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 The playwright has Dante's Inferno in mind, but don't look for the parallels to be too literal; in his script notes, Cain likens Reeves' scene with a psychiatrist to the Purgatorio, where fire cleanses sinners rather than punishing them forever. Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Next Act Theatre's '9 Circles' puts a soldier and a system on trial for war crimes," 28 Apr. 2021 Perhaps his most indelible contribution to my life was quite literal. Nandini Balial, Wired, "How Stardew Valley Bridged a Connection to My Grandfather," 26 Apr. 2021 The relevance of the Japan Society exhibition to American infrastructure plans is not so much literal as philosophical. Jonathon Keats, Forbes, "This Exquisite Exhibit Of Traditional Japanese Carpentry Can Teach America How To Build Back Better," 6 Apr. 2021 What ensues is a sometimes mind-bending adventure both on the train and in dream worlds, with protagonists facing down personal demons while also fighting the literal one. Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times, "Review: Anime megahit ‘Demon Slayer’ is here to thrill and confuse," 21 Apr. 2021 Or even made literal with the subject at hand, the harmony of the long drive where your attention might wander away from any thought related to the road but the miles aren’t ticking down fast enough. Washington Post, "Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ is a beautiful ballad. This 33-minute cover version takes it to a whole new place.," 3 Apr. 2021 The new plan would solve this problem with a bit of quite literal outside of the box — or rather, outside of the triangle — thinking. Mark Lamster, Dallas News, "Why Dallas should be grateful for a Thanks-Giving Square makeover," 18 Mar. 2021 Murphy’s desire to center A-listers is made most literal in The Prom. Jackson Mchenry, Vulture, "With a big Netflix deal and the power to green-light almost anything, Ryan Murphy has become the ultimate insider. And his work is suffering.," 4 Jan. 2021 Coming out of the dashboard was a figurative Wyoming in counterpoint to the literal one that Giamatti was seeing through the windshield. Paul Elie, The New Yorker, "Paul Giamatti Prefers to Read Melville," 3 Dec. 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

10 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 16 May. 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

Comments on literal

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