Metaphoric reference: When metaphors are not understood as easily as literal expressions

Kristine H. Onishi, Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Gibbs (1990) found that metaphoric referential descriptions take longer to read than literal references, in contrast to the usual result that metaphors and literal sentences are about equally easy to comprehend. This study was performed as an investigation of Gibbs's finding. In Experiment 1, subjects received story contexts in which characters clearly shared knowledge relevant to the metaphoric referring term. In Experiment 2, we tried to ensure that the intended referent was very salient by mentioning it in the sentence just prior to the crucial sentence. Neither of these manipulations eliminated the large response time advantage for literal referring expressions. In Experiment 3, the same metaphors were used as sentence predicates rather than as referring expressions: the metaphors were no more difficult to understand than literal paraphrases. Possible explanations for the difficulty of metaphoric references, as opposed to metaphoric predicates, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)763-772
Number of pages10
JournalMemory & Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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