Head in the clouds? Albatross around your neck? A red herring? All languages are full of colourful phrases that don't mean exactly what they say. That makes language interesting but also potentially difficult for certain groups. Illustration: Colourbox

How we figure out that red herrings are neither red nor herrings

Opinion published 01.06.20

Our language can be fun and colourful, but unusual phrases that aren’t literal can be difficult for some to interpret. Learning more about how we decipher these phrases can help us teach people in certain groups how to better understand them.

When you say you have an albatross around your neck, few people would look twice to see if you actually have a giant seabird draped around your shoulders. Instead, they’d know you were saying that you’re struggling with something that keeps causing you problems.

This use of non-literal language, as researchers call it, is highly prevalent in everyday communication. One study found that 94 per cent of email texts written by young people contained at least one non-literal statement. Some estimates suggest that non-literal language is used in between one-third and one-half of everyday speech.

But why are these unusual statements so common? Unlike literal language, which can be understood by combining the meaning of the words in the expression (a red house is simply a house that is red), non-literal figurative language cannot be understood this way (a red herring is not a herring which is red, but information which is deceptive and misleading).

Given that it can be somewhat difficult to interpret non-literal language, it seems reasonable to ask: “Do these expressions actually help facilitate communication, and if so, how do listeners interpret them?”

Studied strategies that people actually use

We decided to answer these questions by actually studying the strategies that people rely on when deciding how to interpret non-literal language. We were also interested to know if these strategies differed between typical individuals and individuals on the autism spectrum, for whom the understanding of non-literal language is impaired.

To answer our questions, we looked at hand and eye movements when study participants listened to and read non-literal expressions. What was most striking was that compared to the controls in our study, participants with autism relied on different strategies to eventually provide a correct response.

It can be easy to misunderstand certain phrases. Image: Private

We also found different processing patterns between children and adults with autism and their typically developing peers when they interpreted figurative language, even when they provided the correct answers.

Both children with and without autism, and adults with autism displayed greater uncertainty and competition between alternatives as they provided answers, and also often compared the literal interpretation of the expression with its intended non-literal meaning.

We saw this most clearly in the hand movement patterns that immediately preceded their making a decision on the meaning of a figurative expression.

Sometimes even transparent expressions posed difficulties in comprehension, especially for the participants with autism and for younger typical participants.

Gaze and hand behaviour

Ours is the first study to simultaneously collect evidence from both gaze and hand behaviour in a task involving non-literal language, comparing two age groups of participants, from two population samples.

What typically happened was that participants would first inspect a number of options with their eyes, before making a motor decision with the mouse, regardless of which group the participant was in.

And even though an expression might seem transparent, like “He was soaked to the bones”, it wasn’t always an advantage as participants were trying to comprehend the non-literal statement.

The child participants and the participants with autism in the current study were specifically challenged by the possibility of interpreting the expression in a direct, literal way. We saw this in the greater speed with which they moved the cursor when responding to the more transparent expressions.

We were surprised that the more transparent expressions would pose such a challenge. However, it seems that this may be true because  the non-literal and the literal meaning of these expressions are very close, and the literal one appears plausible as well.

Expressive and interesting, but potentially confusing

If you tell a child to “pull up your socks”, the context may suggest both the physical act of pulling up one’s socks and the non-literal one of coping with a problem. Thus, our participants faced the decision of either going for the direct literal answer or the figurative one.

As a result, even though non-literal phrases have expressive power and may add spice to the conversation, they are not always easy to understand, especially when there’s a possibility that they could be interpreted literally.

Children need time to acquire the skills necessary for handling figurative expressions, as we have shown in other research. Such expressions are also particularly challenging for children and adolescents with autism. Our study thus paves the way to possible interventions where children with autism can be taught via interactive games how to cope with the ambiguity posed by figurative language

Mila Vulchanova, Sobh Chahboun, Beatriz Galindo-Prieto & Valentin Vulchanov (2019) Gaze and Motor Traces of Language Processing: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorders in Comparison to Typical Controls, Cognitive Neuropsychology, 36:7-8, 383-409, DOI: 10.1080/02643294.2019.1652155

Vulchanova, M., Milburn, E., Vulchanov, V. et al. Boon or Burden? The Role of Compositional Meaning in Figurative Language Processing and Acquisition. J of Log Lang and Inf 28, 359–387 (2019).