Difference Between Figurative and Literal

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 16, 2023


Difference Between Figurative and Literal

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People sometimes use the word literally when speaking figuratively, leading to humorous reactions. Though others understand that it is figurative language even though the word ‘literally’ is used, the grammar police will have a field day breaking down why it is incorrect for various reasons. Therefore, it would not hurt to know the difference between literal and figurative language and meaning. After all, saying it is ‘literally raining cats and dogs’ does not make sense.

Literal people say exactly what they mean without exaggeration or comparison. Figurative language involves exaggeration and comparison to convey a more complex meaning. In the TV series 911, a girl calls the emergency service saying she is blue. The responder thought she was figuratively speaking and meant that she was feeling depressed. However, she reiterates that she is blue, meaning her body has turned blue (due to excessive use of benzocaine, a numbing agent). This incident clearly indicates the difference between literal and figurative language.

Figurative Vs. Literal

People use literal language when they want their implied meaning to correspond with the words’ original meaning. That is, a word or phrase is used literally if the intended meaning conforms to the dictionary meaning of the word. On the other hand, figurative language refers to using words or phrases to imply a non-literal meaning (something different from their original meaning). That does not mean figurative speech does not make sense; it does. For example, when someone says they are thirsty enough to drink an entire lake, it means they are completely parched and not just mildly thirsty.

Difference Between Figurative And Literal In Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonFigurativeLiteral
MeaningFigurative language conveys meaning using metaphors, hyperbole, puns, etc.Literal language is pretty straightforward. It refers to saying precisely what one means.
UsePeople use figurative language to express their emotions, creativity, and imagination. Authors, poets, and writers often use metaphors to infuse their work with a deeper meaning.People are literal when writing technical or legal documents, giving directions, or delivering important information.
TruthnessFigurative language may or may not be true. For example, the quote ‘fear’s kryptonite is laughter’ is true in the sense laughing helps people get over their fears. However, saying someone has a heart of stone cannot be true; instead, it conveys the meaning that the said person is unfeeling.Literal language always holds true, as it depends on the dictionary meaning of words and phrases.
ComplexityIt is comparatively harder to understand people when they are speaking figuratively.People find it as natural as breathing to understand what others are saying when they are being literal.
Origin wordThe term figurative originated from the Latin word figūrātīvus.The word literal originated from the Late Latin word litteralis.

What Is Figurative?

People speak figuratively more often than they realize. Saying they hope to run into their friends again, it is raining cats and dogs, or even referring to someone as a tough cookie are examples of figurative language. People may ask why they should speak less literally and more figuratively. The answer is that figurative meaning/language helps explain certain things better. For example, when a person says their heart is bursting with joy, it conveys the depth of their emotion better than merely saying they are joyous.

What’s more, using figurative language is much more fun and helps improve one’s imagination. It paints a picture that makes it easier for people to understand the speaker’s intended meaning. On the other hand, excessive use of metaphors, idioms, oxymorons, or paradoxes is detrimental, as people may consider the person a walking cliché.

Moreover, figurative language is not meant for professional communications or legal documents, as there should be no room for ambiguity (people have no other choice except to use literal language no matter how much they want to zone out while writing it).

Types Of Figurative Language

The following are the various types of figurative language:


A simile is the comparison of two things similar to each other using connective words such as ‘like’ and ‘as’. Sometimes, the verb resembles is used to emphasize the similarity between two different things. Saying someone is brave as a lion is an example of a simile, as the person’s valor is compared to a lion’s using the word ‘as’.


A metaphor is similar to a simile; however, the connective words ‘as’ or ‘like’ are not used. Instead, the comparison is implied rather than directly stating it. The sentence ‘his anger is a raging fire’ is an example of a metaphor. Here, the intention is to make people understand the extent of the person’s anger and how destructive it can be.

Using a metaphor is better than saying a person is extremely angry and anger is destructive, right? It is a much more creative way of conveying meaning. Metaphors may be standard (direct comparison), implied (indirect comparison), visual, extended continues over multiple sentences), or dead (a metaphor became a cliché over time).


Personification is the representation of non-human things as a person by attributing human characteristics to them. The four horsemen of apocalypse, cardinal winds, elements, and seasons have been personified throughout history. The imagining of Death as the Grim Reaper (a skeleton with a scythe and an hourglass) is an example of personification (an incredibly funny and imaginative one that has stood the test of time!).


A paradox is a self-contradictory statement or a statement that means something contrary to standard expectations. Time travel paradox is one of the most famous paradoxes of all time. For example, in Terminator, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother – an action that leads to Sarah conceiving John.

Now, how can the boy send his father back in time if he is only born as a result of the father’s time travel? Did someone else send Kyle back in time before, and did John take over that person’s role after his birth (makes one’s head spin, doesn’t it?)? The Avengers Endgame presented a much more believable and logical time travel concept.


Onomatopoeia is the use of words phonetically resembling the sounds they describe. For example, the sound pigs make is described as an oink. Sometimes, birds and things are named after the sounds they make. The zip was named as such because of the zipping noise it makes, and cuckoos were named after their calls.


Oxymorons are words that incorporate contradictory meanings. Organized chaos, expressive silence, keen stupidity, etc. are examples of oxymorons. Sometimes, certain oxymorons are used to create a comic effect. The words honest politician (implying that no politician is honest), business ethics (meaning businessmen are ruthless), and act naturally (if one is acting, how can it be natural?) are examples of comic oxymorons.


Originally, many idioms had literal meanings. For example, in the past when someone was said to have kicked a bucket, it meant that a person had stood on a bucket to hand himself and kicked it over after tying the knot. However, idioms became predominantly figurative later on.

Now, if people say a person kicked the bucket, it simply means that they died. The phrases break a leg (meaning good luck), it’s raining cats and dogs (meaning it is raining heavily), spilled the beans (meaning a secret was revealed), etc. are examples of figurative idioms.


Hyperbole functions as an intensifier (enhances and gives additional meaning to a word); it is often unrealistic. Most advertisements make ample use of hyperbole to boost sales. The Red Bull advertisement claiming ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ is an excellent example of hyperbole (quite catchy, isn’t it?). Moreover, the erroneous and controversial use of the word ‘literally’ when meaning something figuratively has become one of the most used ways to hyperbolize a statement. Brilliant, so when people keep saying something long enough, it becomes what they intend it to mean and does not convey what it ought to mean.


An allusion is similar to a reference; however, the audience is left to make the connection instead of directly stating what the person is referring to. For example, stating don’t go down the rabbit hole is an allusion to the story Alice in Wonderland. However, asking a friend who is going home early from a party whether their car will turn into a pumpkin at midnight similar to Cinderella’s carriage is a reference.


A pun refers to wordplay for a humorous effect. Switching a similar-sounding word for another is an example of a homophonic pun, whereas a pun using a word that spells the same but has a different meaning is homographic. Sometimes, homophonic and homographic puns are used together. However, making a bad pun may end with the person ending in a hospital with broken bones (nowadays, the audience is a tough nut to crack and prone to lashing out unceremoniously) in addition to a bruised ego.

What Is Literal?

Literal meaning is the most obvious meaning of a word or phrase and does not involve metaphors, hyperbole, idioms, etc. Moreover, people reject the figurative meaning of a phrase when the literal meaning makes sense. However, they are unable to resist processing the non-literal meaning; that is why people should wisely choose their words and how they phrase them while communicating with others. After all, the majority of TV shows have the quote ‘get your mind out of the gutter’, which goes to show how different people perceive things differently.

Sometimes people do not get that a person is figuratively speaking because the literal meaning makes sense, too. For example, when people advise seasoned drinkers to take it slow without knowing they have high tolerance levels, they receive sarcastic replies, such as ‘Why should I take it slow?’. An unsuspecting person will reply that the drinker may get a hangover since they thought the drinker had asked the question in the literal sense. Others will understand the drinker is being sarcastic and let it go.

The word literally must not be used when using idioms or metaphors. Moreover, it is incorrect to use it when people are exaggerating an incident or feeling. In short, when something actually happens, literal language is used to describe or explain it. However, figurative language is used to describe what one feels is happening. Gandalf literally escaped from Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movie. On the other hand, people escape reality in the figurative sense by reading books, watching movies, or playing games to get a reprieve from the horrors of daily mundane life.

Main Difference Between Figurative And Literal (In Points)

  • People use the word ‘literally’ erroneously more often than the word ‘figuratively’. For example, it is incorrect when people say a song literally blew their head off. After all, their head is still attached to their body when they say it (they are not the ghosts that appear in the Harry Potter series with the ability to detach their heads from their bodies.)!
  • Figurative language uses figures of speech, whereas literal language does not.
  • According to the standard pragmatic model of comprehension, people first try to infer the literal meaning of what they hear. They only interpret the figurative meaning when unable to settle on a suitable literal interpretation. However, this model appears to be false since research showed that people understood literal and figurative speech at the same speed.
  • Figurative language elevates any piece of writing when used effectively. For example, Shakespeare’s use of metaphor in As You Like It, comparing the world to a stage, made the reading experience memorable. On the other hand, writings with words and phrases that convey only the literal meaning can be boring to read.
  • People often use figurative language to provoke thought. Life is a song, and people get to write their own lyrics implying that people can decide how their life goes. They can either sit wringing their hands at the injustice and unfairness of their lives or take charge and do something about it. However, people tend to scoff when someone says the same thing using literal language.


The distinction between literal and figurative is clear enough. But some people tend to use the words literally and figuratively together in a sentence. Sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it does not. For example, saying that Julius Caesar was literally and figuratively stabbed in the back is correct (who can forget the line Et tu Brute?). However, it makes absolutely no sense when people say they literally and figuratively died laughing (how can they speak if they are dead? Why use the word ‘literally’ here at all?). Knowing when to use the words literally and figuratively will save people from getting into embarrassing situations.


  • https://www.thoughtco.com/literal-meaning-language-1691250
  • https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365-life-hacks/writing/difference-between-literal-and-figurative-language
  • https://www.vocabulary.com/articles/chooseyourwords/figuratively-literally/
  • https://www.yourdictionary.com/articles/literally-figuratively-differences-use
  • https://grammarist.com/usage/literally-figuratively/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personification
  • https://prowritingaid.com/metaphor-examples
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperbole
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allusion
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pun
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onomatopoeia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxymoron
  • https://www.grammarly.com/blog/figurative-language/


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"Difference Between Figurative and Literal." Diffzy.com, 2023. Thu. 28 Sep. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-figurative-and-literal>.

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