adverb lit·er·al·ly \ ˈli-tə-rə-lē , ˈli-trə-lē , ˈli-tər-lē \

Definition of literally

1 : in a literal sense or manner: such as
a : in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression
  • He took the remark literally.
  • a word that can be used both literally and figuratively
b used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or description
  • The party was attended by literally hundreds of people.
c : with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly
  • The term "Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French.
d : in a completely accurate way
  • a story that is basically true even if not literally true
2 : in effect : virtually used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible
  • will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice
  • —Norman Cousins

Should literally be used for emphasis?

Sense 2 is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse. It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

Examples of literally in a Sentence

  1. … make the whole scene literally glow with the fires of his imagination. —Alfred KazinHarper'sDecember 1968
  2. Even Muff did not miss our periods of companionship, because about that time she grew up and started having literally millions of kittens. —Jean StaffordBad Characters1954
  3. Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry … than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. —James JoyceDubliners1914
  4. … yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit. —William Makepeace ThackerayPunch30 Oct. 1847
  5. Many words can be used both literally and figuratively.

  6. He took her comments literally.

  7. He's a sailor who knows his ropes, literally and figuratively.

  8. The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.

  9. The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn't literally true.

Recent Examples of literally from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'literally.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Origin and Etymology of literally

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up literally? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!


excessive admiration or flattery

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Difficult Spelling Words Quiz

  • alphabet-pasta-spelling-help
  • Which is the correct spelling?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Word Winder's CrossWinder

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!