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)

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Other Words from literal


literality \ ˌli-​tə-​ˈra-​lə-​tē How to pronounce literal (audio) \ noun
literalness \ ˈli-​t(ə-​)rəl-​nəs How to pronounce literal (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.
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective After all, Buzz was a literal rocket scientist with a doctorate from MIT. Samantha Bresnahan, CNN, 16 July 2021 Many Southern Baptists considered these stories literal and believed Elliott had challenged the trustworthiness of the Bible by questioning the historical accuracy of Genesis. Susan M. Shaw, al, 2 July 2021 Christians who take a literal view of the Bible’s events surely appreciate that The Chosen aligns with their beliefs on these questions. Chris Deville, The Atlantic, 27 June 2021 Here’s the thing: The literal fires in this episode are much less terrifying than the metaphorical ones. Maggie Fremont, Vulture, 4 July 2021 Continuing this exercise in hyperbole, prosecutors wanted to recommend a nine-year sentence (which, to be fair, was justifiable on a literal, though not a practical, construction of the federal-sentencing guidelines). Andrew C. Mccarthy, National Review, 3 July 2021 Many Southern Baptists considered these stories literal and believed Elliott had challenged the trustworthiness of the Bible by questioning the historical accuracy of Genesis. Susan M. Shaw, al, 2 July 2021 Many Palestinian businesses face similar, often literal roadblocks to the production and export of their products. Maya Mokh,, 2 July 2021 With that, an ideological divide became a literal separation across platforms. Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic, 1 July 2021

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

Adjective and Noun

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

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Time Traveler for literal

Time Traveler

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

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Dictionary Entries Near literal



literal contract

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Statistics for literal

Last Updated

21 Jul 2021

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Jul. 2021.

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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 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

More from Merriam-Webster on literal

Nglish: Translation of literal for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of literal for Arabic Speakers


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