Interpreting and evaluating metaphors

Roger Tourangeau*, Lance Rips

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

86 Scopus citations


Although several current theories concern the meaning of metaphors, relatively few empirical studies directly examine that issue. This paper reports a series of three experiments on how subjects interpret and evaluate metaphors. In the first, subjects characterized the meaning of metaphors (e.g., The eagle is a lion among birds), as well as their tenors (eagle) and vehicles (lion). The results suggest that many of the features in the interpretation of the metaphor are emergent and are not well established parts of preexisting conceptions of the tenor or vehicle. Conversely, many features thought to characterize both tenor and vehicle are not seen as relevant to the interpretation. In the second study, subjects rated features listed in the first study. The rating scales included salience, relationality, and distinctiveness-the key variables according to earlier theories of metaphor. These ratings indicate that, although they may help describe the features included in the interpretation of a metaphor, factors such as salience imbalance or relationality do not predict the rated goodness of the metaphors. In the final study, subjects judged which of two types of interpretation better captured the meaning of metaphors drawn from modern poetry. For each metaphor, one interpretation was based on features shared by the tenor and vehicle; the other was based on emergent features. Subjects overwhelmingly preferred the interpretations based on the emergents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)452-472
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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