The Cambridge and other dictionaries say that "literally" can be used as an emphasis on something. But there is another term: "in the true sense of the word", which to mea has a quite similar meaning to "literally" in this sense.

I have made two examples in order to define whether they mean the same or not:

    1. You Don't know him, but I have socialized with him for over 15 years. He's ___________________ a gentleman.

a. literally
b. in the true sense of the word

Note: I have not found any reliable dictionary including this term, but Ngram acknowledges that there is such a term in English. (I thought it might be a direct translation from another language to English.)

    1. I studied for two years and finally I managed to pass that exam; that was ________________ a difficult exam.

a. literally
b. in the true sense of the word

To me, both choices work equally the same in both examples above. I was wondering if I can use the these options interchangeably in my examples without any considerable change in meaning?

  • 8
    The two are not interchangeable in the literal sense of the word....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 11, 2019 at 9:01
  • Worth noting: Sometimes "in the true sense of the word" is expressed as "in the truest sense of the word," as in: Some were leaders in the company only because of their position and rank. They were not leaders in the truest sense of the word. (It seems to be a stylistic choice; I can't discern any difference in meaning.)
    – J.R.
    Sep 11, 2019 at 10:16
  • An answer has been accepted, but in lieu of "In the truest sense of the word" I'd go with the adjective form of consummate Sep 11, 2019 at 22:05

4 Answers 4


While "literally" and "in the true sense of the word" can mean essentially the same thing, they do not both always suit the same situations and are not interchangeable in the same sentence structure.

For example, I would probably not say:

He's literally a gentleman.

This is because "gentleman" has more than one "literal" meaning - one dictionary definition says it is "a polite or formal way of referring to a man". Saying "he's literally a gentleman" is like saying "he's literally male".

I would be more likely to say:

He's a gentleman in the true sense of the word.

As you can see, the structure of the sentence is different for a start, which is why they are not strictly "interchangeable". But this expression would be understood in this context because, while there are multiple definitions of "gentleman", it is clear you are referring to one specific "sense".

Referring to your second example, I would personally not say:

That was literally a difficult exam.

The word "literal" is heavily overused these days, sometimes incorrectly. Among people that care about language, its overuse is highly divisive.

The primary definition of "literally" is to make it clear you are not using a word or expression figuratively. An exam could not be figuratively difficult, and for that reason, many (including myself) would object to that usage. By the same reasoning, the phrase "in the true sense of the word" would be redundant too as there is no other "sense" of the word "difficult".

Others may disagree, as many dictionaries acknowledge a secondary use of "literally" to simply emphasise a statement, and some (but not all) even acknowledging that the word can be used to mean figurative - the complete opposite of its primary definition! I am not simply being pedantic, but as the word is sometimes misused, and even when one dictionary may support a particular use it is still divisive, I would caution an English language learner not to overuse it, because if native speakers can't even agree on its proper use then learners have little chance of getting it right!

  • 4
    +1 for (among other things) pointing out how "in the true sense of the word" should be moved to the end of the clause, and not used as an adjectival phrase preceding the noun. One other point I'd like to add about the difficult sentence: I think the word "literally" could work, but only if we were somehow trying to say that the test was supremely difficult; for example: That was literally the most difficult exam I ever took. (You've done a good job explaining why "literally difficult" on its own is awkward and should be avoided.)
    – J.R.
    Sep 11, 2019 at 10:09
  • 11
    Shameful to see someone on a language-learning forum refer to this usage as incorrect. "Literally" has been used in the figurative sense for many many years, centuries even, before becoming the bane of grammar pedants in recent years. I agree with the advice to stay away from it if you're just starting to learn English, though. Sep 11, 2019 at 18:19
  • 16
    @scatter It's hardly pedantry to object to people unironically using a word to mean the opposite of its established meaning. Some of us like for language to be useful, and there's no use to a word that has two diametrically-opposed meanings, but it's impossible to know which the speaker/writer actually means. So I'll keep saying that if you mean to say "figuratively", then just say that, and let "literally" literally mean "literally" again. Sep 11, 2019 at 21:21
  • 2
    I agree that language should be useful and that the post-modern stance that words do not actually have meaning is ridiculous. However I do often enjoy the misuse of the word literally - sometimes you can breathe new life into an idiom by claiming that it "literally" happened when it is still figurative. "Dude the rain is so heavy there are literally cats and dogs falling on the roof right now" makes you double-take and imagine that literal cats are falling on the roof. It is a false statement - but it is an effective word-tool. Of course this makes no sense when there is no figurative meaning.
    – Nacht
    Sep 12, 2019 at 0:09
  • 5
    @MontyHarder I personally hate the use of literally in the figurative sense, but it's been in dictionaries for centuries, as noted by scatter. As for words having opposite meanings, there's a word for it: contronyms.
    – Kirk Woll
    Sep 12, 2019 at 9:13

A word that fits both of your examples naturally and with your intended meaning is "genuinely". In the first case probably more idiomatic is "He's a real gentleman."


"Literally" means that while your statement could be interpreted as hyperbole or being figurative, you're saying that you wish to convey the true meaning of the word.

e.g. A man blames who blames a heart attack on stress due to problems with his wife might say, "she literally broke my heart!"

Your two examples don't really fit, although the gentleman possibly could, but not as you've written it.

Because the word "gentleman" doesn't necessarily mean that the man is really gentle (it can imply that he is, good, considerate, trustworthy or moral / honourable) I suppose you could say he is "literally a gentleman" about a man who is particularly gentle.

  • Thank you @colmde, but I was wondering if "in the true sense of the word" works in my examples.
    – A-friend
    Sep 12, 2019 at 15:21

"Literally" is misused frequently. More often than the current whipping boy "forte" which means loud. "Fort" is strength. The two lions at the entrance to a certain library are named...?

Anyway, literally is not an emphasis word, it's the true meaning of something.
Consider: If Bob is not very smart, saying he's "literally a rock!" out of frustration communicating with him makes a point but is incorrect. If Bob is a granite statue, "literally a rock!" is correct.

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