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§ 16. Phraseological Units and Idioms Proper - Учебник предназначается для студентов институтов и факультетов иностранных...

§ 16. Phraseological Units and Idioms Proper

As can be inferred from the above discussion, the functional approach does not discard idiomaticity as the main feature distinguishing phraseological units from free word-groups, but seeks to establish formal criteria of idiomaticity by analysing the syntactic function of phraseological units in speech.
1 It should be noted that the status of

give up

and structurally similar groups as phraseological units is doubted by some linguists who regard up in give up as a particle but not as a word, and consequently the whole is viewed not as a word-group but as a single composite verb. See, e.g., I. V. Arnold. The English Word. M., 1973, pp. 144, 145.



attempt is also made to distinguish phraseological units as word-equivalents from idioms proper, i.e. idiomatic units such as

that’s where the shoe pinches, the cat is out of the bag, what will Mrs Grundy

say?, etc. Unlike phraseological units, proverbs, sayings and quotations do not always function as word-equivalents. They exist as ready-made expressions with a specialised meaning of their own which cannot be inferred from the meaning of their components taken singly. Due to this the linguists who rely mainly on the criterion of idiomaticity classify proverbs and sayings as phraseological units.
The proponents of the functional criterion argue that proverbs and sayings lie outside the province of phraseology. It is pointed out, firstly, that the lack of motivation in such linguistic units is of an essentially different nature. Idioms are mostly based on metaphors which makes the transferred meaning of the whole expression more or less transparent. If we analyse such idioms, as, e.g.,

to carry coals to Newcastle, to fall between two stools,


fine feathers make fine birds,

we observe that though their meaning cannot be inferred from the literal meaning of the member-words making up these expressions, they are still metaphorically motivated as the literal meaning of the whole expression readily suggests its meaning as an idiom, i.e. ‘to do something that is absurdly superfluous’, ‘fail through taking an intermediate course’ and ‘to be well dressed to give one an impressive appearance’ respectively.1 The meaning of the phraseological units, e.g.

red tape, heavy father, in the long run,

etc., cannot be deduced either from the meaning of the component words or from the metaphorical meaning of the word-group as a whole.
Secondly, the bulk of idioms never function in speech as word-equivalents which is a proof of their semantic and grammatical separability.
It is also suggested that idioms in general have very much in common with quotations from literary sources, some of which also exist as idiomatic ready-made units with a specialised meaning of their own. Such quotations which have acquired specialised meaning and idiomatic value, as, e.g.,



or not to

be (Shakespeare),

to cleanse the Augean stables


a voice crying out in the wilderness

(the Bible), etc. differ little from proverbs and sayings which may also be regarded as quotations from English folklore and are part of this particular branch of literary studies.

§ 17. Some Debatable Points

The definition of phraseological units as idiomatic word-groups functioning as word-equivalents has also been subject to criticism. The main disputable points are as follows:
1. The criterion of function is regarded as not quite reliable when used with a view to singling out phraseological units from among other more or less idiomatic word-groups. The same word-groups may function in some utterances as an inseparable group and in others as a separable group with each component performing its own syntactic function. This
1 Definitions are reproduced from ^ V. H. Collins. A Book of English Idioms. London, 1960.
seems largely to be accounted for by the structure of the sentence in which the word-group is used. Thus, for example, in the sentence

She took care of everything — take care

is perceived as a single unit functioning as the predicate, whereas in the sentence

great care was taken to keep the children happy — take care

is undoubtedly separable into two components: the verb


functions as the predicate and the noun


as the object. The functional unity of the word-group seems to be broken.
2. It is also argued that the criterion of function serves to single out


comparatively small group of phraseological units comparable with phraseological fusions in the traditional semantic classification but does not provide for an objective criterion for the bulk of word-groups occupying an intermediate position between free word-groups and highly idiomatic phraseological units. ,

§ 18. Criterion of Context

Phraseological units in Modern English are also approached from the contextual
point of view.1 Proceeding from the assumption that individual meanings of polysemantic words can be observed in certain contexts and may be viewed as dependent on those contexts, it is argued that phraseological units are to be defined through specific types of context. Free word-groups make up variable contexts whereas the essential feature of phraseological units is a non-variable or fixed context.‘
Non-variability is understood as the stability of the word-group. In variable contexts which include polysemantic words substitution of one of the components is possible within the limits of the lexical valency of the word under consideration. It is observed, e.g., that in such word-groups as

a small town

the word


may be substituted for by a number of other nouns, e.g.

room, audience,

etc., the adjective


by a number of other adjectives, e.g.

large, big,

etc. The substitution of nouns does not change the meaning of


which denotes in all word-groups -'not large’. The substitution of adjectives does not likewise affect the meaning of


Thus variability of the lexical components is the distinguishing feature of the so-called free word-groups. In other word-groups such as

small business, a small farmer

the variable members serve as a clue to the meaning of the adjective


It may be observed that when combined with the words

town, room,


a small

denotes ‘not large’, whereas it is only in combination with the nouns business, farmer, etc. that


denotes ‘of limited size’ or ‘having limited capital’. Word-groups of this type are sometimes described as traditional collocations.2
Unlike word-groups with variable members phraseological units allow of no substitution. For example, in the phraseological unit

small hours

— ‘the early hours of the morning from about 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.' —
1 This approach is suggested by Prof. N. N. Amosova in her book Основы английской фразеологии. ЛГУ, 1963, and later on elaborated in “English Contextology”, L., 1968.
2 See проф. ^ А. И. Смирницкий. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1956, §§ 254, 255.
there is no variable member as


denotes ‘early’ only in collocation with


In the phraseological unit

small beer small

has the meaning ‘weak’ only in this fixed non-variable context. As can be seen from the above, a non-variable context is indicative of a specialised meaning of one of the member-words. The specialised meaning of one of the lexical components is understood as the meaning of the word only in the given phrase (e. g.

small hours),

i.e. this particular meaning cannot be found in the word taken in isolation or in any of the variable word-groups in which the word is used. It follows that specialised meaning and stability of lexical components are regarded as interdependent features of phraseological units whose semantic structure is unique, i.e. no other word-groups can be created on this semantic pattern.
The two criteria of phraseological units — specialised meaning of the components and non-variability of context — display unilateral dependence. Specialised meaning presupposes complete stability of the lexical components, as specialised meaning of the member-words or idiomatic meaning of the whole word-group is never observed outside fixed contexts.
Phraseological units may be subdivided into phrasemes and idioms according to whether or not one of the components of the whole word-group possesses specialised meaning.
Phrasemes are, as a rule, two-member word-groups in which one of the members has specialised meaning dependent on the second component as, e.g., in

small hours;

the second component


serves as the only clue to this particular meaning of the first component as it is found only in the given context

(small hours).

The word that serves as the clue to the specialised meaning of one of the components is habitually used in its central meaning (cf., for example,

small hours,


three hours, pleasant hours,

Idioms are distinguished from phrasemes by the idiomaticity of the whole word-group (e.g.

red tape

— ‘bureaucratic methods’) and the impossibility of attaching meaning to the members of the group taken in isolation. Idioms are semantically and grammatically inseparable units. They may comprise unusual combinations of words which when understood in their literal meaning are normally unallocable as, e.g.

mare’s nest (a mare

— ‘a female horse’, a

mare’s nest

— ‘a hoax, a discovery which proves false or worthless’). Unusualness of collocability, or logical incompatibility of member-words is indicative of the idiomaticity of the phrase.
Idioms made up of words normally brought together are homonymous with corresponding variable word-groups, e.g.

to let the cat out


the bag

— ‘to divulge a secret’, and the clue to the idiomatic meaning is to be found in a wider context outside the phrase itself.

§ 19. Some Debatable Points

The main objections to the contextual approach, are as follows: 1. Non-variability of context does not necessarily imply specialised meaning of the component or the components of the word-group. In some cases complete stability of the lexical components is found in word-groups including words of a narrow or specific range of lexical valency as, e.g.,

shrug one’s shoulders.


2. Some word-groups possessing a certain degree of idiomaticity are referred to traditional collocations. The criterion of traditional collocations, however, is different from that of phraseological units. In the contextual approach traditional collocations are understood as word-groups with partially variable members; the degree of idiomaticity is disregarded. Consequently such word-groups as, e.g.,

clench fists (teeth)


cast (throw, fling) something in somebody’s teeth

may both be referred to traditional collocations on the ground of substitutability of one of the member-words in spite of a tangible difference in the degree of idiomatic meaning.

§ 20. Phraseology as a Subsystem of Language

Comparing the three approaches discussed above (semantic, functional, and contextual) we have ample ground to conclude that they have very much in common as the main criteria of phraseological units appear to be essentially the same, i.e. stability and idiomaticity or lack of motivation. It should be noted however that these criteria as elaborated in the three approaches are sufficient mainly to single out extreme cases: highly idiomatic non-variable and free (or variable) word-groups.

red tape, mare’s nest,

etc. according to the semantic approach belong to phraseology and are described as fusions as they are completely non-motivated. According to the functional approach they are also regarded as phraseological units because of their grammatical (syntactic) inseparability and because they function in speech as word-equivalents. According to the contextual approach

red tape, mare’s nest,

etc. make up a group of phraseological units referred to as idioms because of the impossibility of any change in the ‘fixed context’ and their semantic inseparability.
The status of the bulk of word-groups however cannot be decided with certainty with the help of these criteria because as a rule we have to deal not with complete idiomaticity and stability but with a certain degree of these distinguishing features of phraseological units. No objective criteria of the degree of idiomaticity and stability have as yet been suggested. Thus, e.g.,

to win a victory

according to the semantic approach is a phraseological combination because it is almost completely motivated and allows of certain variability

to win, to gain



According to the functional approach it is not a phraseological unit as the degree of semantic and grammatical inseparability is insufficient for the word-group to function as a word-equivalent.

Small hours

according to the contextual approach is a phraseme because one of the components is used in its literal meaning. If however we classify it proceeding from the functional approach it is a phraseological unit because it is syntactically inseparable and therefore functions as a word-equivalent. As can be seen from the above the status of the word-groups which are partially motivated is decided differently depending on which of the criteria of phraseological units is applied.
There is still another approach to the problem of phraseology in which an attempt is made to overcome the shortcomings of the phraseological theories discussed above. The main features of this new approach which


is now more or less universally accepted by Soviet linguists are as follows: 1

  1. Phraseology is regarded as a self-contained branch of linguistics and not as a part of lexicology.

  2. Phraseology deals with a phraseological subsystem of language and not with isolated phraseological units.

  3. Phraseology is concerned with all types of set expressions.

4. Set expressions are divided into three classes: phraseological units (e.g.

red tape, mare’s nest,

etc.), phraseomatic units (e.g.

win a victory, launch a campaign,

etc.) and border-line cases belonging to the mixed class. The main distinction between the first and the second classes is semantic: phraseological units have fully or partially transferred meanings while components of phraseomatic units are used in their literal meanings.

  1. Phraseological and phraseomatic units are not regarded as word- equivalents but some of them are treated as word correlates.

  2. Phraseological and phraseomatic units are set expressions and their phraseological stability distinguishes them from free phrases and compound words.

  3. Phraseological and phraseomatic units are made up of words of different degree of wordness depending on the type of set expressions they are used in. (Cf. e.g.

    small hours


    red tape.)

    Their structural separateness, an important factor of their stability, distinguishes them from compound words (cf. e.g.



    black market).

Other aspects of their stability are: stability of use, lexical stability and semantic stability.

  1. Stability of use means that set expressions are reproduced ready-made and not created in speech. They are not elements of individual style of speech but language units.

  2. Lexical stability means that the components of set expressions are either irreplaceable (e.g.

    red tape, mare’s nest)

    or partly replaceable within the bounds of phraseological or phraseomatic variance: lexical (e.g.

    a skeleton in the cupboard — a skeleton in the closet),

    grammatical (e.g.

    to be in deep water — to be in deep waters),

    positional (e.g.

    head over ears — over head and ears),

    quantitative (e.g.

    to lead smb a dance — to lead smb a pretty dance),

    mixed variants (e.g.

    raise (stir up) a hornets’ nest about one’s ears — arouse (stir up) the nest of hornets).

10. Semantic stability is based on the lexical stability of set expressions. Even when occasional changes ‘are introduced the meaning of set expression is preserved. It may only be specified, made more precise, weakened or strengthened. In other words in spite of all occasional changes phraseological and phraseomatic units, as distin-
guished from free phrases, remain semantically invariant or are destroyed. For example, the substitution of the verbal component in the free phrase

to raise a question

by the verb

to settle (to settle a question)

1 This approach is suggested and worked out by Prof. A. V. Kunin. — See: ^ А. В. Кунин. Английская фразеология. М., 1970.


the meaning of the phrase, no such change occurs in

to raise (stir up) a hornets’ nest about one’s

11. An integral part of this approach is a method of phraseological identification which helps to single out set expressions in Modern English.

2014-07-19 18:44
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