Xin Xin Yan: ‘Like a rolling stone’: How do similies differ from literal comparisons 


So far very few theoretical works in pragmatics have discussed the uses of similes, their relation to literal comparison statements, and their mental comprehension processes. While some have investigated the relationship between similes and corresponding metaphors (Bowdle & Gentner, 2005; Glucksberg & Haught, 2006), no studies have looked into the potential processing and interpretive differences between similes and literal comparisons.

The primary aim of my research is to explicate simile as a figure of speech, using the relevance-theoretic framework: what are similes (‘figurative comparisons’ or ‘hedged metaphors’)? How do they differ from ordinary literal comparisons, on the one hand, and metaphors, on the other? I suggest that the continuity between literal and figurative (metaphorical) categorical assertions claimed by standard relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 2008) carries over to comparison statements. Similarly, literal and figurative comparisons have no genuine, clear-cut distinctions in their uses and mental processing.

However, the fact that similes convey figurative meanings by comparing entities that are not literally alike (e.g., ‘John is like a rolling stone’) calls for an extra step of ‘relevant’ property modification (to be more specific, ‘property loosening’) together with the basic property attribution mechanism employed in interpreting literal comparisons (e.g., ‘John is like his father’). Similes are figurative, not because it compares two unlike things, but because the relevant respects of similarity between the two concepts are only true in a metaphorical way.

It is hypothesized that this additional pragmatic operation leads simile comprehension to be more difficult and effort-costing than the comprehension of literal comparisons. This property loosening process might also enable the derivation of more ‘emergent properties’ in interpreting similes than literal comparisons (e.g., a typical emergent property of the example simile above describes John as ‘a person without ties to anyone or any place’).