Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Xinxin Yan (UCL)

Title: ‘Like a rolling stone’: How do similes differ from literal comparisons?

Abstract: There have been very few theoretical and empirical works in pragmatics that studied the uses of similes and their relation to literal comparisons (LCs). Under the relevance-theoretic framework (Sperber & Wilson, 1986; Carston, 2002), I argue that literal and figurative comparisons have no genuine, clear-cut distinctions in their uses and mental processing. However, the fact that similes convey figurative meanings by comparing entities that are literally not alike calls for an extra step of ‘property loosening’ on the basis of the mechanism employed in interpreting LCs. This additional pragmatic operation might lead understanding similes to be more difficult and effort-costing than LCs. Property loosening also leads simile interpretation to contain more ‘emergent properties’ than the interpretation of LCs.

The hypothesised differences have been tested experimentally from two perspectives: via on-line comprehension time measurement and off-line interpretation comparison, where the same set of target stimuli was employed. A timed sensicality judgement study was carried out to compare the response accuracy and latencies of similes and their comparable LCs. Participants were all native English speakers who were asked to judge if a comparison statement makes sense or not as quickly and accurately as possible. Results revealed that similes were misjudged as meaningless much more frequently than literal comparisons and their processing also tends to take significantly longer time to complete. The number of emergent properties derived in people’s interpretations of similes and LCs was also compared using a production task. Results confirmed that similes tend to evoke a remarkably greater number of emergent properties.

The findings indicate that while similes and LCs share a common basic processing mechanism, their interpretation does differ significantly in terms of the amount of cognitive effort involved and the contextual effect achieved.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

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Nov 30 2021 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2021-11-30: ‘Like a rolling stone’: How do similes differ from literal comparisons?

Online via link invitation