Dropping Beans or Spilling Secrets: How Idiomatic Context Bias Affects Prediction


Idioms can have both a literal interpretation and a figurative interpretation (e.g., to “kick the bucket”). Which interpretation should be activated can be disambiguated by a preceding context (e.g., “The old man was sick. He kicked the bucket.”). We investigated whether the idiomatic and literal uses of idioms have different predictive properties when the idiom has been biased toward a literal or figurative sentence interpretation. EEG was recorded as participants performed a lexical decision task on idiom-final words in biased idioms and literal (compositional) sentences. Targets in idioms were identified faster in both figuratively and literally used idioms than in compositional sentences. Time–frequency analysis of a prestimulus interval revealed relatively more alpha–beta power decreases in literally than figuratively used idiomatic sequences and compositional sentences. We argue that lexico-semantic retrieval plays a larger role in literally than figuratively biased idioms, as retrieval of the word meaning is less relevant in the latter and the word form has to be matched to a template. The results are interpreted in terms of context integration and word retrieval and have implications for models of language processing and predictive processing in general.

In: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 34, 209–223