Latin littera.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

A Calvin & Hobbes’ cartoon, How’s Your Book”, by Bill Waterston © 1992, via Arnold Zwicky’s blog.

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