'Literally' vs 'Figuratively': What's the Difference?

By Amy Gilmore, updated on July 24, 2023

Do you need to know the difference between 'literally' vs. 'figuratively,' I can help!

Here is the quick answer: 

  • 'Literally' is an adverb that means that something is true in the primary sense of a word or term. 
  • 'Figuratively' is an adverb that means that something is true in the metaphorical sense of a word or term.  

Learn more about the difference between these words and how to use them in this guide with definitions, examples, usage tips, and pronunciations.

What's the Difference Between 'Literally' vs. 'Figuratively?'

'Literally' and 'figuratively' are both adverbs, so they both describe verbs. However, the former term means that something is true in the primary sense of the word or phrases used to describe it, for example:

  • He is 'literally' the best driver in the world. He has more wins and speed records than anyone else.

The latter means that something is metaphorically true, for example:

How and When to Use 'Literally' vs. 'Figuratively'

You know that literally means in the truest sense of the words used to describe it, and 'figuratively' compares something to an object, situation, or person metaphorically.

So, let's look at how and when you use each.

  • Use 'literally' when something is true in the most genuine sense.

For example, you might say something like:

The Bar Exam is literally the hardest test I will ever take, but I have been preparing for it since I started law school. 

  • You can use 'literally' as an interrogative phrase.

For example, I might say:

Literally? Do you really want me to call everyone on this list?

  • Use 'figuratively' to compare something to something that is different from the subject.

For example, you may hear someone say:

Figuratively speaking, she is like a breath of cool Fall air on a Friday night. 

  • Use 'figuratively' when you are likening something to something else metaphorically.

As an example, you might say:

In the figurative sense, he is the king of the school. Teachers and students love him, and he can do no wrong in their eyes.

  • Use 'figuratively' to offer a description that compares or likens something technical to something people use daily.

For example, you could say:

Figuratively, the Ultra Clean Vacuum and Steam Mop is like having a 24-hour maid service.

Definition of 'Literally': What is the Meaning of 'Literally?'

The definition of 'literally' according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is an adverb that means:

  • In a literal way, sense, or manner

It can also mean:

  • A comparison in the primary sense of a word
  • Having identical equivalence
  • In the most accurate terms
  • In effect

Synonyms of 'Literally'

  • Directly
  • Precisely
  • Accurately
  • Simply
  • Plainly
  • Truly
  • Genuinely
  • Squarely
  • Identically
  • Verifiably
  • Sharply
  • Exactly

Definition of 'Figuratively': What is the Meaning of 'Figuratively?'

The same defines 'figuratively' as an adverb or adjective that means:

  • Having a meaning that is more abstract than literal

It can also mean:

  • A non-conventional comparison that isn't entirely abstract

Synonyms of 'Figuratively'

  • Symbolically
  • Metaphorically
  • Nonliteral

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Literally' vs. 'Figuratively'

Knowing the pronunciation of 'literally' vs. 'figuratively' is as vital as learning the definition. Learning a new language is challenging if you lack the confidence to converse with people using it.

So, here is a guide that will help you correctly pronounce these words.

  • Use this phonetic spelling to pronounce 'literally':


  • Use this phonetic spelling to pronounce 'figuratively':


Sample Sentences Using 'Literally' vs. 'Figuratively'

Finally, here are some sample sentences that will help you remember the difference between 'literally' vs. 'figuratively.'


  • Our organization literally represents 75 percent of the foreclosure homeowners in our area.
  • Water and food had to be airlifted to the residents because the accident on the bridge literally cut off access to and from the island.
  • Until the recent completion of the construction of an underwater bridge, the main highway into and out of Gibraltar was literally the runway.
  • You can literally walk across the runway. Although vehicular traffic is no longer allowed to use the runway road, pedestrians and scooters can still cross.
  • I would literally have to work day and night for a week to finish this to-do list. Oh well, it will have to wait.
  • Last Wednesday, viewership literally doubled. We are analyzing the data in an attempt to identify the source so we can replicate the results.


  • If we are speaking figuratively, completing this project is like landing on the moon.
  • Figuratively, you have to shoot your shot all the time to achieve greatness.
  • You can use idioms or figures of speech to figuratively compare complex ideas with concepts readers understand.
  • Once in a blue moon is a phrase people use figuratively to say that something rarely occurs.
  • Figurative speech is excellent for lightening the mood and simplifying things, but it is not always appropriate.
  • You tell colorful stories when you speak figuratively, but it confuses some viewers.


  • Our English teacher asked us to literally write about our favorite day and write figuratively about a time when we faced adversity.
  • Speaking figuratively when people expect you to answer literally can be disastrous because it might make you look unprepared.
  • We saw eye to eye, literally and figuratively.
  • It is best to speak literally in business and formal communications—reserve writing figuratively for casual or personal texts.

Recap: The Difference Between 'Literally' vs. 'Figuratively'

You learned a lot of information in this post, so here is a quick recap of the difference between 'literally' vs. 'figuratively':

  • 'Literally' is an adverb that describes a verb as being accurate in the truest sense. 
  • 'Figuratively' is an adverb that means symbolically or metaphorically alike. 

Terms like these can stump even the most experienced writers. So, if you have a question about the meaning of a word, you can always verify the meaning in the confusing words section here.

Each guide gives a quick answer and an in-depth explanation with definitions, examples, tips, and pronunciations of the words the post covers. So, they are an excellent way to brush up on grammar skills and expand your vocabulary simultaneously.

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Amy Gilmore
Amy Gilmore is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. She has been a professional writer and editor for the past eight years. She developed a love of language arts and literature in school and decided to become a professional freelance writer after a demanding career in real estate. Amy is constantly learning to become a better writer and loves sharing tips with other writers who want to do the same.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.