Degrees of literality

Proposal for a 5-degree indexation for the literality of written text

With the rise of digital communication, most notably that via textual conversation, comes an increased uncertainty surrounding the nuanced interpretation of written text. One of the particular sources of unclarity that is exacerbated in digital communication in comparison to direct conversation, is the matter of literality. In this case, ambiguities are oft resolved by asking whether a statement or phrase is meant “literally or figuratively”. While the aim of this question is justifiable, it presumes a literalist dichotomy that has been denied by an increasing number of linguists. The resulting confusion and miscommunication can cause significant social and emotional damage. To resolve this problem, a more nuanced way of communicating the appropriate interpretation of a text is required.

We propose a 5-degree scale for assessing and clarifying to what extent phrases or statements are to be taken literally. This scale is explained and exemplified in Table 1. The degree of literality can be stated after the concerned text, as demonstrated in the examples.

In order to use and interpret the 5-degree scale of literality accurately and effectively, one ought to take note of several matters. First of all, being dependent on an individual’s understanding of “common sense”, the 2nd degree is subject to some variation, which can largely be explained by the background and personality of the author. For example, the text“There’s absolutely nowhere I wouldn’t travel. (L = 2º)” may or may not imply that the author would readily voyage to the moons of Jupiter, depending on whether or not they are, for example, an astronaut, an extreme agoraphobe, a six-year old, or a person with suicidal tendencies.

Furthermore, the 4th degree is generally the function of social convention and/or the awareness of likely consequences. As such, it may prove inaccurate when self-assessed, depending on the emotional state, amount of self-knowledge, and social accountability of the author. As a disclaimer, we cannot ensure that a literal execution of such claims is out of the question, and safety precautions may need to be taken depending on the severity of the proposed action.

Table 1. Explanations and examples for the 5 degrees of literalism


L Explanation Example
Implies absolute literal interpretation of text. This is the most objective, unambiguous degree, and simultaneously the most rare. “I literally jumped out of the plane in joy! (L = 1º)” means that the author was so overcome with joy that they physically jumped out of an actual plane.
Implies that text is to be interpreted within the reasonably assumable bounds of its potential meaning. The only exception to its literality are interpretations that contradict common sense. “I would do anything for my wife. (L =

2º)” means that the author would assume a new identity or donate a kidney to safeguard their wife’s wellbeing, but would not commit mass murder.

Implies that text is exaggerated in terms of its extent, but proportional to an objective truth. This is similar to the 4th degree, but is more easily translated into its 1st degree equivalent, as it offers a figurative analogy on the same scale. Furthermore, texts of the 4th degree are often distorted by emotion, whereas 3rd degree texts are written in a state of mental clarity that allows for a certain objectivity. “I could eat a horse right now. (L = 3º)”

means that the author would like to consume a large amount of food, but is aware that a horse would, in fact, be too much food for them to consume.

Implies that text is true to the emotional state of the author, but would lose its credibility if tested in practice. When working with the conventional dichotomous system, this degree of literality is most commonly misbranded,

typically by use of the term “literally” in the initial text.

“I could murder him at this point. (L =

4º)” means that the author’s anger is such that they happily entertain the thought of killing said person, but would not go through with it if given a genuine opportunity.

Implies that text has no literal significance

whatsoever, and serves only to express the

emotional state of the author or illustrate a

subjective interpretation of a situation.

“I was praying for the ground to just

swallow me there and then. (L = 5º)” implies that the author did not actually pray for such an event to take place, but is consciously employing this metaphor to express their emotional state at that moment.


Laurens de Mooij, Class of 2017, is a biology and environmental science major from Soest, the Netherlands.

Picture source:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Website Protected by Spam Master

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

Social profiles