A common way of referring to people is with figurative language. People can be referred to metaphorically, as in calling a terrible boxer "a creampuff," or metonymically, as in calling a naval admiral "the brass." The present studies investigated the anaphoric inferences that occur during comprehension of figurative referential descriptions. Subjects read short narratives, each ending in either a literal or figurative description of another person. Immediately after the last line of each text, the anaphoric antecedent for the description of another person. Immediately after the last line of each text, the anaphoric antecedent for the description was presented in a probe recognition task. The results of three experiments indicated that metaphoric and metonymic referential descriptions reinstate their antecedents in the course of comprehension. Subjects were faster at reinstating the antecedents for literal referential descriptions than at reinstating metaphoric and metonymic descriptions. Moreover, people understand metaphoric referential descriptions more easily than they do metonymic ones. The implications of these findings for theories of anaphora resolution and figurative language comprehension are discussed.
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