LINGUIST List 28.2447

Fri Jun 02 2017

Review: English; Cognitive Science; Philosophy of Language; Pragmatics: Colston (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 10-Oct-2016
From: Weiwei Zhang <>
Subject: Using Figurative Language
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Herbet L Colston
TITLE: Using Figurative Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Weiwei Zhang, Shanghai International Studies University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Since figurative language is pervasive in real world communication and has a higher potential for being ambiguous and misunderstood, the question, “Why don’t people [just] say what they mean?” (p. 3) (or “why does figurative language even exist?”), is frequently posed, especially by non-academic-language users. With evidences from multi-disciplinary study of figurative language, Herbert L. Colston’s book “Using Figurative Language” intends to answer this overarching question by considering the many kinds of figurative language and delineating different ways in which figurative language accomplishes pragmatic effects for both speakers and writers (p. 4).

This common question happens to be the title of the first chapter, which introduces the themes of the book and gives an overview of the subsequent chapters. Colston defines the notion of a “pragmatic effect” as “‘additional complex meaning’...accomplished by a speaker’s use of figurative language” (p. 5), and he also provides caveats on the overall treatment of figurative language and its pragmatic effects, given the different disciplines in which figurative language is studied.

Chapter 2 addresses the basic question of what the “additional complex meaning”, i.e. “pragmatic effects”, of figurative language is. First, Colston summarizes different treatments of pragmatic effects in terms of linguistic/philosophical theoretical accounts (e.g. Speech Act Theory, Gricean Theory, Relevance Theory) as well as psycholinguistic empirical accounts. Then, Colston points out that pragmatic effects differ from other categorizations, such as implicatures, positive cognitive effects, interpretive hypotheses and inference, since pragmatic effects are structural, embodied, psychological and sociocultural in nature. The recognition of the social and cultural sources of pragmatic effects can extend the scope of figurative language study in the sense of taking social situations such as age, ethnicity, gender, occupation and other variables into accounts when studying the subject.

Chapter 3, “What are the Pragmatic Effects?”, discusses the taxonomy of pragmatic effects produced by figures, i.e. the categorical structure of pragmatic effects. Acknowledging the heavy dependence on and interaction with the contexts of pragmatic effects, Colston shows us how difficult it is to delineate what kinds of pragmatic effects there are and then to explain what causes them. Colston categorizes pragmatic effects into general pragmatic effects (e.g. “ingratiation”, “mastery”, “persuasion”), which apply to the entire family of figurative language types, and pragmatic effects that are specific to single figures or figure families; for instance, “enhancing meaning” is most prominently implemented by metaphor (p. 73), and “objectification” is related to idioms and proverbs (p.74). For the underlying causes of various pragmatic effects in figurative language use, Colston discusses the linguistic, structural, juxtapositional, metapragmatic, social, psychological, associative, stylistic, and embodied causes with ample examples.

With the question of “How is Figurative Language Used” as the title, Chapter 4 mainly discusses the common ground in figurative language use. Colston pays the most attention to the common ground of figures such as metaphor, verbal irony, hyperbole, contextual expressions, idioms, and indirect requests, showing the important role of common ground for production and comprehension of those figures. Then Colston considers common ground from the viewpoint of mainstream cognitive psychology, stating that many psychological phenomena (e.g. memory, availability, automaticity, individual differences) may apply to a rethinking of common ground in figurative language. After comparing common ground in figurative versus nonfigurative language from three different aspects, i.e. appropriateness, aptness, and indirectness, Colston shows that some aspects might be somewhat more complex or weighty for some kinds of figurative language in particular situations. To answer the question of “how to use figurative language”, Colston demonstrates the impact of various pragmatic effects from the speaker perspective at the end of the chapter.

In the last two chapters, Colston attempts to provide a roadmap of empirical studies on figurative language, with Chapter 5 focusing on observational data from corpora and Chapter 6 on empirical evidence from psycholinguistic experiments.

Colston’s concern in Chapter 5 is what figurative language use by people actually is, including the issues of quantifying figures and assessing the pragmatic effects that occur as a result of a figurative usage. To quantify figurative language use of all kinds in all categories of usage, we first need to have a reliable identification procedure for the figure at hand in corpus data. Colston introduces identification procedures for several figurative forms, for instance, the MIP or more recently the MIPVU (Pragglejaz Group 2007; Steen et al. 2010) for metaphor identification, the VIP (Burgers et al. 2011) for verbal irony identification. After identifying and quantifying the figure, we need to assess whether and how often a pragmatic effect has occurred as a result of a figurative usage. Colston provides two general strategies as potential solutions: 1) measuring pragmatic effect prevalence in corpora much like what was discussed for measuring figurative language prevalences; 2) estimating pragmatic effect prevalence based on the effect’s likely occurrence with that figure. Colston also points out that multivariate analysis and modern statistical modeling approaches may be helpful in answering the prevalence question. Then, Colston discusses the ways in which figurative language and its pragmatic effects might be expanded to cover the constraints on figurative language use and pragmatic effects , such as time related constraints, structural constraints.

The last chapter (Chapter 6) provides the concluding remarks and broadens the perspective on figurative language use by treating figurative language as a complex social phenomenon. Neural and behavioral evidence shows that the use and comprehension of figurative language may be affected by a number of social, psychological and embodied factors. Colston therefore highlights the importance of context (discourse context, as well as the broader context of social, psychological components) on figurative language cognition. Then Colston presents a pragmatic effect organization based on clustering pragmatic effects around their core origins, e.g. cognitive side effects (arising from low-level cognitive process), positive cognitive effects (arising from relevance theory), and other sets of pragmatic effects arising from social, emotional processes. Finally, Colston advocates the expansion of figurative language research to embrace more complex modeling and analysis of figurative use and comprehension data, and to include multimodal, gestural and other paralinguistics systems.


As mentioned in the summary, the major goal of this book is to provide answers to the fundamental question, “Why does figurative language even exist?”. Colston efficiently achieves this goal. This book, a monograph which summarizes his earlier publications on figurative language since the 1990s, has several strong points.

First and most importantly, this book is comprehensive in scope. On the one hand, it incorporates interdisciplinary insights and explanations from linguistics, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, philosophy and other fields interested in figurative language. Furthermore, acknowledging figurative language as a complex social phenomenon, Colson includes multimodal, paralinguistic and metalinguistic research and embraces complex quantitative analysis and modeling techniques (e.g. Campbell & Katz 2012; Gibbs & Colston 2012). On the other hand, the book extends its objects of study from metaphor and metonymy, which are explored extensively in the field of Cognitive Linguistics, to irony, hyperbole, idioms and indirect requests. With detailed illustration and examples, Colson successfully shows the general pragmatic effects of figurative language as well as pragmatic effects specific to single figures or figure families.

Second, the layout of the book is logical and clear. The order of the chapters reflexive process of “theoretical framework-to-application”, with the first two chapters focusing on the definition and scope of pragmatic effects that figurative language affords its users. Chapters 3 and 4 review a wide range of studies on the designation and categorization of figures by their pragmatic effects. The final two chapters build a roadmap to applications for quantifying figurative language use and measuring pragmatic effects with evidence from both corpus-based studies and psycholinguistic experiments.

Third, the book includes numerous examples taken from authentic texts by speakers as well as various instances of pop culture (e.g. TV programs, novels, commercials, cartoons and others). At the same time, Colston uses many analogies to help readers understand abstract linguistic or psychological notions. For instance, he uses a food metaphor to explain out-of-context pragmatic effects (p. 66), reproduction to explain juxtaposition as a cause of pragmatic effects (p.90), and recipes to explain how figurative language is used (p. 133). Thus the reader-friendly writing style is suitable for both scholarly readers and non-academic readers.

The book has no major weaknesses, but minor issues may, nevertheless, be raised. Colston mainly focuses on the figures of metaphor, metonymy, verbal irony, hyperbole, and idiom, but disregards other kinds of figures (alliteration, onomatopoeia, anadiplosis for instance), which might also be interesting to rhetoricians, and even to scholars from linguistics, psychology, communication and sociology. Furthermore, some diagrams would facilitate the reading. For instance, for the metaphor for pragmatic effects, Colston uses Venn-like diagrams and terminology from speech act theory (p. 86). This would be easier to understand if Colston had added a graphic representation.

To sum it up, this book is a valuable contribution to figurative language research. It contributes insights in both theoretical and practical aspects of figurative language use and comprehension.


Burgers, Christian, van Mulken, Margot & Peter Jan Schellens. 2011. Finding irony: An introduction of the verbal irony procedure (VIP). Metaphor and Symbol 26(3), 186–205.

Campbell, John D. & Albert N. Katz. 2012. Are there necessary conditions for inducing a sense of sarcastic irony? Discourse Processes 49(6), 459–80.

Gibbs, Raymond W. & Herbert L. Colston 2012. Interpreting Figurative Meaning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pragglejaz Group. 2007. MIP: A method for identifying metaphorically used words in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol 22(1), 1–39

Steen, Gerard J., Dorst, Aletta G., Herrmann, Berenike, Kaal, Anna, Krennmayr, Tina & Trijntje Pasma. 2010. Method for Linguistic Metaphor Identification: From MIP to MIPVU. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


Weiwei Zhang is currently an assistant professor in the Institute of Linguistics at Shanghai International Studies University. She obtained a PhD (2013) in Linguistics in the Research Unit of Quantitative Lexicology and Variational Linguistics at University of Leuven. Her main areas of interest are metaphor/metonymy research, lexical semantics, corpus linguistics, and Cognitive Sociolinguistics.

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