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Set Expressions Versus Free Phrases



Phraseology, 1. Part of vocabulary comprising set expressions. 2. A branch of linguistics studying these.

Set expressions (blocks consisting of more than one word) are not created in speech but introduced into the act of communication ready-made like words. The word-group is a set expression if its elements or word order are always the same or substitution is only pronominal or restricted to a few synonyms for one of the members only, i.e., they possess lexical and structural stability.

E.g., a) no substitution is possible in tit for tat; to and fro; red tape; let bygones be bygones; tooth and nail; knife and fork; heir apparent

b) synonymous substitution for one member: to ring false (hollow); artificial (false) teeth

c) pronominal substitution: eat one’s heart out – she eats her heart out; lead somebody the life of a dog – he led his son the life of a dog; shake one’s head – he shook his head.

d) syntactical and morphological variability: break the ice: He broke the ice – the ice was broken.

A free phrase permits substitution of any of its elements without the change of meaning of its other elements.

E.g., a weak man; a weak body; weak eyes; a strong man; sore eyes, etc. Cf. a weak sister – U. S. sl. an unreliable and timid man.

Free (changeable) word-groups are relatively free. The combinative power of words is limited by the following factors:

1. Logical factor : One can drink only liquids, listen to smth. that sounds, etc., to read books, to drink water (*to read liquids, *to drink books).

2. Linguistic factors: a) National peculiarities of the semantic structure of words denoting identical or similar concepts. E.g., drive at a certain speed. High and tall are sometimes interchangeable: high/tall trees, houses; but not *tall wall or a *high man. This limitation can be observed in the traditional usage of words but cannot be accounted for by logical reasons.b) Grammatical relations between words.E.g., adverbs cannot be combined with nouns, or numerals with prepositions.c) Stylistic factors. Words of different stylistic reference normally cannot be combined within one and the same structural formula. E.g., to commence (literary word) cannot be combined within the structural formula V+V with such words as to scrub, to scratch, to wash (unless aiming at a humorous effect): *She commenced to scrub the floor.

Set expressions are either idiomatic or non-idiomatic.

E.g., idiomatic: to be getting on (to age, to get older); pepper and salt ( black or dark hair mixed with streaks of gray); to make up for smth. (to compensate for smth); to take off (of an airplane) ( to rise up in flight); non-idiomatic: to take off (to remove (clothing or anything on the body); to shrug one’ shoulders; that is easier said than done; better late than never.

All linguistic units are either idiomatic or non-idiomatic.

Idiomatic units lack predictability of meaning, i.e., the meaning is not deducible from the meaning of individual components (criterion of idiomaticity).

E.g., to be a real cool cat – to be a really calm person

to blow one’s stack – to lose control over oneself

to become mad

to fly off the handle – to become excessively


left-handed – crooked, phoney

lemon – anything unsatisfactory

Idioms comprise the following structural types:

1. root (simple) words: a cold greeting

2. derived (affixed) words: The proposal was received with coldness.

3. compounds: to cold-shoulder smb.

4. compound derivatives: cold-bloodedness

5. phrases: cold feet (reluctance), to catch cold, cold as hell

6. clauses/sentences: wild horses shall not drag it from me; that’s a horse of the same colour; till the cows come home.

Idioms are fixed (set, usual) and nonce (occasional, free).

E.g., usual (fixed): a cold greeting, to catch cold, to cold-shoulder smb.

nonce (free, occasional): a glaring error, the leaves fell sorrowfully.

Idiomatic Paradigm is a set of structurally different linguistic items produced from a single idiomatic core (kernel).

E.g., You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

to scratch one’s back



idiomatic core: back + scratch

Form realization is determined by an actual context.

E.g., It was a case generally of ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ (Dreiser)

I don’t mind scratching her back because she’s done me several favours in the past. (Clark. Word…)

No law can eliminate backscratching, favoritism. (Barnhart)

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