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METONYMY (in mental-state descriptions and elsewhere

NOTE: The databank contains a page for examples of metonymy. Examples of metonymy also occur in other example-pages, and are so marked by the tag ``METONYMY''.

NOTE: Towards the end this page discusses metaphor as well as metonymy. See the comments on competing metaphorical explanations and metonymy/metaphor mixes below.

NOTE: The examples page for metonymy contains some examples of transferred epithets as well. See the comments in transferred epithets below.

COPYRIGHT: John Barnden, 1997. This page of the databank may be freely copied for non-commercial research/instructional use provided this copyright notice is included.


I adopt the interpretation of the term ``metonymy'' that is common in AI and elsewhere: viz, a phrase P is a metonymic reference to something (or things) X when the literal reference of P is to something (or things) Y, where Y has, in context, a salient connection to X.

The connection can be of a standard type that often occurs in discourse, e.g., that of physical containment (as in ``he drank (* THE WHOLE BOTTLE *)''), or it can be idiosyncratic to the current discourse or discourse situation, as in saying ``put that button in the (* RED *) box'', meaning the box that is for collecting red buttons. Here P is ``red'', Y is the property of being red, and X is, idiosyncratically, the property of being for collecting buttons that are red. (However, see an alternative possible style of analysis below.)

Although in the adopted view of metonymy the phrase P can be of any syntactic type, most examples in the databank (just as in the literature on metonymy) have P being a noun phrase.

As is fairly standard, I name a metonymy according to the following scheme: Y-TYPE FOR X-TYPE. Example: Container FOR Contained.


Two main types of metonymy are represented in the databank:-

Entity FOR Idea of it

For a sentence like ``The burglar was in Sally's mind all day long,'' it is reasonable to suggest that the phrase ``The burglar'' is being used metonymically to refer to some idea of the burglar. It is that idea that was in Sally's mind, not the burglar him/herself! (... but see below).

People-Involving Entity FOR the People Involved

This is manifested in sentences like ``The U.S. believes that ...'', where the U.S. is the people-involving entity. Some of the main cases of a ``people-involving entity'' are as follows, together with the sort of the people normally considered to be involved:

But there are many other possibilities. For instance, in one example in the databank we find: ``[the] editorial page has always believed ...''. Here we presumably have a metonymic reference to the editors.

Which particular people are implicitly referred to can be highly context dependent. For instance, in a sports news article the phrase ``the U.S.'' might refer metonymically to the members of the U.S. Olympic swimming team. Also, the precise people involved cannot be inferred, often.

The examples in the databank use the metonymy in referring to the holders of mental states, as in ``The U.S. believes that ...'' Of course, the metonymy can also be used for other purposes, beyond the scope of the databank.

For completeness, I also include some examples that use phrases such as ``the audience,'' even though I am not absolutely sure that metonymy is involved. My thinking is that ``the audience'' refers directly to a SET of people, so that ``the audience believes that ... '', if taken literally, would say that a set believes something. But only a person (or some other sort of cognitive agent) can literally believe something.

On the other hand, if the subject of ``believe'' is a plural noun phrase, such as ``some audience members,'' then there is a direct reference to each individual member of some set (in the example, some unknown subset of the audience).


An alternative analysis of ``The U.S. believes that ...'' is that the country is being metaphorically regarded as a cognitive agent. This account appears to be less favoured in the literature than the metonymic analysis, so I have classified such examples under Metonymy. But I believe that there is much to recommend the metaphorical account.

My main reason for saying this is that it simplifies certain types of inference. For instance, if we are told that the U.S. believes that A is better than B, and we are also told that the U.S. believes that B is better than C, a plausible inference is that the U.S. believes that A is better than C. (There is no need to decode the metaphorical statements into their underlying real-world meanings in order to make this inference. By the way, avoidance of such decoding in suitable circumstances is a cardinal principle of the ATT-Meta project.) However, on the metonymic analysis, we have to take the additional step of working out or assuming that the people involved in the A/B belief are (at least roughly) the same as those involved in the B/C belief; and then we would be faced with reasoning about the beliefs of a plurality of people, which is at least marginally more elaborate than reasoning about a single cognitive agent.

A quite different metaphorical analysis would be to take the verb ``believe'' metaphorically, while taking the phrase ``the U.S.'' literally. It could be that the situation being described is that the ``believed'' proposition is contained in, or implied by, constitutional or legal articles, rather than that members of the population or of the leadership actually believe the proposition.

In the sentence ``The editorial page has always believed that Z'' the analysis might be that the daily occurrences of the editorial page have always contained or implied Z, with no implication that the writers of the page have (ever) actually believed P. [Thanks to David Farwell for this suggestion.]

My own preference between the two type of metaphorical analysis is for the first one.

A relevant empirical study of real discourse can be found in Graham Low's paper ` ``This paper thinks...'': Investigating the acceptability of the metaphor AN ESSAY IS A PERSON', in L. Cameron & G. Low (Eds), Researching and Applying Metaphor, pp.221-248, Cambridge University Press.

Finally, in the burglar example above, a competing metaphorical analysis is that the mind is being viewed as a physical space that contains the thought-about objects themselves, as opposed to containing ideas of those objects. (This metaphor is not explicitly represented in the databank. I mention it only as an interesting suggestion.)


The type of metonymy covered in the databank are often mixed with metaphor. Most obviously, metonymies of the type People-Involving Entity FOR the People Involved only affect how the agents of the mental state in question are being described, rather than affecting how the mental state itself is described. Whether the latter description is metaphorical or not is largely independent of how the agents are described. Thus, for example, we can get the following sort of sentence:
          The Red Cross pushed this idea to one side.

This mixes metonymy with the metaphor of Ideas/Emotions as Physical Objects (and also either Mind as Physical Space or Ideas as External Entities).

The metonymy of Thing FOR Idea of That Thing can also be mixed with metaphors of mind. As a variant of our burglar example above, consider

          She pushed the burglar to one side of her mind.

This mixes the metonymy with the metaphors of Ideas/Emotions as Physical Objects and Mind as Physical Space.


An illustration of this phenomenon is the use of "weary" in "weary road", where it is (some) people who use the road who are weary. Clearly this could be analysed as a metonymy on "weary", leading from the property of weariness to, say, the property of tending to cause weariness in users.

However, Barnden (2011) considers a more complex but perhaps sometimes better explanation, namely that "weary" just has its normal literal interpretation, but "road" has a double reference: (1) metonymically to users of the road, (2) literally to the road itself. So the literal meaning of "weary" qualifies the metonymic interpretation of "road", but the reference of the whole noun phrase is to a road. This account is less formally elegant than the one above but avoids the need for abstruse connections between complex, rather artificial properties, and therefore may qualify as being more cognitively plausible.

NB: Such an analysis could also apply to the "red box" example above.


Barnden, J.A. (2011). "Metaphor and its affective connotations: A preliminary look." Talk at Metaphor Festival, Stockholm, September 2011.

Last modified 17 December 2013