Literally figurative: a guide to navigating your literals and figuratives

"You don't know the difference between literally and figuratively, do you?" - NetflixSource: Tumblr

When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to the melancholic world of Lemony Snicket. In the fourth grade, our teacher read the first book in Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” saga to our class.

Anyone who has read the series knows each book is full of intriguing characters, clever language, and enticing twists. Despite all these interesting elements, there is one thing I remember better than any storyline event. Lemony Snicket was the first to teach me the difference between the words “literally” and “figuratively”. 

A short lesson on the difference

You may ask, what does a fourth grader know about literals and figuratives? In short, nothing. I can’t speak for everyone, but I had never encountered those two words until then. In one concise paragraph, Lemony Snicket told me all I needed to know.

It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between "literally" and "figuratively."
If something happens literally, it actually happens;
if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening. 
 

If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy.
If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters.

Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Snicket uses the example of jumping for joy to illustrate the difference between the literal and the figurative. You may notice this Friday’s post on our social media pays homage to the example used in the book. However, seeing as it is a #FunnyFriday post, I’ve exaggerated the meaning and made the expression even sillier. This being said, I do feel that this example is a bit outdated. Below, I’ve compiled a few common misuses of the word “literally”.

Decoding your "literally" misuse

You say... What it means... What you meant...
"I was literally dying." Death had you in its clutches. I am laughing so hard my stomach hurts.

Or 

I am sweating profusely on a hot summer's day.
"My hands are tied." Your hands are bound together by rope or some other means. There is nothing I can do to help in this situation.
"I literally can’t even!" You are unable to make a surface flat and levelled out. Perhaps you are icing a cake. I cannot handle this situation, as it is too funny or too frustrating.
"I was literally glued to my chair." You were stuck to your chair because there was glue on it. I was unable to move, whether it be out of fear or intrigue.
"The celery in our fridge is like literally 100 years old." The celery was purchased 100 years ago and has been sitting in your fridge ever since.  The celery in my fridge is old and probably not safe to eat anymore.
"My friend is literally a hurricane on the basketball court." Your friend is a reckless tropical storm that usually results in destruction of buildings, flooding, and general devastation.  My friend is a basketball player who moves up and down the court with great ease and power.


Admittedly, the evolution of “literally” is a great example of how the way we use words can transform their original meaning. In our modern society, the word “literally” is often used as a synonym for “actually”. It’s hard to say if it’s wrong to use the phrase “I’m literally dying” to express that something is hilarious. Whether someone “misuses” the word “literally” usually doesn’t affect our understanding of what they meant to say.  As English speakers, we choose whether to place value on a colloquial meaning, or one that is dictionary defined.

Hopefully this blog post has empowered you to understand the difference between “literally” and “figuratively”. With your newfound knowledge, the choice to use (or misuse) is yours.

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