Learn English – What are the arguments behind the “literally”/”figuratively” usage divide? When should one use either word


I remember reading, some time in grade school, that there was a controversy about proper usage of figuratively and literally when used to denote meaning of a word in its strictest sense — but I've totally forgotten what those arguments said.

Some my questions are: What are those arguments? Are they taken very seriously by pedants? When should I use either word? I remember figuratively being pushed, but I've never really heard it conversation….

Best Answer

"Figuratively" should never be used to denote strict meaning. "I figuratively killed that guy" means you didn't actually kill that guy, but rather killed his character in a video game or beat him handily at some activity or something similar. You're indicating that you're using a figure of speech, and are not using the literal meaning of the words. Most of the time, "figuratively" can be left out; whether or not you did literal killing should be clear from the context.

Likewise, "literally" should never be used to denote anything other than strict meaning. "I literally killed that guy" means you committed murder or manslaughter. It's often misused to add emphasis; for example, comparing the figurative killing to literal killing. Such a comparison doesn't make sense, since doing a super combo on a game character is nothing like murdering your friend. This is apart from scenarios where it would be entirely inappropriate to draw the comparison. (If you beat someone at a video game and for whatever reason they become distraught and take their own life, you probably want to avoid saying "I literally killed that guy.") Thus it's better to leave "literally" for its intended purpose.