'Tiny numbers' are actually tiny: Evidence from gestures in the TV News Archive

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We report a large-scale, quantitative investigation of manual gestures that speakers perform when speaking metaphorically about numerical quantities. We used the TV News Archive-an online database of over 2 million English language news broadcasts-to examine 681 videos in which 584 speakers used the phrase 'tiny number', 'small number', 'large number', or 'huge number', which metaphorically frame numerical quantity in terms of physical size. We found that the gestures speakers used reflect a number of different strategies to express the metaphoric size of quantities. When referring to greater versus lesser quantities, speakers were far more likely to gesture (1) with an open versus closed hand configuration, (2) with an outward versus inward movement, and (3) with a wider distance between the gesturing hands. These patterns were often more pronounced for the phrases containing more extreme adjectives ('tiny/huge number'). However, we did not find that speakers performed two-handed versus one-handed gestures. Nor did we find that speakers performed right-handed versus left-handed gestures, when referring to greater versus lesser quantities. Overall, this work supports the claim that metaphoric thought is involved in the production of verbal metaphors that describe numerical magnitudes. It demonstrates that size-based numerical associations observed in previous lab experiments are active in real-life communication outside the lab.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0242142
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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