Word Confusion: Literal versus Literally

Posted April 24, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

It is the literal truth that there are literally a multitude of disputes amongst linguists as to whether using literally to merely emphasize what it refers to is acceptable or not.

A number of style guides accept literally in the emphatic sense when used informally (as opposed to the literal sense) provided that this additional emphasis is actually required.

In formal writing, use literally in its exact sense — and exactly what is said.

Consider the following:
The party literally went off with a bang.

Only if there was an actual loud noise!

The party went off with a bang.

The party was great!

I literally ran more than 25 miles today.

I ran a marathon.

I ran more than 25 miles today.

A more accurate sentence that isn’t dressed up with emphasis.

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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Literal Literally
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

Close-up of a piece of tiramisu

“Simple Tiramisu” by Sebastian Kügler, 25 December 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

A literal close-up of this “pick me up”.

A whole pan of tiramisu

“Tvarohové tiramisu” by Matěj Baťha [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I could literally eat the whole thing!

Part of Grammar:
Adjective; Noun
Plural for noun: literals
Taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory

  • Free from exaggeration or distortion
  • [Informal] Absolute (used to emphasize that a strong expression is deliberately chosen to convey one’s feelings)

[Of a translation] Representing the exact words of the original text

  • [Of a visual representation] Exactly copied
    • Realistic as opposed to abstract or impressionistic

[Also literal-minded; of a person or performance] Lacking imagination

  • Prosaic

Of, in, or expressed by a letter or the letters of the alphabet

[British typography] A misprint of, usually, a single letter

In a literal manner or sense

  • Exactly

[Informal] Used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible


The storm is quite thunderous.

Janni’s marriage was fifteen years of literal hell.

You asked for a literal translation; that’s what I’ve given you.

I can’t believe how literal your representation is of our farm.

She is quite literal-minded without any imagination.

Literal mnemonics are abbreviations or letters which are easily associated with the name of a subject, i.e., H is for History, A is for Arts, and F is for Fiction.

On page 57, line 13, there is a literal of soap when soup is meant.

Check endnote 19 to verify if Pest is a literal for Peat.

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

Tiramisu is literally translated as pick me up.

He took her comment literally.

The party was attended by literally hundreds of people.

The story was basically true, even if not literally true.

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

He never did appear where she could see him. Ever.

I have received literally thousands of letters.

They bought the car and literally ran it into the ground.

He will literally tear the house apart looking for his cellphone.

We were literally killing ourselves laughing.

Adjective: literalistic, nonliteral, overliteral
Adverb: nonliterally
Noun: literalism, literalist, literality, literalness, nonliteralness
Verb: literalize
History of the Word:
Late Middle English from the Old French or from the late Latin litteralis, which is from the Latin littera. 1525-35 literal + -ly.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Best Friends“, which is courtesy of Pinterest.