Figurative language is processed faster, making the load lighter

Figurative language, and all language, is processed by embodied sensory-motor-emotion architectures

Figurative language, and all language, is processed by embodied sensory-motor-emotion architectures.[1]

Figurative language accesses strong networks

The problem of how the brain copes with the fragmentary representations of information is central to our understanding of brain function. It is not enough for the brain to analyze the world into its components parts: the brain must bind together those parts that make whole entities and events, both for recognition and recall. Consciousness must necessarily be based on the mechanisms that perform the binding. The hypothesis suggested here is that the binding occurs in multiple regions that are linked together through activation zones; that these regions communicate through feedback pathways to earlier stages of cortical processing where the parts are represented; and that the neural correlates of consciousness should be sought in the phase-locked signals that are used to communicate between these activation zones.[2]

…information is encoded in an all-or-none manner into cognitive units and the strength of these units increases with practice and decays with delay. The essential process to memory performance is the retrieval operation. It is proposed that the cognitive units form an interconnected network and that retrieval is performed by spreading activation throughout the network. Level of activation in the network determines rate and probability of recall.[3]

Figurative language conserves resources

Resources seem to be required only as attention, consciousness, decisions, and memory become involved; it is here that the well-known capacity limitations of the human system seem to be located rather than in the actual processing.[4]

…our minds tend to minimise processing effort by allocating attention and cognitive resources to selected inputs to cognitive processes which are potentially relevant at the time, and to process them in the most relevance-enhancing way.[5]

Figurative language reflects our senses and our movements

…a significant aspect of metaphoric language is motivated by embodied experience.[6]

According to theories of grounded cognition, cognitive processing is a product of our sensory and perceptual experiences… For example, during word recognition, sensory and perceptual systems may automatically become activated so that access to a concept’s meaning is influenced by our sensory knowledge of that concept—how it looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes.

Strongly perceptual concepts such as chair, music, or crimson can be represented quickly because most of their conceptual content is a relatively simple and discrete package of perceptual information, and hence is easy to simulate. Weakly perceptual concepts, on the other hand, tend to take longer to represent because they lack a neat package of perceptual information that can benefit from modality attention effects, and because much of their non-perceptual conceptual content involves pulling in other concepts as part of their broader situation (e.g., a tendency to do what? A republic of where?).[7]

How is prediction embodied? First, action control (and the motor system) is intimately concerned with prediction. That is, every action is accompanied by predicted changes in our proprioception and perception of the world so that the system can determine if the action was successfully completed. For example, in reaching for a glass of water, the system predicts how far the arm will have to reach, how wide the fingers need to open, and the feel of the cool, smooth glass.[8]

While the studies reported above support the grounded cognition view of word recognition, they are concerned with sensorimotor processing, only one aspect of sensory/perceptual experience. Other potential aspects of the sensory experience include sound, taste, and smell.

Figurative language also reflects our emotions

Similarly, reading a strong emotion word could produce perceptual simulations in the reader. For example, the emotion word love could lead to sensory simulations of sweating palms or racing heart that are experienced by a person actually in love.[9]

…emotional content… plays a crucial role in the processing and representation of abstract concepts: …abstract words are more emotionally valenced…, and this accounts for a… latency advantage…[10]

Figurative language often includes phrases we understand all at once

…lexical bundles… are stored and processed holistically. …regular multiword sequences leave memory traces in the brain.[11]

To hold all the aces,
to speak one’s mind,
to break the ice,
to lay the cards on the table,
to pull s.o.’s leg,
to give a hand, to stab s.o.’s back,
to miss the boat,
to pull strings,
to be on cloud nine,
to change one’s mind,
to lose one’s train of thought,
to hit the sack,
to kick the bucket,
to come out of the blue,
to break s.o.’s heart,
to spill the beans,
to have one’s feet on the ground,
to turn over a new leaf,
to be the icing on the cake,
to keep s.o. at arm’s length,
to be the last straw (that broke the camel’s back),
to cost an arm and a leg,
to go over the line,
to fill the bill,
to chew the fat,
to add fuel to the fire,
to get out of the frying pan into the fire,
to be in the same boat.[12]

Figurative language helps writers connect with readers

Consider the opening paragraphs of the following article from the Good Times, a Santa Cruz, California news and entertainment weekly (Nov 4–10, 2004, p.8). The article is titled “David vs. Goliath: Round One,” and describes the University of California, Santa Cruz’s controversial plan to double in physical size and increase enrollment by over 6000 students. Read through the following text and pick out those words and phrases that appear to express figurative meaning.

Hidden in the shadows of a massive election year, tucked under the sheets of a war gone awry and a highway scuffle, another battle has been brewing.

When UC Santa Cruz released the first draft on its 15-year Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) last week, it signaled an ever-fattening girth up on the hill. While some businesses clapped their hands with glee, many locals went scrambling for belt-cinchers.

The LRDP calls for 21,000 students by the year 2020 – an increase of 6,000 over today’s enrollment … . The new enrollment estimate may have startled some residents, but as a whole it merely represents a new stage in a decades-long battle that has been fought between the city and the City on the Hill. While some students are boon to local businesses and city coffers, many residents complain students are overrunning the town—clogging the streets, jacking up rents and turning neighborhoods and the downtown into their own party playground … .

“The bottom line is that the university can do what it wants to,” explains Emily Reilly, Santa Cruz City Council member and head of a committee developed to open up dialogue between “the campus and the city.”[13]

Life’s full of action; figurative language is full of action. We’re made for this.

Grasping an explanation, giving an example, posing a threat – language is full of actions and objects, and the ties between language and motion are under continuous investigation. Generally, embodiment links the individual sensorimotor experiences with higher cognitive functions such as language processing and comprehension.[14]

It is physically impossible to do metaphorical actions such as push the argument, chew on the idea, or spit out the truth. But these metaphorical phrases are sensible because people ordinarily conceive of many abstract concepts in embodied, metaphorical terms. Engaging in, or imagining doing, a body action, such as chewing, before reading a metaphorical phrase, such as chew on the idea, facilitates construal of the abstract concept as a physical entity, which speeds up comprehension of metaphorical action phrases.[15]

  1. Meteyard, Lotte, et al. “Coming of age: A review of embodiment and the neuroscience of semantics.” Cortex 48.7 (2012): 788-804.
  2. Damasio, Antonio R. “The Brain Binds Entities and Events by Multiregional Activation from Convergence Zones.” Neural Computation 1.1 (1989): 123-132.
  3. Anderson, John R. “A spreading activation theory of memory.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 22.3 (1983): 261-295.
  4. van Dijk, Teun A., and Walter Kintsch. “Toward a model of text comprehension and production.” Psychological review 85.5 (1978): 362-394.
  5. Moreno, Rosa E. Vega. Creativity and convention: The pragmatics of everyday figurative speech. John Benjamins Publishing, 2007, p. 229.
  6. Gibbs, Raymond W., Paula Lenz Costa Lima, and Edson Francozo. “Metaphor is grounded in embodied experience.” Journal of pragmatics 36.7 (2004): 1189-1210.
  7. Connell, Louise, and Dermot Lynott. “Strength of perceptual experience predicts word processing performance better than concreteness or imageability.” Cognition 125.3 (2012): 452-465.
  8. Glenberg, Arthur M. “Few believe the world is flat: How embodiment is changing the scientific understanding of cognition.” Canadian journal of experimental psychology= Revue canadienne de psychologie experimentale 69.2 (2015): 165-171.
  9. Juhasz, Barbara J., et al. “Tangible words are recognized faster: The grounding of meaning in sensory and perceptual systems.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64.9 (2011): 1683-1691.
  10. Kousta, Stavroula-Thaleia, et al. “The representation of abstract words: why emotion matters.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 140.1 (2011): 14-34.
  11. Tremblay, Antoine, et al. “Processing advantages of lexical bundles: Evidence from self‐paced reading and sentence recall tasks.” Language Learning 61.2 (2011): 569-613.
  12. Moreno, Rosa E. Vega. Creativity and convention: The pragmatics of everyday figurative speech. John Benjamins Publishing, 2007, p. 144.
  13. Gibbs, Raymond W., and H. Colston. “Figurative language.” Handbook of psycholinguistics, 2nd ed., Elsevier, 2006, pp. 835-862.
  14. Jirak, Doreen, et al. “Grasping language–a short story on embodiment.” Consciousness and cognition 19.3 (2010): 711-720.
  15. Wilson, Nicole L., and Raymond W. Gibbs. “Real and imagined body movement primes metaphor comprehension.” Cognitive science 31.4 (2007): 721-731.

Self-editing clarifies meanings and increases readability

Self-editing is demontrated with a passage called Edit ruthlessly[1]

Make what you say as good as what you mean to say. To anyone sufficiently motivated to polish a final draft, this book offers ways and means.

Self-editing for conciseness

Routine Condensing

There are at least two larger opportunities [that exist] in this area.
(Or: At least two larger opportunities exist in this area.)

He believes that [in order] to study efficiently you need…

[In the case of] Layton Brothers[, the company] didn’t adjust quickly enough to the changing market.

Choosing Bargain Words

[He walked wearily and laboriously] He trudged…

Leaving Unsaid

[In this paper I will discuss] three aspects of contemporary life that…

Self-editing word order

…if you don’t put your sentence components where they belong, you risk confusing your readers or getting laughs you didn’t want. Take this sentence, for example:

Queen Elizabeth read the speech, which was handed to her by the 71-year-old Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor, with the aid of half-moon glasses.

Imaginative readers might picture the lord chancellor handing the queen a furled parchment balanced on a pair of spectacles. The writer should have brought the queen and her glasses together:

With the aid of half-moon glasses, Queen Elizabeth read the speech handed to her by…

Self-editing for series balance

Deprived of their parallel structure, some famous quotations lose their punch:

Many are called, but God doesn’t choose more than a few.

…that all men…. have certain unalienable rights: to life, liberty, and to pursue happiness.

…brought forth on this continent a new nation that had its conception in liberty and was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Self-editing for word-group agreement

Subject-Verb Disagreement

Enclosed is [are] my application and a check for the fee.

My chief concern in opposing tuition tax credits are [is] the metropolitan public schools.

Pronoun-Antecedent Disagreement

If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, you have to know the rules of the game. (Change to A person who wants to succeed in corporate life has to know . . . , or change a person wants to you want, or begin the sentence with To succeed.)

Other Disagreement Problems

Lawyers are told that if they do not become a partner [become partners] by age forty they never will.

Faulty References

The School Board is expected to decide at its next meeting whether to have elementary pupils attend schools 40 minutes less every day. This [ruling] would leave the children with the state minimum of five hours of daily instruction.

Self-editing punctuation

Helpful Commas

In the forties girls studied home nursing, and boys took shop. (The comma prevents boys from looking like the second object of the girls’ study.)

On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged.

The chipmunk, or ground squirrel, hibernates in winter.

Their performance was hilarious, however serious its intent.

She was interested in, but also apprehensive about, the new project.

Running toward us, the man was shouting something and waving a newspaper.

If he enjoys driving, a car would make an ideal graduation gift.

Discretionary Commas

By 1952(,) he was ready to forsake the literary life for a steady job.

The sun is up(,) and the birds are singing.

If you’re invited to the dean’s reception, wear a simple black dress, or whatever you have that’s dark and decorous.

The senator agreed to support the project, but if he had known that most of his constituents were opposed, he might have decided otherwise.

The drive toward a lean punctuation is such that even if we still wrote the complex, periodic sentences of Johnson or of Macaulay, we should punctuate them much less heavily.


Since she had two college degrees, good skills, and excellent references, she fully expected to find a job easily, despite the high rate of unemployment; but what she did not expect, until she started looking, was the stiff competition for the positions available.

The consultants attributed the failure to increased costs, especially for fuel; the hostility of environmentalists, local residents, and the unions; abyssmal public relations, due in part to company policies; and shortsighted managerial decisions.


The diet was spartan: steamed fish, raw or steamed vegetables without butter or dressing, half a grapefruit, four ounces of skimmed milk, and unsweetened tea or coffee.

Dashes and Parentheses

My old dog—the whole neighborhood remembers him—always whined outside a closed door.

For lunch try a fruit salad—say, cottage cheese, grapes, bananas, orange sections, and strawberries (you can substitute melon balls if you’re prone to hives)—and see how satisfying it can be.

Skill, courage, stamina, and heart—all these qualities are essential if the team is going to finish on top.

Self-editing layer by layer, and eventually self-editing automatically

Sometimes you have to remove one layer of errors before others become visible, and new mistakes may slip in as you eliminate the original ones.

In editing my own writing, I cover a freshly typed page with scribbled corrections, retype to see what I’ve wrought, then sharpen my pencil and attack again. The vicious circle stops only when I find myself restoring the earlier version of a sentence I “improved” last time around. I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

With practice, you’ll develop a conditioned response to these faults and learn to edit them out as soon as you spot them—and, eventually, even before you put them down.[2]

  1. Forbes, Malcolm. How To Write a Business Letter. ERIC Clearinghouse, 1981.
  2. Cook, Claire Kehrwald. The MLA’s line by line. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Sentence flow comes from moving each sentence from old information to new

In good sentence flow, the last sentence's closing point becomes the next sentence's subject.[1]

Sentence flow comes from moving from old information to new

Readers follow a story most easily if they can begin each sentence with a character or idea that is familiar to them, either because it was already mentioned or because it comes from the context.

  1. Make the first six or seven words refer to familiar information, usually something you have mentioned before (typically your main characters).
  2. Put at the ends of sentences information that your readers will find unpredictable or complex and therefore harder to understand.

Sentence flow shows when to choose active voice, and when to choose passive voice

Do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly.

For example…

11b. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

…the beginning of the second sentence in (11b) picks up on the character introduced at the end of the first sentence…

…the passive allowed us to move the older, more familiar information from the end of its sentence to its beginning, where it belongs.

…that’s the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. If we don’t use the passive when we should, our sentences won’t flow as well as they could.

Creating main characters

…be sure that the character is your central character, if only for that sentence.

Express crucial actions in verbs.

When you express actions not with verbs but with abstract nouns, you… clutter a sentence with articles and prepositions. Look at all the articles and prepositions (boldfaced) in (4b) that (4a) doesn’t need:

4a. Having standardized indices for measuring mood disorders, we now can quantify patients’ responses to different treatments.

4b. The standardization of indices for the measurement of mood disorders has now made possible the quantification of patient response as a function of treatment differences.

Make your central characters the subjects of those verbs; keep those subjects short, concrete, and specific.

Complexity last

Put complex bundles of ideas that require long phrases or clauses at the end of a sentence, never at the beginning.

The Quickest Revision Strategy


Make sure that each sentence begins with familiar information, preferably a character you have mentioned before.


Identify your main characters, real or conceptual. Make them the subjects of verbs.

Look for nouns ending in -tion, -ment, -ence, and so on. If they are the subjects of verbs, turn them into verbs.


…the last five or six words in every sentence.

  • technical-sounding words that you are using for the first time
  • the newest, most complex information
  • information that is most emphatic
  • concepts that the next several sentences will develop

…put those words last in the sentence.[2]

  1. Shoch, Keith. “Finding Flow in, 26 Jan. 2013, Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.
  2. Booth, Wayne C., et al. The Craft of Research. 4th ed., University of Chicago Press, 2016. Chapter 17.