SYWTBAW: On Literally and Figuratively

This is, quite literally, one of my biggest writing pet peeves of all time, so I thought I'd share.



Literally means actually, without exaggeration or inaccuracy, word for word or in the strictest sense. I'd recommend you read this XKCD comic to verify.

Figuratively is the opposite of literally, meaning metaphorically.

Avoid the use of these two adverbs whenever possible. Things are seldom literal, and if they are, there’s no real call to use this unnecessary and rather clichéd word. And if they’re figurative, it should be evident (often via hyperbole) that the phrase is meant in a non-literal sense.


Acceptable but unnecessary:

The zombie literally tore him limb from limb.

Figuratively speaking, she’s a real dog.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith are fighting for their lives—literally and figuratively!

He literally wanted to kill him.

(*For bonus points, can you rewrite these sentences so they don't use cliches?)

Confusing and incorrect:

She literally talked him off the proverbial ledge.

He was literally and figuratively blown away by the surprise party.

She screamed so loudly his eardrums literally exploded.

Figuratively speaking, she was literally shocked out of her socks.


Note: For the love of Strunk & White, putting the two together does not mean they cancel each other out!

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