Idiomatic expressions

Phraseological units and types of phraseology. Problems phraseology: the differences in terminology, the difference of phraseology of free groups. Basic approaches to the classification and study of phraseological units: functional, contextual, semantic.

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Институт филологии и языковой коммуникации

Кафедра лингвистики и межкультурной коммуникации

035700.62 Лингвистика



Выполнил студент группы ИЯ12-05Б

Чудаева Н.А.

Проверил к.филол.н.,

доцент кафедры ЛиМКК

Кругликова Е.А.

Красноярск 2014


    • 3.1 Types of phraseological units
    • 4.1 Differences in Terminology
    • 4.2 Distinguishing Phraseological Units from Free Word-Groups
    • 5.1 Functional Approach
    • 5.2 Contextual Approach
    • 5.3 Semantic Approach


Nick C. Ellis, a famous Professor of Psychology and a Research Scientist at the English Language Institute of the University of Michigan, has stated that phraseology is `the periphery and the heart of language'. This indisputable statement makes us believe in the necessity of studying thoroughly one of the most important branches of lexicology.

The report is clearly structured and consists of five chapters: some of them are supposed to fortify the cumulative knowledge about phraseology and provide with new material based on salient examples; others - to raise reader's awareness about the issues of phraseology one can collide with and describe three main approaches to the classification and study of phraseological units.


Phraseology is a branch of linguistics which studies different types of set expressions, which like words name various objects and phenomena. They exist in the language as ready-made units [Бабич, 2008]. Phraseology is usually presented as a sub-field of lexicology dealing with the study of word combinations rather than single words. It appeared in the domain of lexicology and is undergoing the process of segregating as a separate branch of linguistics as lexicology deals with words and their meanings, whereas phraseology studies such collocations of words (phraseologisms, phraseological units, idioms), where the meaning of the whole collocation is different from the simple sum of literal meanings of the words, comprising a phraseological unit [Кругликова, 2013].


Words put together to form lexical units make phrases or word-groups. It will be recalled that lexicology deals with words, word-forming morphemes and word-groups. We assume that the word is the basic lexical unit.

Word-groups like words may be analysed from the point of view of their motivation. Semantically all word-groups may be classified into motivated and non-motivated. They are described as lexically motivated if the combined lexical meaning of the groups is deducible from the meaning of their components. The nominal groups, e.g. red flower, heavy weight and the verbal group, e.g. take lessons, are from this point of view motivated, whereas structurally identical word-groups red tape -- `official bureaucratic methods', heavy father -- `serious or solemn part in a theatrical play', and take place -- `occur' are lexically non-motivated. In these groups the constituents do not possess the denotational meaning found in the same words outside these groups [Гинзбург, 1979].

The degree of motivation can be different. Between the extremes of complete motivation and lack of motivation there are innumerable intermediate cases. For example, the degree of lexical motivation in the nominal group black market is higher than in black death, but lower than in black dress, though none of the groups can be considered completely non-motivated [Кругликова, 2013].

It follows that word-groups may be also classified into motivated and non-motivated units. Non-motivated word-groups are habitually described as phraseological units or idioms [Гинзбург, 1979].


Phraseological units, according to Prof. Kunin A.V., are stable word-groups with partially or fully transferred meanings. They can be defined as a reproduced and idiomatic non-motivated or partially motivated unit built up according to the model of free word-groups or sentences and semantically and syntactically brought into correlation with words [Кругликова, 2013].

According to Rosemarie Glaeser, a phraseological unit is a lexicalized, reproducible bilexemic or polylexemic word group in common use, which has relative syntactic and semantic stability, may be idiomatized, may carry connotations, and may have an emphatic or intensifying function in a text.

3.1 Types of phraseological units

According to the degree of idiomaticity phraseological units can be classified into three big groups: phraseological fusions, phraseological unities and phraseological collocations [Виноградов, 1947].

Phraseological fusions are completely non-motivated word-groups, e.g. as mad as a hatter -- 'utterly mad'; white elephant -- 'an expensive but useless thing' [Кругликова, 2013]. The meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of the constituent parts; the metaphor, on which the shift of meaning was based, has lost its clarity and is obscure [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000].

Phraseological unities are partially non-motivated as their meaning can usually be perceived through the metaphoric meaning of the whole phraseological unit [Зыкова, 2007]. For example, to show one's teeth, to wash one's dirty linen in public if interpreted as semantically motivated through the combined lexical meaning of the component words would naturally lead one to understand these in their literal meaning. The metaphoric meaning of the whole unit, however, readily suggests `take a threatening tone' or 'show an intention to injure' for show one's teeth and `discuss or make public one's quarrels' for wash one's dirty linen in public. Phraseological unities are as a rule marked by a comparatively high degree of stability of the lexical components [Гинзбург, 1979].

Phraseological collocations are not only motivated but contain one component used in its direct meaning, while the other is used metaphorically, e.g. to meet the requirements, to attain success. In this group of phraseological units some substitutions are possible which do not destroy the meaning of the metaphoric element, e.g. to meet the needs, to meet the demand, to meet the necessity; to have success, to lose success. These substitutions are not synonymical and the meaning of the whole changes, while the meaning of the verb meet and the noun success are kept intact [Кругликова, 2013].

It is obvious that this classification system does not take into account the structural characteristics of phraseological units. On the other hand, the border-line separating unities from fusions is vague and even subjective. One and the same phraseological unit may appear motivated to one person (and therefore be labelled as a unity) and demotivated to another (and be regarded as a fusion). The more profound one's command of the language and one's knowledge of its history, the fewer fusions one is likely to discover in it [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000]. phraseological semantic context


Attempts have been made to approach phraseology in different ways. There is a divergence of opinions as to the nature and essential features of phraseological units, how to distinguish them from free word groups and how to define them and how to classify them [Бабич, 2008].

4.1 Differences in Terminology

The existing terms, e.g. set-phrases, idioms, word-equivalents, set-expressions, phrases, fixed word-groups, and collocations reflect to a certain extent the main debatable issues of phraseology which centre on the divergent views concerning the nature and essential features of phraseological units as distinguished from the so-called free word-groups. The term set-phrase implies that the basic criterion of differentiation is stability of the lexical components and grammatical structure of word-groups. The term word-equivalent stresses not only the semantic but also the functional inseparability of certain word-groups and their aptness to function in speech as single words. The term idiom generally implies that the essential feature of the linguistic units under consideration is idiomaticity or lack of motivation. This term habitually used by English and American linguists is very often treated as synonymous with the term phraseological unit universally accepted in Russia [Гинзбург, 1979] which was first introduced by Academician V. V. Vinogradov whose contribution to the theory of Russian phraseology cannot be overestimated.

Thus differences in terminology reflect insufficiency of positive or wholly reliable criteria [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000] used to distinguish between free word-groups and a specific type of linguistic units generally known as phraseology [Гинзбург, 1979].

4.2 Distinguishing Phraseological Units from Free Word-Groups

The complexity of the problem may be largely accounted for by the fact that the border-line between free or variable word-groups and phraseological units is not clearly defined [Гинзбург, 1979].

This is probably the most discussed -- and the most controversial -- problem in the field of phraseology. The task of distinguishing between free word-groups and phraseological units is further complicated by the existence of a great number of marginal cases, the so-called semi-fixed or semi-free word-groups, also called non-phraseological word-groups which share with phraseological units their structural stability but lack their semantic unity and figurativeness, e. g. to go to school, to go by bus, to commit suicide [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000].

The term phraseological unit to denote set expressions or certain groups of set expressions was introduced by acad. Vinogradov V.V., who attempted to work out a reliable criterion to distinguish free word-groups from set expressions.

Firstly, phraseological units are defined as non-motivated word-groups that cannot be freely made up in speech, but are reproduced as ready-made units. It is a group of words whose meaning cannot be deduced by examining the meanings of the constituent lexemes. The essential features of phraseological units are lack of motivation and stability of the lexical components. The English language contains lots of such expressions, e.g. nuts and bolts, one's cup of tea, to dine with Duke Humphrey, etc.

Secondly, free word groups are formed in the process of speech according to the standards of the language, while phraseological units exist in the language side by side with separate words. Phraseological units are reproduced in speech whereas free word groups are constructed in the process of communication by joining together words into a phrase. The difference often is in the interrelation of lexical components.

Thirdly, in free word-groups each of its constituents preserves its denotational meaning. In the case of phraseological units however the denotational meaning belongs to the word-group as a single semantically inseparable unit.

Fourthly, phraseological units possess a greater structural unity than free word-groups. Components of a free word group may have any of the forms of their paradigm. The components of a phraseological unit very often have just one form of all the forms of their paradigms [Бабич, 2008].

Fifthly, phraseological units have been defined as word-groups conveying a single concept whereas in free word-groups each meaningful component stands for a separate concept. It is the feature that makes phraseological units similar to words: both words and phraseological units possess semantic unity. Yet, words are also characterized by structural unity which phraseological units very obviously lack being combinations of words.

Sixthly, free word-groups are so called not because of any absolute freedom in using them but simply because they are each time built up anew in the speech process whereas idioms are used as ready-made units with fixed and constant structures [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000].


The problems of phraseology are viewed from different angles. There are three main approaches which are written and represented by different scholars. These approaches appear as the keys to a better understanding of what phraseological units are.

5.1 Functional Approach

The first of the approaches is the so-called functional approach. This classification, suggested by prof. Arnold IV., is based on the grammatical unity typical of all phraseological units [Бабич, 2008] and assumes that phraseological units may be defined as specifies word-groups functioning as word-equivalents.

It will be recalled that when we compare a free word-group, e.g, heavy weight, and a phraseological unit, e.g. heavy father, we observe that in the case of the free word-group each of the member-words has its own denotational meaning. So the lexical meaning of the word-group can be adequately described as the combined lexical meaning of its constituents. In the case of the phraseological unit, however, the denotational meaning belongs to the word-group as a single semantically inseparable unit. The individual member-words do not seem to possess any lexical meaning outside the meaning of the group. The same is true of the stylistic reference and emotive charge of phraseological units. Taken in isolation the words are stylistically neutral.

The term grammatical inseparability implies that the grammatical meaning or, to be more exact, the part-of-speech meaning of phraseological units is felt as belonging to the word-group as a whole irrespective of the part-of-speech meaning of the component words. It will be observed that in the free word-groups, e.g. heavy weight, long time, the adjectives heavy and long function as attributes to other members of the sentence (weight, time), whereas the phraseological units heavy father and in the long run are functionally inseparable and are always viewed as making up one and only one member of the sentence, e.g. the subject, the object, etc.

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.

An 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. If we analyse such idioms, as, e.g., to carry coals to Newcastle, to fall between two stools, or 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. 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.

In addition, the bulk of idioms never function in speech as word-equivalents which is a proof of their semantic and grammatical separability [Гинзбург, 1979].

5.2 Contextual Approach

Phraseological units in Modern English are also approached from the contextual point of view which was suggested by Prof. N. N. Amosova. She considers phraseological units to be units of fixed context. Fixed context is characterized by a specific and unchanging sequence of definite lexical components and peculiar relationship between them [Бабич, 2008]. 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 town may be substituted for by a number of other nouns, e.g. room, audience, etc., the adjective small by a number of other adjectives, e.g. large, big, etc. The substitution of nouns does not change the meaning of small which denotes in all word-groups -'not large'. The substitution of adjectives does not likewise affect the meaning of town. Thus variability of the lexical components is the distinguishing feature of the so-called free word-groups.

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.' -- there is no variable member as small denotes `early' only in collocation with hours. 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.

These 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 [Гинзбург, 1979].

Units of fixed context are subdivided into two types: phrasemes and idioms. Phrasemes are, as a rule, two-member word-groups in which one of the members has a particular meaning dependent on the second component as it is found only in the given context, e.g. in small hours the second component hours serves as the only clue to this particular meaning of the first component. Phrasemes are always binary, e.g. in small talk, husband's tea, pleasant hours, one of the components has a phraseologically bound meaning, the other serves as the distinguishing context.

The approaches discussed above are sufficient to single out the extreme cases: highly idiomatic phraseological units and free word- groups. The status of the bulk of word-groups possessing different degrees of idiomaticity cannot be defined with certainty. There is still another approach to the problems of phraseology suggested and worked out by prof. Kunin A.V..

5.3 Semantic Approach

This classification was suggested by acad. Vinogradov V.V., who developed some points first advanced by the Swiss scientist Charles Bally. He described phraseological units as lexical complexes which cannot be freely made up in speech, but are reproduced as ready-made units. The meaning of such expressions as distinguished from the meaning of free combinations is idiomatic. The classification is based on the motivation of the unit.

According to the degree of idiomatic meaning of various groups of phraseological units, Vinogradov V.V. classified them as follows:

a) phraseological fusions are units whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of their component parts, the meaning of phraseological fusions is unmotivated at the present stage of language development, e.g. red tape, a mare's nest. The meaning of the components is completely absorbed by the meaning of the whole;

b) phraseological unities are expressions the meaning of which can be deduced from the meanings of their components; the meaning of the whole is based on the transferred meanings of the components, e.g. to show one's teeth (to be unfriendly), to stand to one's guns (to refuse to change one's opinion), etc. They are motivated expressions;

c) phraseological combinations (collocations) are traditional word groups. Word combinations are combined with their original meaning, e.g. to break news, to meet the demands, to take a liking, etc. The components are limited in the ability to combine with each other by some linguistic factors [Бабич, 2008].


Taking everything into consideration, it can be concluded that phraseology is a vital part of the English language which lies at the core of a wide range of research areas which all contribute to a better understanding of language [Meunier, Granger, 2008].

Thus a better understanding of language leads to successful use of phraseological units, or idioms, which, as they are called by most western scholars, represent what can probably be described as the most picturesque, colourful and expressive part of the language's vocabulary. Moreover, oral or written speech lacking idioms loses much in expressiveness, colour and emotional force [Антрушина, Афанасьева, Морозова, 2000]. That is why it is so essential to investigate all the issues concerning this topic and apply the idioms in a proper way to avoid misunderstanding.


1. Cowie, A.P. ed., 2001. Phraseology. Theory, Analysis and Applications. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Fontenelle, T., 2008. Practical Lexicography: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. Meunier, F. and Granger, S., 2008. Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching. John Bemjamins B.V.

4. Skandera, P., 2007. Phraseology and Culture in English. Mouton de Gruyter.

5. Антрушина, Г.Б., Афанасьева, О.В. и Морозова, Н.Н., 2000. English Lexicology. Лексикология английского языка: учебное пособие для студентов. 3-ье издание (на англ. яз.). М.: Дрофа.

6. Бабич, Г.Н., 2008. Lexicology: A Current Guide. Лексикология английского языка: учебное пособие. М.: Флинта. Наука.

7. Виноградов, В.В., 1947. Об основных типах фразеологических единиц в русском языке. Ленинград.

8. Гинзбург, Р.З., Хидекель, С.С., Князева, Г.Ю. и Санкин А.А., 1979. A Course in Modern English Lexicology. Лексикология английского языка: учебник для институтов и факультетов иностранных языков. М.: Высшая школа.

9. Зыкова, И.В., 2007. Практический курс английской лексикологии. A Practical Course in English Lexicology: учебное пособие для студентов лингв. вузов и фак. ин. яз. 2-ое издание, исправленное. М.: Издательский центр «Академия».

10. Кругликова, Е.А., 2013. Лексикология английского языка. Учебно-методическое пособие. Электронное издание. Красноярск: СФУ.

11. Кунин, А.В., 1972. Фразеология современного английского языка. М.: Международные отношения.

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