SOS English: Literally vs. Figuratively

The words “literally” and “figuratively” are indispensable to our everyday communication and social interaction. Most people will understand that when you say, “I literally peed my pants of fright when my friends pulled this stupid prank on me,” you most probably didn’t really pee your pants. However, you’d use “literally” for the case you’d actually peed your pants and “figuratively” when you were just really, really scared at that particular moment. Confused? Well, let’s dive in deeper and have a closer look.


“Literally” describes situations and things that actually happened. You could also say that you’re talking about something “in the literal or strict sense.”

The actor literally had to work out several hours every day to get into shape for his upcoming superhero movie. 
(The actor actually had extensive workout sessions to get in shape.)

She was looking for her glasses for hours when, in fact, they literally laid on her desk all the time right in front of her. 
(She may have been looking less (or maybe also even more) than a few hours for her glasses, but they were undoubtedly on her desk all the time.)

I’ll literally burst into tears when I have to watch that heartbreaking movie scene again.
(Watching that particular movie scene again will for sure make me cry.)

💡 for things that actually happened / will happen

💡 also used as an intensifier for effect in people’s speech but not accepted in formal writing


“Figuratively” leaves room for interpretation since it’s typically metaphorical. You use it when something didn’t really happen in a literal way, but you want to make the situation more exciting with a figure of speech. Another example of figurative language would be the usage of idioms or metaphors.

I had such a bad headache yesterday, and I felt as if figuratively, a bullet went through my head. 
(There wasn’t an actual bullet – it’s just used as a way to describe the extent of pain)

Pete was laughing so hard that he figuratively almost died.
(Pete didn’t actually die but had a lot of fun.)

I’m so hungry I could figuratively eat an entire herd of cows right now.
(Being able to “eat an entire herd of cows” only intensifies the person’s hunger, but they wouldn’t be really able to eat that much.)

💡 used in a metaphorical sense

💡 primarily used as an intensifier for effect in both speech and writing