Dropping beans or spilling secrets: how discourse can alter our prediction of idioms

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Many idiomatic expressions are ambiguous, as they consist of a sequence of words that can be interpreted both figuratively and literally (e.g., kick the bucket). These expressions can be disambiguated by using discourse information to derive the appropriate meaning. We investigated whether idiomatic and literal uses of formulaic sequences differ in their prediction properties when the preceding discourse already disambiguated the expressions’ meaning (e.g., The old man was sick. He kicked the bucket.). Participants performed a lexical decision task on figurative uses of idioms, literal uses of idioms, and compositional sentences. Simultaneously, their EEG-signals were being recorded. We found that participants respond faster to idiomatic sequences than to compositional sentences. Moreover, they respond faster to figurative uses of idioms than to literal uses. In addition, EEG analyses at a pre-stimulus interval revealed higher alpha-beta band desynchronization in literal uses of idiomatic sequences than in figurative uses and compositional sentences. We argue that lexical prediction plays a larger role in the literal use of idiomatic sequences than in figurative use, because the meaning of the individual words is less relevant to the interpretation of figuratively used sequences compared to literally used sequences. Instead, only prediction of the word form is important during idiomatic uses because incoming words need to be matched to an idiom template. The results support one-step models of sentence comprehension that argue for a large role of early discourse integration.
Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen