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Metonymy

Metonymy is the linguistic device by which an entity is referred to by refering to a functionally related entity. For example, when we say ``John reads Proust.'' we really mean ``John reads the novels by Proust.'' We may say that ``Proust'' has been coerced into ``the novels by Proust''. Alternatively, we may say that ``read'' has been coerced into ``read the novels by''.

Thus, there are two ways to characterize metonymy. Metonymy occurs when an explicit predication P(X) is conveyed by a fragment of text and the intended interpretation is P(F(X)) for some function F. This can be viewed as X being coerced into F(X); this corresponds to the usual characterization of metonymy as an entity being coerced into something functionally related to it. Or it can be viewed as the predicate P being coerced into the predicate $P \circ F$, or Pcomposed with F. Nunberg (1995) refers to the first case as deferred ostension and to the second case as predicate transfer. He argues that the former occurs only in actual cases of ostension, as when a parking attendent holds up a key and says ``This is parked out back.'' In non-ostensive cases, including the vast majority of examples that occur in discourse, he argues that the metonymies should be thought of as instances of predicate transfer. His arguments rest primarily on the availability of entities for subsequent pronominal reference and occurrence within elliptical constructions. In the following examples, the first two illustrate deferred ostension, the second two predicate transfer:

This [holding up key] is parked out back and may not start.
This [holding up key] is parked out back and fits only the left front door.
John is parked out back and has been waiting fifteen minutes.
John is parked out back and may not start.

In the first two examples the key X is coerced into the car F(X)and the latter becomes the only possible subject for the second clause. In the last two examples, John X remains the same and is the only possible subject for the second clause; the predicate

$ \lambda X [X$ is parked out back]

is coerced into something like

$ \lambda X [$the car belonging to X is parked out back]

In Section 2 of this paper I briefly introduce the framework of ``Interpretation as Abduction''. In this framework it is straightforward to formalize both varieties of metonymic coercion, and this is done in Section 3. Sections 4 through 8 present a range of examples of phenomena that have previously been viewed as syntactic that can in fact be viewed as a special kind of metonymy, where the coercion relation is provided by the explicit content of the sentence itself. The phenomena considered are extraposed modifiers, ataxis, container nouns, the distinction between distributive and collective readings of plurals, and what may be called ``small clauses in disguise''. There are cases where grammatically subordinated material in sentences functions as the main assertional claim of the sentence, and in Section 9 these are similarly analyzed as examples of metonymy where the coercion relation is provided by the explicit content of the rest of the sentence.


next up previous
Next: Background: Interpretation as Abduction Up: Syntax and Metonymy Previous: Abstract
Jerry Hobbs
2000-07-20