Writing Wednesday: What’s the difference between literally and figuratively?

Last weekend, a couple friends asked how I had spent the previous night. I told them I had been with some other friends at a bonfire/cookout/corn maze–well, you get the idea. However, I didn’t stay for the scheduled hayride because it was getting too late, and I’m an old lady who needs her beauty rest. 🙂

As I was explaining this, I said, “So while my younger friends were getting on their hayride, I was literally–oh, no wait, not literally–figuratively hitting the hay.”

They laughed. “You caught that mid-sentence?”

Hey, what can I say? I’m a trained professional.

So thanks to my friends, I’ll now share with all of you the difference between literally and figuratively, a mistake that is made so often it’s figuratively killing me.

When we say literally, we mean that the action is in fact happening exactly as we are saying it. However, that’s not how most people use it. They use the term literally when they are actually using a figurative expression. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciences that literally just means really, but it doesn’t.

For example, if someone says, “It is literally raining cats and dogs out here,” then they are using the word literally incorrectly. Cats and dogs are not actually falling from the sky. They are using a figure of speech (and a cliche at that), so they are speaking figuratively not literally.

When I said to my friends that I was “hitting the hay,” I did not mean that I was actually taking a bushel of hay and beating it with my fists. “Hitting the hay” is an old expression for going to sleep. (I believe it stems from old beds being stuffed with hay.)

If you hit these haystacks with an arrow, then I guess you literally are "hitting the hay.

If you hit these haystacks with an arrow, then I guess you are literally “hitting the hay,” but if you’re going to sleep, then you are only figuratively “hitting the hay.”

So the next time someone says, “I’m literally dying here,” ask them what they’d like on their tombstone.


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