Grammar: Literally or Figuratively?

Lesson 19: Literally or Figuratively?


Literally or figuratively?

A friend finds out the hard way what happens when something literally explodes...

Even though literally and figuratively are two different words, they're often used interchangeably. Let’s talk about what they actually mean, and then see how they’re used in everyday speech. 

Literal language

Literally describes something that happens in real life.

  • Example 1: I literally failed my science test; I didn’t get a passing score.
  • Example 2: After collapsing, she literally had to be carried off the soccer field. 

The word literally doesn’t always have to be included in the sentence for something to be literal. If you’re unsure if the person is saying that the event happened in real life, you can ask a question like, “You literally failed your science test?” or “She was literally carried off the field?” Because it’s possible the person is speaking figuratively.

Figurative language

Figuratively refers to a metaphor. A metaphor is a direct comparison between two things. So if someone is speaking figuratively, then they are using a comparison for emphasis. 

  • Example 1: Figuratively speaking, I was in a prison I couldn’t escape.
  • Example 2: I’m so tired I could die.

In everyday speech, sometimes people use the word literally incorrectly, as a way to show what they’re feeling. Even if they actually mean figuratively, they choose literally to get their point across.

  • Example: I’m so hungry right now, I could literally eat a horse!

Directions: For the practice quiz below, make an educated guess if the person is speaking literally or figuratively...