Interpreting metaphors and idioms: Some effects of context on comprehension

Andrew Ortony*, Diane L. Schallert, Ralph E. Reynolds, Stephen J. Antos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

276 Scopus citations


Two experiments are described in which reaction times for understanding target sentences or phrases in terms of a preceding context were measured. In Experiment 1, the target sentences followed either short or long contexts which induced either literal interpretations or metaphorical ones. Results indicated that only in the short context condition did subjects take significantly longer to understand metaphorical than literal targets. This interaction is explained in terms of the availability of appropriate schemata for interpreting the target. In Experiment 2, targets were phrases that could be given either an idiomatic or a literal interpretation. It was found that the comprehension of phrases receiving an idiomatic interpretation took no longer than the comprehension of those same phrases when given a literal interpretation, and there was some evidence that idiomatic interpretations were consistently faster. It is argued that both experiments can be accounted for in terms of contextually generated expectations. The processes required for the comprehension of figurative and literal uses of language seem to be essentially similar.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)465-477
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1978

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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