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 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.
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Musk’s supporters are pretty literal and optimistic when interpreting his comments about Mars plans, but Musk has always planned for some steady stream of new traffic to bring fresh supplies or passengers. Caroline Delbert, Popular Mechanics, "Elon Musk Says His City on Mars Will Have to Pass This Acid Test," 20 Oct. 2020 Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray seems well-grounded ahead of his return to Texas, but the offensive line doesn't want that to be too literal. Katherine Fitzgerald, The Arizona Republic, "Cardinals offensive line still working to cut down on penalties, sacks," 17 Oct. 2020 Those words and identities are not literal or geographical. Apoorva Tadepalli, The New Republic, "The Rhetorical Weapons of Liberal Nimbyism," 14 Sep. 2020 Over the weekend, though, his campaign took a more literal one. Eric Walden, The Salt Lake Tribune, "4th District candidate Burgess Owens’ campaign HQ damaged by ‘runaway truck’," 27 Sep. 2020 This tension has become even more magnified with Covid-19, as some managers now have a literal view into the home life of their employees who work remotely, and may be making judgments about that employee. Lila Maclellan, Quartz at Work, "What most managers don’t know about leading diverse teams," 25 Sep. 2020 His intense experimentations in the literal and musical wild began. Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic, "The World Is Finally Ready for Beverly Glenn-Copeland," 24 Sep. 2020 Water is reduced from our literal lifeblood to a policy concern, a partisan issue up for debate. Tara Houska, Vogue, "What the Climate Movement Can Learn From Indigenous Values," 24 Sep. 2020 Breathtaking in the literal and metaphorical sense. Heather Knight,, "Climbing S.F.’s beloved staircases with a guide who’s vowed to conquer them all," 22 Sep. 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.

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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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Statistics for literal

Last Updated

24 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

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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

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Comments on literal

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