As the title says: Can someone give me an example of a figure of speech, that the hearer might realistically be confused and think was intended literally? Or someone makes a literal statement that sounds like a figure of speech?

I mean, something like, person A says, "Well, I guess I let the cat out of the bag," and person B says, "Oh, you gave away someone's secret?", and person A says, "No, I mean, I had the cat in a bag but it escaped." But something that wouldn't just be a joke, that might actually come up in a real conversation. It can be funny, but it has to be plausible as a genuine misunderstanding.

I'm working on a book where I'm trying to make the point that we all use both literal and figurative statements all the time and normally have no trouble understanding whether a statement someone else makes is intended literally or figuratively. I thought it would be good to give an example where someone might actually be confused.

I'm sure I've heard such statements, that I've had times where I said, "Oh!! I thought he meant that literally!" but for the life of me I can't think of a realistic example now.

  • Sometime it is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone has the same ability to reach through to the underlying meaning.
    – Bookeater
    Sep 7, 2015 at 17:36
  • @Bookeater Sure. I'm looking for examples where someone might realistically, plausibly be uncertain. A different person in the same situation might instantly realize the intended meaning. Certainly someone who had more information could know the intended meaning. But I just need a case where if someone said, "Bob said X and I wasn't sure if he was being literal or figurative", that we wouldn't automatically respond, "Oh come on, obviously he was being literal!" or "... being figurative!"
    – Jay
    Sep 16, 2015 at 16:47

4 Answers 4


I can think of a few.

A synecdoche like "I bought a new set of wheels" where a car is actually meant can be taken literally.

Also an understatement like "It's just a scratch" when someone is injured who habitually downplays things like that can slip by when the habit isn't known.

An oxymoron like "jumbo shrimp" is so established few will notice it at all.




The answer is in the question: literally.

These days 'literally' also means literally the exact opposite, when used figuratively to mean 'figuratively.'

'When he told me what he earned, I literally fell off my chair.'

If somebody told me that, I would have no idea whether he fell off the chair or not.

  • Oh, I had to read that twice to get it. Cute example!
    – Jay
    Sep 16, 2015 at 16:48
  • Shouldn't the last statement be "I literally would have no idea..."? :-)
    – user
    Jan 30, 2018 at 19:05

The best example I can think of is "Flip a car." It can be taken as it was fixed up and sold for profit or wrecked, but either way the car is gone.

"What happened to your old Camry?"
"I flipped it"
"Oh, how much did you get from it?"
"Enough to buy this Mustang"

  • Decent one. Yes, I've heard that phrase used both ways.
    – Jay
    Sep 17, 2015 at 4:29

EXAMPLE ONE: • "Shut up!" Indicating surprise, and not that you wish for the other speaker to shut up and stop speaking. For Example: "Amanda leaned over and kissed Ken, right there in Church!", said Rebecca. "Shut Up!", screeched Jill, upon hearing of the shocking behavior.

I believe a more recent version of the same is, "Shut the front door!" Again, intending to indicate surprise, and is not a literal request for someone to walk over and shut the front door of a dwelling.

EXAMPLE TWO: • "He/She needs to get his/her thumb out his/her a**!" For Example: "She needs to get her thumb out of her a**, and get in the right lane if she is going to drive so slow!" Meaning that the person needs to hurry up, and not that they literally have their digit inside their rectum, so it needs removing.

EXAMPLE THREE: Another version is, "He/She needs to get his/her head out his/her a**!" In example: "He needs to get his head out of his a**, and start to manage his staff properly!" In this case, the phrase refers to someone that needs to stop being or acting stupid, and their need to act/be more intellugent. It does not literally mean that he/she has their cranium lodged in their rectum.


• "I was totally blown away!", used to indicate a high level of emotional surprise. For Example: "For my 21st Birthday, my friends surprised me with a trip to Maui! I was totally blown away by their generosity!" The birthday person did not get physically blown up by anyone, instead, he/she was deeply touch emotionally.

I hope that helps you. The Southern U.S. is a patch work of local slang, and colloquialisms. One would be very ill advised to take the context of most verbal conversations, as literally fact versus it beinb simply a colorful expression, while here, unless one knows both the speaker and the subject matter very well. Otherwise, the results could prove exceedingly humorous for others to witness, and rather embarrassing for the person that makes the literal assumptions during casual conversations.

  • 1
    Hi & welcome to the site! I think you may have misread the question, the OP is looking for sayings that could realistically be taken literally. While your "Example One" fits, I can't see most people mistaking your other examples for literal statements. Jan 30, 2018 at 17:36

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