Making the Unseen Seen: The Role of Signaling and Novelty in Rating Metaphors

Kathleen Ahrens, Christian Burgers (Corresponding Author), Yin Zhong

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Comprehension of metaphorical expressions differs with their degree of novelty. Conventional metaphors are typically comprehended as easily as literal sentences, while novel metaphors are responded to less quickly than their conventional counterparts. However, the influence of metaphor signals on the interpretability and acceptability of sentences with metaphors, especially their potential interaction with novelty, remains an open question. We conducted six online experiments among 1,694 native speakers of American English to examine how interpretability and acceptability ratings of individually presented sentences were affected by metaphor novelty and different types of metaphor signals. Across all six experiments, we consistently found that novel metaphors decreased the interpretability and acceptability of sentences compared to both conventional metaphors and literal controls. Signals, on the contrary, did not impact the interpretability or acceptability of the sentences. Moreover, only in experiment 3b did we find an interaction between metaphor type and signals. Specifically, when a metaphor was marked by double signals (i.e., both lexical signals and a typographical signal were added around the metaphorical keywords) vs. no signals, acceptability of novel metaphors increased, but acceptability of conventional metaphors decreased. We hypothesize that the double signaling of novel metaphors marks their novelty, making them more acceptable. By contrast, the double signaling of conventional metaphors may have been perceived as redundant, leading to a lower acceptability.
Original languageEnglish
Article number36
JournalJournal of Psycholinguistic Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024


  • Acceptability
  • Conventional Metaphor
  • Interpretability
  • Metaphor Signal
  • Novel Metaphor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • General Psychology


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