CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between literary and literally

TLDR: Literary is about books. Literally means exactly.

Good morning/afternoon/evening/night! Welcome to 2015!

Due to the fact that my New Year’s resolution was ‘do more writing’, I thought it would be good to start off the year with a brief note on the difference between the words literary and literally. Sitting next to each other, these two look distractingly similar, but fear not—their physical appearance is their only common trait.

literary (adjective)—concerning literature and its contents, procedure and analysis; possessing a style in formal writing

Great literary writers are not born every day.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a literary epic.

‘This piece is too literary in tone. Try something more natural.’

literally (adverb)—in a literal sense, precisely, exactly; a term of emphasis

‘There is literally no time for us to catch the train now!’ Dorris complained, looking at her watch. ‘We’ve missed it.’

‘I didn’t mean for you to literally pick me up just now, you know.’

‘My boss had literally, like, a hundred meetings this week and I had to make tea for every single guest!’

As you can see, these two words have no similarities when it comes to meaning or context. Phew! That just makes learning when to use each one that much easier.

Good luck!

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