Metaphors Will Blow Your Readers’ Minds. Literally.

Okay, maybe not literally.

Metaphors Be With You

Metaphor Lesson Two: The Difference Between Figurative and Literal

Not ready yet? Go back to basics.
Want to step back to the previous entry in the series? Go to Metaphor Madlibs.

Here’s where most people get lost: Several other parts of language bear a striking resemblance to metaphors. This lesson will discuss the difference between literal and figurative language to help you distinguish literal descriptions from metaphors.

No, Not Really

A metaphor is not a literal description. If you’re trying to tell if the language being used is figurative or literal, just ask yourself if the description is a matter-of-fact reality.

If the professor metaphorically has a stick up his ass, he is probably a no-nonsense, less-than-fun guy.

Professor Stick: Metaphorically

If he literally has a stick up his ass …

Professor Stick: Literally

the poor man probably just had a terribly painful and embarrassing accident.

Where the Lines Blur

The division between literal and symbolic descriptions can sometimes be blurry. For example, if someone says My boss is the devil, they are probably speaking metaphorically. However, if they honestly believe that their boss is the devil in disguise (or if they are actually working for the Big Guy Downstairs), this becomes a literal description.

Big Guy Downstairs

Image courtesy of South Park Studios

Another example of this is a HIMYM dialogue between Robin and Ted. In this episode (season 3, episode 8), Ted is getting on Robin’s case for misusing the word “literally.” Late in the episode, we get this conversation:

Robin: I literally want to rip your head off!
Ted: You mean figuratively!
Robin: No, I literally mean, literally.

Many figurative descriptions come from literal, but unlikely, possibilities—so the distinction between literal and figurative may not always be apparent at first glance.

The HIMYM dialogue also give us a useful tool for checking if our metaphors are metaphors.  You can apply the “literally” test by pretending the word “literally” is stated right after your metaphor. Does this change the meaning? Does it sound ridiculous? If so, your language is figurative.

If you’re still having trouble distinguishing literal descriptions from figurative ones, imagine you’re giving the description to an off-world alien that takes everything you say at face value. Would they have a clear understanding based on your description? If so, your description is probably literal. If not, it’s probably figurative.

Why People Literally Act Like Idiots

I’m hammering this lesson in, but isn’t it a fairly obvious distinction? Yes and no. Using “literally” incorrectly is a common phenomenon, and is stems from a simple but strangely logical misstep.

When we say literally in conversation, we are indicating that we aren’t exaggerating, falsifying information, or otherwise attempting to mislead our listeners. If I say, “I literally ate, like, a mountain of burgers,” I’m probably not claiming to have accomplished that feat of indigestion. Rather, I’m saying that the feeling I had after eating a lot of burgers honestly felt like I’d eaten a whole lot more. While I’m using both metaphor and hyperbole (which we’ll discuss in the next lesson), I add “literally” so people know I’m not being flippant; I literally feel the figurative language captures the experience.

Doomed by misusing "literally."

Image courtesy of XKCD

In the world of academia, the misuse of literally is a major pet peeve, so those who want to delve into literary circles should avoid misusing the term. But when your friends casually molest this word (literally!), try to give them a break. The word serves a communicative function. Just send them to this entry if you want to illuminate them on the finer points of figurative language. And if you want to see some of my further thoughts on the changing definitions of the word, check out this entry.

Ready to practice? Click the link below to play “the literally game.”

Move forward to metaphor exercise 2:
The Literally Game