Definition of literal in English:

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Pronunciation: /ˈlidərəl/
Pronunciation: /ˈlitrəl/


1Taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory: dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread
More example sentences
  • There's a conflation of two senses of the word ‘criminal’: the literal sense and the metaphorical.
  • The main reason is the bricks-and-mortar approach, in the metaphorical and literal senses.
  • Lighting of lamps has the meaning of eliminating the darkness in the literal sense, and metaphorically it means to overcome and gain the knowledge of Enlightenment.
1.1Free from exaggeration or distortion: you shouldn’t take this as a literal record of events
More example sentences
  • If some MPs feel there is no sense in what I say, then they only have to check the Hansard, which is supposed to be a literal record of what is said in Parliament.
  • Given its propensity for recording literal truth, the camera seems at odds with the interpretive truth of the art on the walls.
  • The postcard simply provides a literal record of a time and place.
strict, factual, plain, simple, exact, straightforward;
unembellished, undistorted;
objective, correct, true, accurate, genuine, authentic
1.2 informal Absolute (used to emphasize that a strong expression is deliberately chosen to convey one’s feelings): fifteen years of literal hell
More example sentences
  • It was a literal hell for me, and I'm glad that I have recovered.
  • The teleplay begins as a simulated documentary about the impact of a nuclear strike on Sheffield, but ends up as a coolly Bergmanesque vision of a literal hell on earth.
  • Anyway, high school was a literal hell and JC and I both hated it.
2(Of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.
Example sentences
  • He decided to undertake not only the literal translation of the text itself, but also three types of interpretation.
  • It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.
  • Now here's a literal translation of Der Spiegel's text.
word-for-word, verbatim, letter-for-letter;
exact, precise, faithful, close, strict, accurate
2.1(Of a visual representation) exactly copied; realistic as opposed to abstract or impressionistic.
Example sentences
  • We have become uncomfortable with the idea of literal representation when we make monuments.
  • An experienced professional photographer can capture the feeling of a space, providing more than simply a literal representation.
  • It basically misrepresents the film as a literal representation of its title.
3 (also literal-minded) (Of a person or performance) lacking imagination; prosaic.
Example sentences
  • She was relatively literal-minded, although a bit dreamy.
  • Let's say you're literal-minded enough to look for the meaning in everything, that you check the placards next to abstract paintings and you couldn't buy Ulysses without an authoritative guide to explain the references.
  • To the poet, the scientist seems unimaginative and literal-minded - with his head buried in the ground of facts, incapable of comprehending the larger significance of what he does.
4Of, in, or expressed by a letter or the letters of the alphabet: literal mnemonics
More example sentences
  • The ideas come through although some, as over the weekend, may end up being more visual than literal now.
  • ‘You are a literal country, not a visual country,’ he says.


British Printing
A misprint of a letter.
Example sentences
  • Extensive mistakes may hardly count (as when the entire first edition was misprinted in italics), but literals can be crucial in a conflicted society which fetishes minor differences.
  • Apart from the distressing number of literals and homophones which infest my proof copy, my main criticism is that she never quite succeeds in bringing her quicksilver subject into full view.
  • In the end of course, there I was giving out about spelling and the piece itself was full of literals.



Pronunciation: /ˌlitəˈralətē/
Example sentences
  • Therefore, in Rembrandt's reasoning, a gardener was required and he, in his humble literality, painted Jesus as a gardener, with a spade in hand and a pruning knife in his belt.
  • For the time being, that literality faces a major scientific challenge.
  • Close-cropping and the primacy of grisaille - composed of complex black, luminous gray and iridescent white - keep the paintings away from the literality of seascape and any hint of tonal lyricism.


Pronunciation: /ˈlidərəˌlīz/ Pronunciation: /ˈlitrəˌlīz/
Example sentences
  • The use of olive oil is a personal reference to her grandmother describing her as having ‘olive’ skin, but more importantly, the fluid quality of the oil literalizes the idea of mutable identity.
  • For the first time in history the myth was literalized and historicized and localized in a person who was believed gradually - not originally - to be a historical figure.
  • If you want to literalize it, it's a brush-off to a subpar lover.


Pronunciation: /ˈlidərəlnəs/ Pronunciation: /ˈlitrəlnəs/
Example sentences
  • Her early pieces have a literalness that she later discarded in favour of a more open-ended sense of evocation.
  • As to literalness, the general rule here is to take passages which are meant literally literally and to take passages which are not meant literally unliterally.
  • But it should only be attempted if the critic first honors the poem's literalness, because the poem's cold power is in its literalness.


Late Middle English: from Old French, or from late Latin litteralis, from Latin littera (see letter).

  • letter from Middle English:

    English adopted letter from Old French in the 13th century. Its ultimate source is Latin lit(t)era, from which literal (Late Middle English), literature (Late Middle English), and alliteration (early 17th century) also derive—the Latin word meant ‘written communication or message’ as well as ‘letter of the alphabet’, and both senses came over into English. The phrase to the letter ‘to the last detail’ has a parallel in French au pied de la lettre, which people of a literary bent have also used in English. See also alphabet

Words that rhyme with literal

littoral, presbyteral

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: lit·er·al

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