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Review of   Interpreting Figurative Meaning

Reviewer: Donatella Resta
Book Title: Interpreting Figurative Meaning
Book Author: Raymond W Gibbs Herbert L. Colston
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 24.1751

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The book “Interpreting Figurative Meaning”, by Gibbs and Colston, examines very important, but still unsolved, questions related to the processing and interpretation of figurative language. The main aim is to overview available evidence and propose a “theoretical umbrella” framework of figurative language interpretation that may account for the diversity of previous approaches. Indeed, plenty of theories and experimental studies have contributed to create a complex picture of figurative language and a number of confusing conclusions. The book by Gibbs and Colston offers a comprehensive overview of the available theoretical approaches and empirical work --from psycholinguistics to neurolinguistics -- and paves the way for a new approach to figurative language interpretation, namely, the “dynamical overview of language” (p. 339). The book is intended for audiences interested in figurative language from both a theoretical and experimental point of view at all levels. It is also suitable for beginners, since it is detailed but not excessively technical.

The book is composed of seven chapters (including an Introduction) that guide the readers through a series of outstanding questions and possible new research lines.

The introductory chapter sets up the core focal points of the book. The authors discuss how the cognitive effort required to interpret figurative meanings and the derived cognitive effects have been discussed in previous literature. The chapter introduces all the main issues that the book tries to solve, outlining both the merits and shortcomings of existing studies on figurative language.

Chapter 2, entitled “Identifying figurative language”, addresses the specificity of figurative language, as opposed to non-figurative language. Experimental studies assume that figurative language is somehow “different” from non-figurative language (often addressed as “literal” language). The authors raise skeptical questions about the definition of “figurative” and “literal” and the reliability of the assumptions behind this difference. They try to evaluate attempts to identify figurative language and meaning and point out that the dichotomy between “figurative” and “literal” is based on an insufficient description of what is “literal”. They argue that “literal” may not refer to the same conceptual entity across experiments (p. 22). The widely accepted idea of a literal‒figurative continuum (Giora, 2002) is considered problematic since it may not fully include, for example, poetic instances of figurative language, which differ from literal language along several dimensions.

In Chapter 3, entitled “Models of figurative language comprehension”, the authors review the most important theoretical frameworks in which experimental data on figurative language comprehension have been framed. They start from traditional models, namely the Standard Pragmatic View (Grice, 1989), as opposed to the Direct Access View (Gibbs, 1994). As widely discussed, both of these traditional models deal with the early stages of processing and argue about whether the comprehension of figurative language passes through a mandatory step of literal meaning comprehension and rejection (Grice, 1989) or is direct (Gibbs, 1994). Both approaches are supported by a wide range of online studies -- including a wide number of very sensitive online studies such as Event-Related Potential (ERP) studies -- that actually do not give a definite answer to the literal-first question (cf. Bambini & Resta, 2012). New models, supported by behavioral findings, are also reviewed. Specifically, the Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora, 2002), the Constraint Satisfaction View (Katz & Ferretti, 2001), Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995/2008; Carston, 2002), Conceptual Blending Theory (Fauconnier & Turner, 2002), Embodied Simulation Theory (Barsalou, 2008), and the Dynamical Systems View (Gibbs, 2006) are all discussed.

In Chapter 4, entitled “Interpreting specific figures of speech”, Gibbs and Colston sum up empirical research concerning the main instances of figurative meaning: metaphor, metonymy, idioms, irony, and proverbs. They suggest that it is unlikely that a single theory is able to account for the variety of existing figurative language uses. The authors address this issue by discussing two main points. First, regarding the materials used in experimental protocols, the choice of specific stimuli may strongly affect results. If stimuli do not sufficiently represent real figurative language use, neither will the results. Second, concerning the tasks used in experimental protocols, one should keep in mind that the use of a specific task, or alternatively, of no task, affects the results -- as confirmed by neurolinguistic evidence -- and that some tasks, such as those used in psycholinguistics, do not help in understanding the real process of comprehension.

Chapter 5, entitled “Indeterminacy of figurative experience”, examines the communicative role of figurative language in depth and pays attention to how figurative language conveys complex social and pragmatic meanings. A separate section is devoted to each trope, namely metaphor, metonymy, idioms, proverbs, and irony. The detailed theoretical framework is enriched by a discussion of the main empirical findings regarding each specific trope, involving several experimental techniques (e.g. ERP, functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and Eye Tracker). The discussion shows that simply differentiating between the efforts required by figurative versus non-figurative language does not allow a full discrimination of the indeterminative nature of different figurative meanings and the way people experience them.

Chapter 6, entitled “Factors shaping figurative language understanding”, describes the factors that affect figurative language comprehension. The focus is on a multiplicity of factors that include, but are not limited to, experimental materials, which are often addressed as the fundamental element to modulate while designing experiments. Specifically, the discussed factors are people, language materials, understanding the goal/task, and empirical methods used to assess understanding. Within each factor, some possible modulations are reviewed and some others are suggested. For example, differences due to “people” are discussed in terms of age, language experience, gender, occupation, culture, political backgrounds, cognitive differences, bodily experience/bodily action, geographic origin, personality, social relationship and common ground. Detailed references to previous literature (if available) are provided.

Chapter 7, entitled “Broadening the scope of figurative language studies”, provides a final summary of research on figurative language and outlines the authors’ recommendations for future research. According to them, future studies should present a more precise vision of figurative language, while paying more attention to its communicative power and its underlying cognitive architectures, without disregarding real-contexts of use. Their proposal is summed up in five points: (1) using realistic speech and writing; (2) paying attention to experimental effects caused by multiple interacting forces; (3) seeking convergence between different levels of analysis; (4) analyzing the temporal unfolding of figurative language across a variety of discourse types and knowledge domains; (5) situating research findings within the wider context of brains, bodies, and world interactions. A context-sensitive dynamical approach is claimed to capture real differences in how people use and are affected by figurative language. The Dynamical Overview of Language, a theory not specifically concerned with figurative language, is considered relevant to a correct explanation of people’s use and interpretation of figurative meanings, and is identifiable as the authors’ proposal.


Gibbs and Colston present a comprehensive and detailed review of the available findings related to figurative language research. The book also highlights shortcomings, both in experimental designs and interpretation of data, and opens up several new research lines. The book may be considered one of the most complete reviews of figurative language. The authors have fully achieved the goals expressed in the introduction, namely to critically evaluate recent empirical work on figurative language, and to propose a theoretical umbrella that can accommodate data.

The book enters a long-lasting tradition and it is outstanding for its high quality. Summing up the main questions raised by the authors may allow for understanding the role of the book within the context of previous literature on the topic. The first question addressed concerns the oversimplification of the label “figurative language” versus “literal language” and the assumptions behind this differentiation. “Figurative language” refers to a highly complex set of phenomena based on different conceptual assumptions that are likely to evoke very different cognitive effects. Scholars must be aware of these issues. The second question concerns criticisms toward all aspects involved in figurative language comprehension, namely the materials, the people, the communicative context, and the reliability of the indicators of people’s online processing when encountering figures of speech. Researchers are strongly encouraged to investigate the modulation of these factors.

Several merits of Gibbs and Colston’s work should be acknowledged. First, they have made room for all approaches to figurative language, which allows the reader to have a comprehensive view of the questions at hand. Second, they have addressed quite complex experimental issues without overburdening the reader with excessive technical details. For example, ERP, fMRI, and Eye Tracker studies are discussed while avoiding excessive technical details that non-experts might not understand. The result is a book that helps experts recapitulate what was previously known about figurative language in the most complete way, and as such, beginners gain an extensive picture of issues and, arguably, may be prepared to start their own research lines. At both levels, the book provides scholars with the tools required to derive remarkable research questions.

Interestingly, the book sheds light on the complexity of studies on figurative language by paying attention to different kinds of tropes and a number of issues that are not often addressed in the literature (e.g. among others, the modulation of features concerning subjects). For this reason, Gibbs and Colston’s book is a valuable addition to the existing series of books on figurative language, which has focused mainly on metaphor (e.g. Gibbs, 2008). It represents a complete “handbook” for those who would like to address the issue of figurative language, from both a theoretical and experimental point of view, with references to the most outstanding problems.

The need for a comprehensive account of figurative language, and of an “umbrella” theory, emerges as a necessary condition for reconciling the variety of available accounts and interpretations. Interestingly, Gibbs and Colston propose a new vision of figurative language and point toward communicative effects and cognitive architectures as they are modulated in real-world contexts.

Overall, this well-organized and highly stimulating book is a major contribution to figurative language studies and paves the way for greater attention to context and ecologically valid materials and tasks in experimental research on figurative language, without disregarding a closer look at theory.


Bambini, Valentina & Donatella Resta. 2012. Metaphor and experimental pragmatics: When theory meets empirical investigation. Humana. Mente--Journal of Philosophical Studies 23. 37-60.

Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2008. Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology 59. 617-645.

Carston, Robyn. 2002. Thought and utterances: The pragmatics of explicit communication. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fauconnier, Gilles & Mark Turner. 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 1994. The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 2002. A new look at literal meaning in understanding what is said and implicated. Journal of pragmatics 34. 457-486.

Giora, Rachel. 2002. On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grice, Paul. 1989.Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Katz, Albert N. & Todd, R. Ferretti. 2001. Moment-by-moment comprehension of proverbs in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol 11. 17-37.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre, Wilson. 1995/2008. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Donatella Resta is Research Fellow in Linguistics at Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa, Italy) and collaborates with the CRIL Laboratory (Lecce, Italy). Her research interests concern neuropragmatics and, specifically, the neural correlates of literary metaphor.

ISBN-13: 9781107024359
Pages: 390
Prices: U.S. $ 99.00