UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 13 (2001)

Representing and processing idioms



This paper focuses on the way in which idioms are mentally represented and how they are processed in on-line comprehension. The aim is to develop an account of how hearers understand unfamiliar idioms, familiar idioms and idiom variants. It will be argued that idiom meanings are represented and stored holistically in the form of structured phrasal concepts, and that their comprehension is achieved through just the same processing mechanisms as the comprehension of non-idiom strings. The account is grounded in two main assumptions. First, our powerful inferential interpretive abilities enable us to create and understand concepts ‘on the fly’. Second, the utterance comprehension process, which often involves such ad hoc concept construction, is regulated not by an expectation of literalness but by an expectation of optimal relevance.

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