Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Comprehending compounds: evidence for metaphoric skill?

    • Published online: 01 February 1997

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.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Gail M. Gottfried, Department of Psychology, Occidental College, 1600 Campus Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90041.
Hide All
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.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 10 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 83 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.