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Literal and figurative language

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Many analyses of language divide linguistic expressions into two classes: literal and figurative. Literal language is thought to use the true meanings of words, while figurative language uses more poetic senses. In literal language, words denote what they really mean, while in figurative language, words denote other than what they really mean. In literal language, truth conditions work out well, while in figurative language, they may not.

Often, in this framework, figurative language can/must be reduced to the literal language in order to find out what it really means. So "When I first saw her, my soul began to quiver" might be thought to really mean "When I first saw her, I fell in love".

Note that not all analyses of language maintain a strict distinction between the literal and the figurative. Cognitive linguistics, in particular, may ultimately declare this distinction outdated. Consider what cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier[?] and Mark Turner[?] have to say:

what gets called literal meaning is only a plausible default in minimally specified contexts. It is not clear that the notion "literal meaning" plays any privileged role in the on-line construction of meaning. (Fauconnier and Turner, p. 69)

In other words, "literal meaning" is not a special sort of meaning, only the meaning we are most likely to assign to a word or phrase if we know nothing about the context in which it is to be used.

See also: metaphor, metonymy, and figure of speech.

To add

  • Why would someone want to divide language into literal and figurative? What is gained thereby? (Lakoff provides some insight here.)
  • Why would people prefer not to view language with this divide?
  • How does this connect to theories of truth?


  • Fauconnier and Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. Basic Books. New York: 2002.

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