Literal is used to mean "the basic, unimaginative meaning of a word". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2003) says it is "confined to the simplest primary meaning of a word, statement, or text, as distinct from any figurative sense ... which it may carry - whether ironic, allegorical, metaphoric , or symbolic ...", and adds: "the literal truth is seen as being true in a basic and absolute way. If something is done literally, a person follows instructions 'to the letter', without flexibility or imagination". OED has "Used to denote that the accompanying n[oun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called."
In academic writing, do not use literal as it often is colloquially, as an intensifier in the opposite sense to that above.
'She was literally years late for breakfast this morning' is nonsensical.
- Etymological note: literal comes from the Latin littera, 'a letter [of the alphabet]'. It uses the same figurative meaning as the English idiom of 'following instructions to the letter ', i.e. precisely and in detail. This is seen as deadening in St Paul's remark about the traditional Jewish Law: "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6 ). This is also seen in the use among printers of the noun literal to mean a misprint of one letter, a typing mistake.
For more on the meaning of literal, see literal - figurative.