Literal vs. figurative language: Different or equal?

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Are literal and nonliteral utterances processed differently or do they follow the same comprehension routes? Relying on intuition, we might expect them to differ. Recent findings, however, do not corroborate this intuition. Evidence from research into moment by moment comprehension demonstrates that such questions are irrelevant to early comprehension processes. And although later integration processes seem more adept at distinguishing literal language from nonliteral language, this conclusion is also unwarranted. Instead, the factor that best accounts for differences occurring early in comprehension is the degree of salience of the instances involved (Giora, Rachel, 1997. Understanding figurative and literal language: The graded salience hypothesis. Cognitive Linguistics 7: 183-206; Giora, Rachel, 1999. On the priority of salient meanings: Studies of literal and figurative language. Journal of Pragmatics 31, 919-929; Giora, Rachel, in press. On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language. New York: Oxford University Press). Later processes, however, are governed by a functional principle that also does not distinguish between literal nonliteral language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)487-506
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2002


  • Activation
  • Irony
  • Literal/nonliteral language
  • Metaphor
  • Retention
  • Salience
  • Suppression


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