Skip to main content
Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Iola Patalas, Psychology

Is a Job (Like) a Jail? Differences in Metaphor Versus Simile Processing and Comprehension in L1 and L2 English Speakers

Date & time
Thursday, June 13, 2024
9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Nadeem Butt


Psychology Building
7141 Sherbrooke W.
Room 244

Wheel chair accessible


When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


When listeners hear a metaphor such as jobs are jails, they typically understand the intended meaning even though such sentences are not literally true. Within psycholinguistics, there has been a lingering debate over how such phrases are understood, and how they differ from other related forms, such as similes (e.g., jobs are like jails). Accordingly, pragmatic theorists suggest that literal meaning of metaphors must first be rejected in order to attain understanding of intended metaphorical meaning from context and world knowledge. In contrast, direct-access theorists argue that both metaphor and simile are understood automatically, without prior parsing of literal semantic meaning. Relevant here, relatively little research has ascertained what meanings are attained during the time-course of metaphor or simile processing, and further, how this differs between first and second language speakers (henceforth, L1 and L2, respectively). To pursue this issue, this thesis presents three studies that investigate both the moment-by-moment online processing of metaphors and similes and their ultimate comprehensibility, in both L1 and L2 English speakers. STUDY 1 describes two cross-modal lexical decision experiments spanning four time points during the course of processing (vehicle word onset, vehicle recognition point, 500ms and 1000ms post-recognition point) in two samples of L1 English speakers, comparing the priming of literal and figurative meanings of metaphors and similes in high- and low- aptness and familiarity conditions. It showed that aptness and familiarity modulated which meanings were activated during metaphor and simile processing, and that literal meanings were activated faster and lingered later than figurative meanings. STUDY 2 repeated the same experimental design in a sample of L2 English speakers, with four time points collapsed into two (early and late) to determine whether L2 speakers process metaphors the same way L1 speakers do. We demonstrated that L2 speakers did not appreciably prime figurative or literal meanings during online processing of metaphors, and only primed literal meanings while processing similes. STUDY 3 probed whether L1 and L2 speakers found metaphors and similes globally comprehensible when aptness and familiarity were manipulated and when given ample time to make offline judgments about these sentences. It found that L1 speakers judged highly familiar metaphor more comprehensible than similes that had the same constituents. However, L2 speakers preferred simile when sentence familiarity was high or aptness was low. Together, STUDIES 1 to 3 highlight that online processing and offline comprehension of metaphor and simile differed according to language background and sentence attributes. Specifically, familiarity was important for both online processing of metaphor and simile for L1 speakers. In contrast, L2 speakers relied more heavily on semantic decomposability to make sense of figurative expressions.

Back to top

© Concordia University