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Comedian Mitch Hedberg on a literal experience


The most obvious or non-figurative sense of a word or words; language that is not perceived as metaphorical or ironic. Contrast with figurative language. Noun: literalness.

See also:


From the Latin, "letter"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Dictionary definitions are written in literal terms. For example, 'It is time to feed the cats and dogs.' This phrase 'cats and dogs' is used in a literal sense, for the animals are hungry and it is time to eat. . . .

    "Figurative language paints word pictures and allows us to 'see' a point. For example: 'It is raining cats and dogs!' Cats and dogs do not really fall from the sky like rain . . .. This expression is an idiom."
    (Passing the Maryland High School Assessment in English, 2006)

  • "The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat."
    (Jacques Cousteau)

  • Processing Literal and Non-Literal Meanings
    "How do we process metaphorical utterances? The standard theory is that we process non-literal language in three stages . . .. First, we derive the literal meaning of what we hear. Second, we test the literal meaning against the context to see if it is consistent with it. Third, if the literal meaning does not make sense with the context, we seek an alternative, metaphorical meaning.

    "One prediction of this three-stage model is that people should ignore the non-literal meanings of statements whenever the literal meaning makes sense, because they never need to proceed to the third stage. There is some evidence that people are unable to ignore non-literal meanings. . . . That is, the metaphoric meaning seems to be processed at the same time as the literal meaning."
    (Trevor Harley, The Psychology of Language. Taylor & Francis, 2001)

  • Paul de Man on Literal and Figurative Meanings in All in the Family
    "[A]sked by his wife whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under, Archie Bunker answers with a question: 'What's the difference?' Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by patiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under, whatever this may be, but provokes only ire. 'What's the difference' did not ask for difference but means instead 'I don't give a damn what the difference is.' The same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning."
    (Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. Yale University Press, 1979)

  • Literally and Figuratively
    "People have used literally to mean figuratively for centuries, and definitions to this effect have appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary since the early 1900s, accompanied by a note that such usage might be 'considered irregular' or 'criticized as a misuse.' But literally is one of those words that, regardless of what’s in the dictionary--and sometimes because of it--continues to attract an especially snooty breed of linguistic scrutiny. It is a classic peeve."
    (Jen Doll, "You're Saying It Wrong." The Atlantic, January/February 2014)
Pronunciation: LIT-er-el
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