Definition of literal in English:



  • 1Taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.

    ‘dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread’
    • ‘When we got there, we realised that the haunted house was a literal house in a residential neighborhood.’
    • ‘Carter's father has been captured on a moon transformed into a literal hell.’
    • ‘Hence, we should take the description of the center of gravity in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.’
    • ‘So finally, one blustery weekend last winter, he got down on literal and proverbial bended knee and offered up a very impressive diamond.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Such representations of it are less than attentive to the literal force field of antagonisms it creates.’
    • ‘His figures are neither idealised nor recognisable; they tell no literal story, yet they leave indelible impressions on the viewer.’
    • ‘Well, he most likely doesn't mean that in a literal sense.’
    • ‘His is a cinema of whimsy in the most literal sense of the word, and from his impulsive choices ultimately emerges the playfulness the word typically connotes.’
    • ‘Ideas about the soul were linked to notions of resurrection of the body, and from the third century to the late Middle Ages many theologians emphasized the full and literal resurrection of the body after death.’
    • ‘The main reason is the bricks-and-mortar approach, in the metaphorical and literal senses.’
    • ‘Appending ‘frankly’ to almost any remark made in public turns that remark into a literal lie in two senses.’
    • ‘The term ‘flat,’ in its central, literal meaning, is an absolute term.’
    • ‘If it collapses, it may be in the literal sense rather than the economic.’
    • ‘It would make his move towards a criticism of absolute time both figurative and literal.’
    • ‘Rarely has a film gathered such visual poetry from the literal and figurative ashes of the dead forms it has left behind.’
    • ‘In the most literal sense of the word, it won't be a pretty sight.’
    • ‘When hearing this, remember not to take it so seriously that you ask the exact time, because the expression does not conform to its literal meaning.’
    • ‘That is, they are currently being produced to sell to outsiders, whether or not these are tourists in the literal sense.’
    • ‘There's a conflation of two senses of the word ‘criminal’: the literal sense and the metaphorical.’
    1. 1.1 Free from exaggeration or distortion.
      ‘you shouldn't take this as a literal record of events’
      • ‘As I understand it, this isn't allegory, but literal truth, a prophecy that will someday be realised.’
      • ‘But it has always been hard for anyone with any religious doubt to take the fantastic series of events described as literal truth.’
      • ‘This abuse is perhaps only the most literal expression of the punishment our culture imposes on bodies that dare to transgress from the socially prescribed norms.’
      • ‘In this article it is the ‘moral sensibility’ that is of interest, and we consider the paintings not as literal records of historical or social experience but as documents of beliefs.’
      • ‘The style of these reports is usually literal providing an extensive and detailed documentation of events in order to more effectively challenge prior state silence.’
      • ‘The nineteenth is the first century for which we have literal visual narrative records, whether of a war, a city, a statesman, a family, or a pet.’
      • ‘Speech conveys more than its literal meaning, and its undertones and nuances must be protected.’
      • ‘Coming from a footballer in his prime, however, with two small children and a third on the way, the expression undergoes a vigorously literal restoration.’
      • ‘If anything they look like African animist masks that convey the idea of an animal more than its literal shape.’
      • ‘Rather than presenting a literal succession of past events, these texts tell stories of origins as a way of communicating truths about the present.’
      • ‘A family tree book is a literal expression of this attitude: With a definite record in the book, people can see that they are closely related to a group.’
      • ‘Vocals feature more frequently, too, though more for their harmonic qualities and instrumental timbre than for any literal meanings they might convey.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘These are new recordings, and not literal duplications of what can be heard on the original film soundtracks.’
      • ‘The apparent discrepancy between divergence ages implied by genetic calibration techniques and a literal interpretation of the fossil record is discussed.’
      • ‘The postcard simply provides a literal record of a time and place.’
      • ‘Given its propensity for recording literal truth, the camera seems at odds with the interpretive truth of the art on the walls.’
      strict, factual, plain, simple, bare, exact, straightforward, stark
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    2. 1.2informal Absolute (used to emphasize that a strong expression is deliberately chosen to convey one's feelings)
      ‘fifteen years of literal hell’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘I didn't want to tell her that her son was making my life a literal hell.’
      • ‘Predictably, television programs - cable feasts on these events - has produced literal carnivals of talking heads.’
      • ‘He made my life a literal Hell, and he hurt us in more ways than just physical.’
      • ‘It was a literal hell for me, and I'm glad that I have recovered.’
      • ‘That world is a literal living Hell, so to survive, one must be tough!’
  • 2(of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.

    • ‘The English notes on the cover need some editing, though, because the spelling errors and the literal translations would be a bit embarrassing if this album were put on record shelves abroad.’
    • ‘I always thought this meant ‘from one day to the next’, which is a literal translation.’
    • ‘Now here's a literal translation of Der Spiegel's text.’
    • ‘They sometimes choose to mix up a literal translation of some such texts with what are Islamic legal provisions in the true sense of that terminology.’
    • ‘It's true not only across languages, where a literal translation of idiom may result in nonsense, but also across art forms.’
    • ‘However, its literal translation - ‘the seeking of times lost’ - strikes more of a chord with me.’
    • ‘He decided to undertake not only the literal translation of the text itself, but also three types of interpretation.’
    • ‘Johnson notes that this addition contains an anagram, extant in the Russian text, which would be missing in a literal translation.’
    • ‘This, he claimed, is a literal translation of the Arabic word order.’
    • ‘This is not a word-to-word translation, for the Urdu language is such that a literal translation cannot do justice to the original.’
    • ‘That happens to be the literal translation of the word ‘Zen.’’
    • ‘In its most literal translation, the Sanskrit word sangam can mean ‘the meeting point of three rivers’.’
    • ‘You can even skip this literal translation if you want, or read it second.’
    • ‘A more literal translation would be ‘conductor of war’ or ‘driver of war’.’
    • ‘This disease, known popularly as ‘rat fever’, which is the literal translation of its name in Malayalam, has been claiming many lives.’
    • ‘I told him the literal translation, but knew he would find it too wordy compared to the English phrase, and this was evident in his botched attempt to say it himself.’
    • ‘It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.’
    • ‘I tried a literal translation, but that sounds absurd.’
    • ‘Most of the sites warn that the automatic translations are somewhat literal, but add that they should be good enough for the person receiving them to understand.’
    • ‘This is a literal translation; the term does not necessarily refer to an old woman, but rather to the wisest member of a family, regardless of gender.’
    word-for-word, verbatim, line-for-line, letter-for-letter
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    1. 2.1 (of a visual representation) exactly copied; realistic as opposed to abstract or impressionistic.
      • ‘For a more literal expression of the separation of the exhibition function from the office function go east to White Cube in Hoxton Square.’
      • ‘This imagery can best be described as a concrete or literal form of representation, at least in comparison to the more abstract one found within Protestant religious practice.’
      • ‘It basically misrepresents the film as a literal representation of its title.’
      • ‘The painting seems to make the problems of an attempted literal, visual representation even more evident.’
      • ‘All of that is ultimately in pursuit of not the literal representation of a sound, but its essence.’
      • ‘‘We wanted a garden that felt like those places but that wasn't a literal copy of any of them,’ says Jeff.’
      • ‘I introduced the idea of perspective through its literal use.’
      • ‘Representation wasn't a literal matter: after all, few French people looked like the figure of liberty, Marianne, with her robes and cap.’
      • ‘He shames all the abstract artists, if you ask me; he finds the abstract in the literal, which is much more difficult.’
      • ‘An experienced professional photographer can capture the feeling of a space, providing more than simply a literal representation.’
      • ‘If you want the image that you record to be as close to a literal representation of the scene as technology permits, then of course #1 above is the only answer.’
      • ‘Her work is both abstract and literal using acrylic and oil on wood and canvas.’
      • ‘We have become uncomfortable with the idea of literal representation when we make monuments.’
      • ‘While some of the dances stressed literal dramatizations, others took a more abstract path.’
      • ‘The lack of literal connection between visual and auditory sources is not confusing.’
      • ‘I am not suggesting that we find a literal representation of the last fifteen years in the crime series on television.’
      • ‘It isn't supposed to be literal: it's a work of insinuation and abstraction, a story about the illusion of home told through the eyes of a man whose whole life has been based on illusion.’
  • 3(of a person or performance) lacking imagination; prosaic.

    • ‘It hasn't helped that our leaders are mostly literal-minded wonks.’
    • ‘And I detect a troubling literal-minded Phariseeism here, and will respond in kind.’
    • ‘At first sight this may seem a welcome antidote to the more literal-minded readings of earlier scholarship that tended to regard every seated man with a book roll in his hand as a professional philosopher.’
    • ‘This mythic quality is what he admired in the work, and yet his literal-minded insistence on shining a spotlight into every crevice makes the whole thing seem completely banal.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘The literal-minded insistence that all government rhetoric be entirely scrupulous strikes me, in view of the above, as weird.’
    • ‘But the bulk of them are so idiotic, so literal-minded, so surreal that they would barely merit mention if they were not part of a concerted attempt to smear him.’
    • ‘First let me get the polemical point out of the way: People who complain about superhero characters' vigilantism are being too literal-minded and missing the point.’
    • ‘For one thing, the protagonist is rather literal-minded; how many homes did she really have to visit before figuring out that death was universal?’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘It's just that the characters themselves are flattened by this implacably literal-minded manipulation.’
    • ‘Margie and I stared, unsure whether she had just said something breathtakingly incisive or mind-numbingly literal-minded.’
    • ‘The president was being awfully literal-minded.’
    • ‘If you'd prefer to remain optimistic about this movie's potential to rise above literal-minded conformity to the source material, then I suggest you don't watch the trailer.’
    • ‘What is, on paper, a primarily interior experience, stumbles on film with a clunky visual style that remains merely literal instead of challengingly literary.’
    • ‘So it would be an error to be too strict or literal-minded about application of the science fiction label.’
    • ‘She was relatively literal-minded, although a bit dreamy.’
    • ‘Burt's dry wit has, however, occasionally got him into hot water, especially among more literal-minded listeners.’
    • ‘Tonight it's given a spectacularly literal-minded and heterosexual interpretation and, for some reason, a cockney accent.’
    • ‘Indeed, scholars generally analyzed the documentary qualities of western art-a rather literal-minded approach that downplayed aesthetic considerations to concentrate on the issue of firsthand observation.’
    • ‘The movie brilliantly brings out the A-student egotism of this unrelenting, literal-minded young woman.’
    literal-minded, down-to-earth, factual, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, unsentimental, level-headed, hard-headed
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  • 4Of, in, or expressed by a letter or the letters of the alphabet.

    ‘literal mnemonics’
    • ‘‘You are a literal country, not a visual country,’ he says.’
    • ‘The ideas come through although some, as over the weekend, may end up being more visual than literal now.’


  • A misprint of a letter.

    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    misprint, error, mistake, slip, slip of the pen, keyboarding error, keying error, printing error, typesetting error, typing error, typographical error, corrigendum, erratum
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See literally


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