Cat Got Your Tongue? Using the Tip-of-the-Tongue State to Investigate Fixed Expressions



Despite the fact that they play a prominent role in everyday speech, the representation and processing of fixed expressions during language production is poorly understood. Here, we report a study investigating the processes underlying fixed expression production. “Tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) states were elicited for well-known idioms (e.g., hit the nail on the head) and participants were asked to report any information they could regarding the content of the phrase. Participants were able to correctly report individual words for idioms that they could not produce. In addition, participants produced both figurative (e.g., pretty for easy on the eye) and literal errors (e.g., hammer for hit the nail on the head) when in a TOT state, suggesting that both figurative and literal meanings are active during production. There was no effect of semantic decomposability on overall TOT incidence; however, participants recalled a greater proportion of words for decomposable rather than non-decomposable idioms. This finding suggests there may be differences in how decomposable and non-decomposable idioms are retrieved during production.