Literal and Figurative

Some people have great difficulty understanding figurative language. The reason behind this is not terribly difficult to discern—while the vast majority of people can easily distinguish between something literal and something figurative, there are a small group who think almost entirely literally. Life can sometimes be challenging to literal thinkers, through no fault of their own. Indeed it is rather those who can differentiate the two who appear to be more obtuse in their lack of understanding of literal thinkers.

A couple personal examples immediately pop into mind. I have a son who is very much a literal thinker, although as he has grown older he has learned to tell the difference better. A long time ago when he was a toddler he sat on my lap one evening and I read a book to him. It was a Disney book involving Donald and Daisy Duck. The main conflict in the story was that Donald and Daisy experienced an argument. On one page in particular Donald became saddened because of Daisy’s angry words towards him. The text read literally, “Donald’s eyes dropped.” A simple phrase which would be generally understood by most people. However, after I turned the page to continue reading my son flipped the page backwards and pointed towards the bottom. “Where’s his eyes?” he asked. “It said Donald’s eyes dropped.”

One year I had a 6th-grade class read Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, a play which happens to be my favorite by The Bard. I had one particular student in class who was nearly completely literal, much like my son in his younger days. At the point in the play right after Caesar had been assassinated, a character named Cinna yells, “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” I continued on with the play, but this young man blurted out, “Mr. Burton, was Caesar’s first name Tyranny? It said Tyranny is dead.” The rest of the class got it correctly, and they helped me explain kindly that Julius Caesar’s first name was not Tyranny.

Most of us have misunderstood something at one time or another, such as an idiom like “It’s raining cats and dogs.” We are usually easily persuaded of our errors, but I wonder at times about the constant challenges literal people face every day. I think and speak figuratively often, and I have often caught myself explaining to a student or sometimes the entire class what exactly I meant.


Fortunately the vast majority of individuals are not binary in their composition; that is, they are not either completely literal or completely figurative, but possess both qualities. I suppose the completely literal person has to be satisfied reading non-fiction or informational texts throughout life. Most literals I have taught struggle with fiction, especially in making inferences and discovering a theme. Wouldn’t it be tough going through life not being able to understand phrases most people implicitly understand, such as “Break a leg” or “That’s water under the bridge?” Living like that would be literal torture.

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