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.
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