How do we determine the intended meaning of a metaphor?

Essay by liolinnUniversity, Bachelor's April 2006

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When Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "all men are poets at heart," he might have been exposing a deeper truth than he realized. For even in the coldest, most calculating of minds there are indeed wisps of pure poetry. The metaphor, metaphore, or metaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denotes one kind of object or idea used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.

Metaphor Comprehension Theories

3-step Comprehension Model (Clark & Lucy, 1975)

Utterances may have intended meanings that differ from their literal meanings. According to Grice, the intended meaning is based on the cooperative principle maxims of conversation which are mutually agreed to by participants in a conversation. There is the maxim of quantity (say as much and no more than is needed), quality (only say what you believe to be true), relation (be relevant) and manner (be clear).

When one of the maxims is broken, an inference that the intended meaning is different from the literal meaning may be possible to make sense of the violation. For example, the utterance "It's cold in here" is an assertion of a self-evident fact in its literal meaning. However, in the assumption of the relevance theory, it may carry the intended meaning of a request "Close the door".

Though Grice's works on metaphors and language were generally more philosphical in nature, they sparked the 3-step Comprehension procedure (Clark & Lucy, 1975):

1. Derive Literal or Direct Meaning

2. Assess Interpretability of the Literal Interpretation against Context of Utterance

3. If Anomaly detected, Alternative Nonliteral or Indirect Interpretation is made

As is with Grice's principle, literal meaning is claimed by this model to be the priority in processing and precedes any alternative interpretation. However, a flaw with this claim...