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Comprehending compounds: evidence for metaphoric skill?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 1997

Occidental College


Previous studies of children's comprehension of compound nouns show that three-year-olds can identify the appropriate referent for a compound when shown picture arrays that include salient distractors. The four studies presented here investigate comprehension of one kind of compound, metaphoric compounds (i.e. noun–noun compounds in which one noun expresses similarity to another object, as in catfish). Forty-four three-year-olds, 45 five-year-olds and 22 adults were shown a series of picture arrays and were asked to identify referents of various types of metaphoric compounds. The arrays included target pictures that had metaphoric resemblances based on shape (e.g. bug shaped like a stick) or on colour/pattern (e.g. shells with black and white stripes, like a zebra). Results showed that three- and five-year-olds can comprehend shape-based metaphoric compounds such as stick-bug, even when faced with salient distractors (e.g. a stick, a bug next to a stick). The younger children had some difficulty with colour-based compounds, such as zebra-shells. Overall, five-year-olds outperformed three-year-olds but performed significantly less well than adults. However, even at age 3, children did not show a general expectation to interpret the compounds literally.

Research Article
© 1997 Cambridge University Press

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This research was supported by a predoctoral fellowship and a dissertation/thesis grant from the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan. I thank my dissertation committee – Susan Gelman, Marilyn Shatz, Henry Wellman and Karen Van Hoek – for support and encouragement. I am also grateful to the U-M Language Lab for helpful comments at various stages of the research. The studies presented here could not have been conducted without the assistance of the parents, the staff, and especially the children from the University of Michigan Children's Center and Center for Working Families, Children's Playspace, Jack and Jill Preschool, the Ann Arbor YMCA Child Care Center, Peachtree Preschool Workshop, Gretchen's House 3, St. Thomas Elementary School, Oak Trails Montessori and Children's House, the Washtenaw County Jewish Community Center, and the U-M Hospitals Child Care Center. I also thank Lisa Markman, Susie Sylvester, Laura Martinez, and Jennifer Nuveman for assistance with data collection and coding.