lit·​er·​al | \ ˈli-t(ə-)rəl \

Definition of literal

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1a : according with the letter of the scriptures adheres to a literal reading of the passage
b : adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression : actual liberty in the literal sense is impossible— B. N. Cardozo
c : free from exaggeration or embellishment the literal truth
d : characterized by a concern mainly with facts a very literal man
2 : of, relating to, or expressed in letters The distress signal SOS has no literal meaning.
3 : reproduced word for word : exact, verbatim a literal translation



Definition of literal (Entry 2 of 2)

: a small error usually of a single letter (as in writing)

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from literal


literality \ ˌli-​tə-​ˈra-​lə-​tē \ noun
literalness \ ˈli-​t(ə-​)rəl-​nəs \ noun

Examples of literal in a Sentence


I was using the word in its literal sense. The literal meaning of “know your ropes” is “to know a lot about ropes,” while figuratively it means “to know a lot about how to do something.” a literal translation of a book The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn't the literal truth.
See More

Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective

Need a little Halloween inspo of your own that doesn't require running to the costume store and dropping $80 at the literal last minute? Zoe Weiner, Allure, "Jennifer Garner Transforms Into the Wicked Witch for Halloween, Thanks to Makeup Artist Fiona Stiles," 31 Oct. 2018 And yet, in its best moments, the movie does avoid becoming too literal. Alissa Wilkinson, Vox, "Bad Times at the El Royale turns a once-glamorous hotel into purgatory, with mixed results," 3 Oct. 2018 For Tae, the tears became literal as the song reached its final bars. Allie Gemmill, Teen Vogue, "BTS Member Taehyung Appeared to Shed a Tear During Their New Jersey Show," 1 Oct. 2018 The trick here is mixing complementary yet contrasting prints, while pink and black help balance the look and keep it from looking too literal. Kristin Larson,, "Fourth of July attire: Chic red, white and blue looks," 26 June 2018 Capture the essence: When reflecting an interest don't get too literal, choose items that are representative but not theme-y. Contributing Writer,, "Putting "you" in your home: 4 design tips for tasteful and personal decor," 12 Mar. 2018 And for many, using Facebook is also a literal and direct requirement. Aja Romano, Vox, "How Facebook made it impossible to delete Facebook," 20 Dec. 2018 Behind Brewer and her daughter-in-law sprawled a sea of literal and figurative red — an early-bird line that twisted and turned on the streets hours before the doors opened, a pro-Trump and pro-Cruz crowd dressed in Make-America-Great-Again red. Manny Fernandez, The Seattle Times, "Line for Trump’s Houston rally formed more than a day in advance," 22 Oct. 2018 But Trump has never grasped the subtlety of his own messaging and has continued to insist on a literal wall. Alex Shephard, New Republic, "Donald Trump will never give up on The Wall.," 18 Jan. 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'literal.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of literal


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


1622, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for literal

Adjective and Noun

Middle English, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin litteralis, from Latin, of a letter, from littera letter

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about literal

Statistics for literal

Last Updated

28 Jan 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for literal

The first known use of literal was in the 14th century

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for literal



English Language Learners Definition of literal

: involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
: giving the meaning of each individual word
: completely true and accurate : not exaggerated


lit·​er·​al | \ ˈli-tə-rəl \

Kids Definition of literal

1 : following the ordinary or usual meaning of the words I'm using the word in its literal, not figurative, sense.
2 : true to fact She gave a literal account of what she saw.

Other Words from literal

literally adverb
literalness noun

Keep scrolling for more

More from Merriam-Webster on literal

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with literal

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for literal

Spanish Central: Translation of literal

Nglish: Translation of literal for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of literal for Arabic Speakers

Comments on literal

What made you want to look up literal? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


excited commotion or publicity

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

What did you just call me?! A Quiz

  • rows-of-various-emoji
  • If a member of the audience describes your speech as bombastic, does that person mean it is:
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

Syn City

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!