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)

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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.
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective

Not every suggestion was literal (many never received the federal conviction that would open a person up for such a pardon, and one is a fictional character) but all were thought-provoking. Time Staff, Time, "President Trump Is Looking for Suggestions for Pardons. So We Asked 7 Historians for Their Thoughts," 21 June 2018 Lucy’s dissertation seemed to me to be a joke for the reader—not to be too literal. Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, "In Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, a Darkly Erotic Love Story Between a Woman and a Merman," 1 May 2018 The second interpretation of beauty matching is more literal — and a little concerning: Getting procedures in tandem so that couples can actually look like each other. Macaela Mackenzie, Allure, "Why "Beauty Matching" Is the New Plastic Surgery Trend Rising Among Couples," 21 Mar. 2018 This quintessential supernatural horror film, featuring literal head-turning moments as a young girl is possessed by the devil, spawned many demon-centric movies to come 3. Kayleigh Roberts, Marie Claire, "13 Classic Halloween Movies to Screen for a Proper Fright Fest," 5 July 2018 That judicial approach typically involves a more literal interpretation of the Constitution as compared to broader rulings such as Roe. Author: Hope Yen, Ken Thomas, Anchorage Daily News, "Collins would oppose court pick with Roe v Wade 'hostility'," 2 July 2018 At a time of political divisiveness when views of the news industry itself have become starkly polarized, many jumped quickly to speculation about whether the metaphorical war on the media had become shockingly literal. Baltimore Sun,, "Terror, heartbreak in a newsroom," 29 June 2018 Nothing like trying to do your job, live your life and pretend to be normal when suddenly stress turns you into a literal hot mess of jerky hand movements and twitches. Danielle C. Belton, The Root, "A List of Every Stress-Related Illness I’ve Ever Had, Ranked From Horrible to ‘I Think I’m Dying’," 27 June 2018 The fastest way to keep the beach mood light and bubbly is with literal bubbles. S.pellegrino®, Bon Appetit, "A Beach Picnic, L.A. Chef–Style," 25 June 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.

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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


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


see literal entry 1

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Dictionary Entries near literal





literal contract



Statistics for literal

Last Updated

23 Sep 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for literal

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

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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

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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).


occurring twice a year or every two years

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