lit·​er·​al | \ ˈli-t(ə-)rəl How to pronounce literal (audio) \

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 How to pronounce literality (audio) \ noun
literalness \ ˈli-​t(ə-​)rəl-​nəs How to pronounce literalness (audio) \ noun

Examples of literal in a Sentence

Adjective 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 The hotel was a literal afterthought, the rear end of a composition fronted by a 28-story, 45-unit condo tower that looks out on Flora Street, set back and above a retail pedestal, as the Arts District’s zoning demands. Mark Lamster, Dallas News, "At two new Dallas hotels, art is the draw," 21 Feb. 2020 The result is nearly uniform metal carbide particles—literal carbon copies—that can be produced cheaply at scale. Daniel Oberhaus, Wired, "Cheap Nanoparticles Pave the Way for Carbon-Neutral Fuel," 19 Feb. 2020 One of the core tenets of an indie label is to be inherently reactionary to the mainstream, to exist as a literal alternative, both creatively and financially, to the status quo. Eli Enis, Billboard, "'The New Normal': Why Indie Artists Are Releasing Music at a Much Faster Rate in 2020," 18 Feb. 2020 Many energy and power advances of the 20th century don’t involve combustion: Nuclear energy relies on a physical reaction rather than a chemical one, and renewable energies like solar, wind, and water power skirt combustion’s literal explosiveness. Vince Guerrieri, Popular Mechanics, "Why Fire Is the Greatest Tool of All Time," 17 Feb. 2020 The division between the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid became literal on Friday, as NBA officials placed an additional podium between the two during All-Star media interviews. Mark Medina, USA TODAY, "76ers' Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons explain how to coexist: 'Kind of scary how good we can be'," 15 Feb. 2020 People often feel like their voice isn’t going to have a lot of power, and obviously in Canary’s case, that voice has a very literal power. Brian Davids, The Hollywood Reporter, "How 'Birds of Prey' Writer Christina Hodson Crafted That Hair Tie Moment," 11 Feb. 2020 While Billie is no stranger to long, acrylic nails, these puppies are literal claws. Alison Caporimo, Seventeen, "Billie Eilish Rocks Nails So Long She Can Hardly Use Her Hands at the 2020 Oscars," 10 Feb. 2020 The list covers everything from steering wheels to shock absorbers, down to literal nuts and bolts, washers, springs and copper rivets. NBC News, "China set to lose out on production of 1M vehicles as coronavirus closes car plants," 5 Feb. 2020

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

Time Traveler for literal

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Statistics for literal

Last Updated

25 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for literal


How to pronounce literal (audio)

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 How to pronounce literal (audio) \

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

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for literal

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with 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).


See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

More Confusing Words—Quiz

  • cats on impossible timber
  • The magician ______ moved the selected card to the top of the deck.
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Dictionary Devil

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!