7 junio, 2024

Literal language: what it is, meaning, characteristics, examples

What is literal language?

He literal language It is the one that uses the words with their explicit meaning, so that the message is easily understood by the reader or listener. It does not use rhetorical figures, which is why it is considered the opposite of figurative language.

Literal language is used in all those situations in which the most important thing is that the receiver understands the message clearly. For example, when talking to small children: «don’t forget to put your toys away»; “pay attention to me when I talk to you”; «sit at the table to eat.»

On the contrary, an expression like «my heart is broken» does not belong to the literal language, since the word «heart» does not refer to the blood-pumping organ, but is a figurative way of referring to emotions and feelings.

Literal language features

1- It is used to transmit information as clearly and simply as possible.

2- Does not use rhetorical figures (metaphors, exaggerations, similes, irony, etc.).

3- It is the language used in cooking recipes, instructions for use of electronic devices, medicines or chemical products, press releases, dictionary entries and encyclopedias, among others.

4- It is denotative. This means that nothing is left between the lines or to the free interpretation of the receiver, but is expressed explicitly.

5- The term «literal» comes from Latin literalis and means to follow the text to the letter.

Where is literal language used?

Literal language is used in those contexts where an exact expression of ideas is required. Scientific, journalistic and legal documents are some examples.

In certain situations, its use is extremely important, because it guarantees that the information being communicated is a reality that is not open to interpretation.

In dictionaries: lexicographical language

The language of dictionaries and encyclopedias is known by the name of “lexicographical language”. This type of language is characterized by the objective of describing and explaining concepts so that they are understandable to all speakers of the same language.

For this reason, lexicographical language must be literal, regardless of embellishments, subjectivities or nuances that confuse the reader.

For example, the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines love as «feeling of affection, inclination and dedication to someone or something”. A concrete explanation that avoids aesthetic resources, even for such an abstract concept.

In science: scientific language

The language used in scientific research is known as “scientific language”. This type of language is intended to encode the observations and findings of science. In this way, they can be understood and verified by other scientists.

Therefore, one of the fundamental characteristics is the use of a literal language. Avoiding the use of symbolism and adhering as much as possible to the exact definitions of the concepts.

In informative journalism: journalistic language

The formal expression used in informative journalism is known as journalistic language. This type of language is the one used for the transmission of precise data, with the aim of being understood by the majority of the target audience.

In informative journalism, literal language is fundamental for its purpose of avoiding alternative interpretations. However, there are other journalistic genres such as the chronicle, where the use of rhetorical figures is common.

In the legal field: legal language

The official language used in the legal and governmental field is known as legal language. It is characterized by using words very precisely, because they have the objective of designating specific actions, be it a crime or the description of a bill.

For this reason, legal language is also an application of literal language. In fact, the literal meanings of words are sometimes exploited in order to defend a defendant or evade legal responsibility.

In daily life

Literal language is the simplest form of expression. It is used in everyday life to convey exact and necessary meanings to carry out actions or convey ideas.

Differences between literal language and figurative language

Use as few figures of speech as possible.

Use various rhetorical figures (metaphor, hyperbole, oxymoron, irony, etc.).

The most important thing is the message. This must be easily and clearly understood by the receiver.

The message is as important as the way it is expressed. Its objective is to capture the attention of the recipient, entertain him, amuse him.

It is used in informative texts, such as a recipe, a dictionary entry, an academic article, a scientific research report, etc.

It is the language of literary works, marketing and advertising, jokes and numerous everyday expressions such as: «I’m going to eat the world», «I was as silent as a grave».

It is denotative: the message is explicit, nothing is left to the interpretation of the receiver.

It is connotative: the essence of the message is transmitted between rhetorical figures, which forces the receiver to interpret them to understand the complete message.

Examples of literal language

It’s a very sunny day. It’s 40 degrees in the room. Jimena woke up at 10 in the morning. It took her 1 hour to get to school. The president’s brother works in a restaurant. Pedro weighs 60 kilograms.
It was raining a lot and I got wet.
Those pants are horrible.
Juan is a very tall boy.
That bag is heavy.
There was a lot of snow in the forest.
Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory medication. Many Ukrainian children had to leave their country because of the Russian invasion. Literal means that it reproduces what has been said. They did an investigation for the science subject. Do not take that medicine, as it is dangerous. That puzzle was very difficult to finish. Andrés knew how to play the guitar very well. He lived 100 km from the border with Guatemala. He was so tired that he slept for 12 hours straight.


(2020). Literal language and figurative language. Taken from gobiernodecanarias.org. (2021). Literal. Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. Taken from dle.rae.es. (s/f). Words with literal and figurative sense. Taken from classroomfacil.com. Cáceres Ramirez, Orlando. (2019). Difference between literal language and figurative language. Taken from aboutespanol.com. Greiner Mai, Herbert (ed.). (2006). Akal Dictionary of General and Comparative Literature. Madrid: Akal Editions.

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