Literally and Figuratively


Figurative expressions mean something special. The words and meaning don’t always match. “Spill the tea” means “gossip”. 


Literal expressions mean what they say. I really did spill my tea. 

Compare the literal and figurative expressions below.

Literal: The actor literally died on stage. He had a heart attack. 
Figurative: The actor died on stage. He’s a terrible actor. 
(To “die” means to perform very badly.) 

Literal: I bumped into Steve and spilled his coffee. 
Figurative: I bumped into Steve earlier. I was happy to see him again. 
(To “bump into” means to meet suddenly or unexpectedly.) 


Many native speakers use “literally” for emphasis. 
Literal: I’m very hungry. 
Figurative: I could eat a horse. 
: I could literally eat a horse.

No one can “literally” eat a horse. Here, the speaker used “literally” to exaggerate. Here are a few more examples. 

Literal: I laughed so much it was hard to breathe. 
Figurative: I died laughing. 
Emphasis: I literally died laughing. 

Literal:  You did a great job in your presentation. 
Figurative: You really killed in your presentation. 
Emphasis: You literally killed in your presentation. 

So, why do native speakers do this? It’s often for emphasis but also for humor, to push the figurative expression as far as it can go. 

Literal: I’m really happy. 
Figurative: I’m over the moon. 
Emphasis: I’m literally over the moon. 
Funny Emphasis: I’m literally over the moon. Literally. I went to NASA, got in a rocket, shot myself into space, and now I am flying around like crazy over the moon.

Like this post? Did I forget something? Let me know!   

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