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Phraseology: general characteristics


So far we have discussed the ways of naming a concept by a borrowed word, by a secondary use of the actual word or by a newly derived word. But a concept may also be lexicalized by combinations of words arranged into phrases and sentences according to certain laws.


Traditionally syntax is concerned with studying laws governing the so-called free phrase and sentence structures ( a nice girl; I love you ). But lexicology examines special aspects of the ways the words combine into phrases. Its interest is based, first of all, on certain preferences and restrictions that words in every language undergo in their general ability to form grammatically and logically acceptable phrases.


For example, the phrase to drink tea is acceptable in English though it is preferable to combine the noun tea with the verb to have and to say to have tea. Or, there is mutual expectancy between the English verb to shrug and the noun shoulders, and this restriction is of great interest to lexicology and lexicography. The adjective blond ‘light-coloured (usu. yellowish)’, according to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, is mostly collocated with the noun ‘hair’ like blond hair. Though another dictionary may point to a wider use of this adjective, its ability to apply to the word skin to denote ‘of a pale white or rosy white colour’, and even to some other words like in a table of blond walnut to denote ‘made light-coloured by bleaching’, the word blond still has severe restrictions on its application and a word combination such as * ablond sweater is hardly possible.


The restrictions and preferences of words in their combining activity are different in different languages. They should be learned and memorized, and thus many word combinations become complex units of the lexicon.


Besides preferences and restrictions, lexicology is interested in one more aspect of word combinations – their meaning. Some of the phrases and even sentences in a language, just as derived and compound words, may mean more than their constituents suggest. This additional meaning is a part of their systemic meaning rather than pragmatics, it does not derive from a new situation in which the words are used. Thus, Hobson’s choice means‘no choice at all’, in cold blood means ‘deliberately, without passion’, and an old bird is not to be caught with chaff stands for ‘experienced people are not easily fooled or deceived’. The additional semantic component that can hardly be deduced from the meanings of constituent words is called idiomatic meaning. It turns word combinations and sentences into ready-made units that become a part of the lexicon. People should learn them specially in order to understand and use them correctly.


Regularly reproduced and having specific restrictions, structure and meaning, such word combinations should definitely be memorized, lexicalized and enter our lexicon. They should be the subject of lexicology alongside its other lexical units, like derivational affixes, lexemes and regularly used senses of lexemes.


These complex ready-made and often idiomatic units, for which there is no unanimously accepted term, are the objects of a special branch of lexicology – phraseology. Some scholars regard phraseology even as a special branch of linguistics due to its very specific object of investigation, implied complex methods of analysis and widespread research activity.


The scope of questions raised and discussed by phraseology is diverse. They range from classification of phraseological units to investigating their specific aspects including stylistic value, grammatical, semantic and etymological characteristics, pragmatics, contrastive analysis and problems of translation, their role in a language and their representation in the mind.


It should be underlined that the achievements of Soviet phraseology led by V.V. Vinogradov, A.V. Kunin, A.I. Smirnitsky, N.N. Amosova, A.S. Akhmanova and nowadays by V.N. Telia, N.L. Shadrin and others are widely recognized in the scientific world. “’Classical’ Russian theory with its later extensions and modifications is probably the most pervasive influence at work in current phraseological studies and is unrivalled in its application to the design and compilation of dictionaries” /Cowie 1998: 2/.


Nowadays many linguists realize that phraseological units are not a peripheral phenomenon in lexicon bordering on syntax. Even if they are from some points of view, this type of word combinations makes up a large part of our language knowledge. They tell us a lot about the core of a language. (I.Mel’chuk has even claimed that “people do not speak in words, they speak in phrasemes” /Mel’chuk 1995: 168/.) Phraseological units are specific lexical units that are framed into syntax. They are also a place where phonetics, semantics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics meet. As a consequence, phraseology is turning into an important interdisciplinary research for scholars of different backgrounds.

Theoretical linguists are interested in knowing which principles relate phraseological units to syntactic configurations. Computational linguists work on processing systems that can easily recognize phraseological units in text. Psychologists are interested in production and comprehension of these conventionalized complex units and in speech errors that people make producing and processing them.


In this chapter we shall limit ourselves to traditional problems of phraseology: the choice of units for inclusion into phrasecon and their most well known classifications.

It is necessary to describe the features that both types of word groups have in common before we start discussing criteria used to differentiate between ready-made lexicalized word combinations, investigated by phraseology, and free non-lexicalized word groups, which remain the object of syntax. All words in all types of word groups have certain lexical and grammatical restrictions and a certain grammatical structure characteristic of a language.



Lexical and grammatical valence in word groups


All words in a language form word groups and sentences if word combinations do not violate syntax. A child smiles is a regular word combination in English but * a smiles child would be an ill-formed phrase. Yet, the correct syntax is not enough for a word group to be correct and accepted.


The sentence invented by N. Chomsky Green ideas sleep furiously is perfect from the point of view of syntax but the words do not come together because in this sentence immediate phrases do not make sense.


Our general knowledge of the world installs certain selectional restrictions on word usage. Words make word groups in speech if their semantic structures are compatible, too. Thus, a question can be urgent, delicate, disputable or serious, but not* laughing, *soft, or *blue, the adjective deep ‘extending far from surface downward’ comes together with a noun well ‘a pit or hole sunk into the earth to reach a supply of water’ as they both have a common semantic component of ‘having measure from surface to bottom’ but such sequences as * a deep building or * a deep tree sound odd.


Restrictions on sequences of words may also be determined by the language structure, by the individual meaning of a word and the language norms, as in the case with the adjective blond described above.


For stylistic purposes, however, in order to create special verbal effects, to communicate about some uncertain vaguely structured concepts and to cause unusual and rich associations of ideas, writers and poets often violate conventional selection restrictions on word usage like in the following poem by E.E.Cumming:


Women and men (noth little and small)

Cared for anyone not at all

They sowed their isn’t they reaped their same

Sun moon stars rain.


But lexicology deals with word groups that have a high degree of expectancy.


The conventional mutual expectancy of words in all types of word groups, irrespective of the degree of structural and semantic cohesion of their components, may be described, as in chemistry, by their valence – the power of a word to combine with another one in speech.


The aptness of a word to appear in a certain grammatical (syntactic) pattern may be termed as its grammatical valence.


Words are characterized by the ability to be used only in a definite grammatical context. The noun, for example, pencil, forming noun phrases may be used with an adjective (in a adj – n pattern): a red pencil, preposition and another noun (in a n – prep – n pattern): a pencil for present; in verb phrases this noun may be used in v – n patterns: to buy a pencil. The adjective clever may be used in a pattern adj – prep – n like in clever at mathematics and in a word group with a noun adj-n: a clever boy ).


Though words’ grammatical valence is predetermined to a large extent by grammar rules, it is still different for each particular word. Even synonyms may differ in their grammatical valence (cf.: similar v+n pattern in both the synonymic verbs propose and suggest as in propose a stroll and to suggest a plan; but different patterns in collocation with other words propose + infinitive, and suggest +that clause, or suggest +-ing form).


The grammatical valence of correlative words in different languages may differ greatly, too (to explain to somebody; to smile at somebody( v+prep+n/pron ) in English but объяснять кому-то; улыбаться кому-то( v+n/pron ) in Russian; to enter the room ( v+n ) in English, but войти в комнату( v+prep+n ) in Russian.


So, the differences in grammatical valence of correlative words are usually accounted for their semantic differences and differences in the structure of the languages.


Even when used in an appropriate grammatical pattern prescribed by language laws, a word may not form a natural sounding combination because it also has certain lexical restrictions on collocations with other lexemes.


The aptness of a word to appear in certain combinations with other lexemes may be called its lexical valence.


Every word is restricted in use and has a capacity to appear only in a certain lexical context. Yet there are some words, like good or bad, which have a great, almost unlimited lexical valence and they appear in combinations with various words. But some words, like shrug, blond are characterized by severe restrictions in combinability that should be memorized ( to shrug shoulders, a blond /hair/skin/person ).


Individual words have individual lexical valence. Even close synonyms display difference in collocability. Thus, lift and raise are synonyms and they are interchangeable in the context of to lift/raise one's arms but you cannot *lift a flag, you raise it, as you raise a question but do not *lift it. Likewise you say you do not lift a finger to help somebody but you cannot say that you * do not raise your finger to do it.


Lexical valence of correlative words in different languages is usually different. You cannot say, for example, *room flowers in English as you say комнатные цветы in Russian. You have to say pot flowers or indoor/house plants because the word flower in English does not collocate with the word room.


In Russian the word украшать can be used with the words стол, салат, торт; in English the correlative word decorate can collocate with the word a cake but not with the words table (they dress tables ) or salad (they garnish salads ).


Some discrepancies in lexical valence are connected with differences in meaning structure of correlative words. Thus, the difference in combining ability of the English verb bury and the Russian verb хоронить ( to bury the trash but not *хоронить мусор ) may be due to difference in lexical meaning of these verbs. The meaning of the English word bury is broader than the meaning of the Russian word хоронить ( bury ‘to dispose of by depositing in the earth’; хоронить ‘закапывать в землю, помещать в гробницу (тело умершего или его прах после кремации), обычно с соблюдением принятых обрядов’).


Differences in the volume of word categories in different languages (cf. discussed above: украшать in Russian and decorate in English) may also account for some differences in lexical valence.


The impossibility of some word groups to be translated word-for-word may be connected with differences in semantic structures of correlative words. Thus the correlative words heavy and тяжелый have different semantic structures and hence different lexical valence (cf.: heavy beard but ‘густая борода’; heavy eater but‘любитель поесть’; heavy cold but ‘сильная простуда’; heavy bread but ‘плотный по структуре и обильный по калориям продукт’).


So, all words form word groups but all of them have rule-governed and specific grammatical and lexical valence determined by specific language structure. Lexicology and phraseology are especially keen on words with highly restricted lexical and grammatical valence that form complexes and need memorizing.



Structure of word groups


All word groups are different in a grammatical structure; they may be predicative ( he went ) and non-predicative ( red flower ). Non-predicative word groups can be classified into subordinate ( red flower ) and coordinate ( women and men ).


According to the part of speech to which words belong, there are verbal-nominal word groups ( to see a boy ), verbal-pronominal ( to see him ), verbal-prepositional-nominal ( to see to somebody ), verbal-adverbial ( to put aside ), adjectival-nominal ( a red pen ) and others.


Some word groups have a central member, like pencil in a red pencil – they are called endocentric. According to the part-of-speech meaning of the central member all endocentric word- groups may be classified into nominal ( ared flower ), verbal ( to speak loud ) or adjectival ( kind to people ).


Some word groups do not have any central members. All the words in such word groups are equal ( side by side ) and they are called exocentric.


These structural characteristics are observed in word groups of all kinds, both free and conventionalized, and thus all word combinations may be classified on these principles.



4. Free word groups vs. collocation, cliché s, set expressions, idioms, phraseological units


As has already been mentioned, there is no accepted terminology for complex conventionalized word combinations. They use various terms like complex units, collocations, fixed expressions, fixed phrases, phrasemes, phrasal lexemes, phraseolexems, phraseologisms, polylexical expressions, multiword lexemes, full and partial idioms, conventional expressions, phraseological units.


Different terminology is usually determined by different criteria that are used to distinguish between free and bound word combinations. The terms collocations, set-expressions, idioms and phraseological units are used especially often and that is why they need special attention.


Word groups differ, first of all, from the point of view of reproductivity—their ability to be readily reproduced in speech.


Some of them are created spontaneously in speech and do not need memorizing because they are organized according to regular language rules: a clever machine, a pretty girl. They may have never been used before by anybody else, and probably will never be used in the future, like the cleverest hungry man. Such word combinations make up an open class of free word groups, and are mainly studied in syntax.

Some word groups, however, are regularly reproduced in speech by all adult members of the language community and make up patterned complexes due to peculiarities in their combinability. These word groups are called collocations.


Collocations that are just word groups habitually used in speech e.g. kind to people, commit a suicide, to launch a satellite, ladies and gentlemen, Good morning! are often referred to as cliché s. Some of them may include a polysemantic word in one of its minor meanings, like heavy traffic, monumental ignorance or green with envy.


Highly predictable collocations with limited lexical and grammatical valence that allow little or no change at all, like on the one hand, hand in hand, by the way, so far so good, How do you do? are usually referred to as set expressions.


Anyway, in contrast to free word combinations, the elements in collocations repeatedly co-occur and are specifically bound to each other. As well as morphemes and words they are ready-made, regularly reproducible meaningful lexical units.


Making a list of collocations characteristic of a language is a matter of extreme difficulty. One of the attempts in this field is The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English by M. Benson, E. Benson and R. Ilson (1986, 1990) where alongside certain types of grammatical patterns (V+N; N+Prep; N+Inf; N+that clause; Prep+Noun combination; etc.) the authors single out seven major types of lexical collocations (for example, creation and/or activation verbs + N/PRN as in make an impression, compose music, fly a kite, launch a missile; eradication and/or multification verbs + N ( demolish a house, reject an appeal, ease tension; override a veto; lexical collocations consisting of an adverb and a noun as in deeply absorbed or closely acquainted ).


The word ‘collocation’, however, may also be used in a broader sense as any acceptable word group except idioms. Thus, according to Англо-русский словарь глагольных словосочетаний (English-Russian Dictionary of Verbal Collocations) (1986) the verb buy can form only six out of 24 grammatical models characteristic of English verbs and it enters such lexical types of collocations as to buy something (~ a hat, flowers, etc.) to buy somebody (~ a public official, a witness), to buy somebody something (~ please, buy me a pair of new shoes), to buy something for somebody/something (~ to buy a new pair of shoes for me), to buy something in some manner (~ things cheaply/cheap), to buy something in/at/some place (I shall ~ it elsewhere), to buy something from/of/somebody (~ a book from him), to buy something at some price (~ a house at a reasonable price), to buy something by something (~ wool by weight), to buy something with something (~ his favours with flattery), be bought for something (it cannot be bought for gold), be bought in some manner (victory was dearly bought), as well as in the expression the best that money can buy.


The borderline between free and set word groups is very vague. It is usually the degree of reproductivity that matters. Free word groups are not absolutely free in combining with other words because all words in a language have limitations and preferences in usage. Free word groups are relatively free as the words in them have restricted application determined by the language structure. For example, Russian speaking people may say земляные орехи, лесные орехи, грецкие орехи but what other words can be used with the word орехи to indicate their nature type? We may use the adjectives сырые, жареные орехи; орехи c солью, орехи с сахаром to indicate their relatedness to being processed, but what else? And set expressions may not be necessarily absolutely set, or fixed, they may allow certain variation (cf.: not to care a fig/damn ).


Due to this vagueness of borderlines between free and set word groups, the term ‘set-expression’ or even ‘collocation’ can hardly be used for units of phraseology though it is very clear and self-explanatory.


Another widely used term for a unit of phraseology is an ‘idiom’, though in this case attention is paid to its meaning rather than to the restricted valence of words and easy reproductivity of the whole word group.


The lexical meaning of a word group may consist of the combined lexical meanings of the component words ( a blind man ). Such word groups are called completely motivated. The total meaning of such words-groups includes lexical, grammatical and structural meaning of their constituents.


But in some of word groups the lexical meaning may include an additional idiomatic component that cannot be found in any of the constituent parts. To lead to the altar means ‘to marry’; to build castles in the air is ‘to day-dream’; the hill of Achilles means ‘a weak point’; to beat about the bush means ‘to approach a matter in an indirect and roundabout manner’; a blue stocking means ‘derog. a woman who is thought to be too highly educated’ [LDCE] or ‘woman having or affecting literary tastes and learning’ [COED]. Word groups whose meaning cannot be deduced by examining the meaning of their constituent parts are called non-motivated, or idioms.


There are a lot of cases of homonymy between motivated and non-motivated word groups as in apple sauce ‘sauce made of apples’ (a completely motivated word group) and apple sauce ‘nonsense’ (an idiom).


Polysemantic words in a word group are used in one of their meanings, primary or secondary, central or peripheral (cf.: a left hand and a factory hand, a heavy bag and a heavy traffic ). The use of a word in one of its minor meanings makes the word group partially motivated, and the problem of differentiating between a completely motivated word group ( a factory hand ‘a factory worker’) and an idiom ( with a heavy hand ‘clumsily’) becomes more complicated.


Idioms are very frequent in spoken English; they are less common in written English or even more formal situations. Due to their summarizing effect idioms are often used to terminate one topic in conversation and to make transition to another one. Idioms help to create a relaxed atmosphere. Someone whose English is very good but who uses no idioms, can sound formal, rather impersonal and even unfriendly. For this reason knowledge of idioms is important so that one’s business meeting does not to sound “cold”.


At the same time one should be quite careful with idioms. They are not always appropriate because many of them are very informal ( green fingers, to have a bee in one's bonnet ) or too formal ( the compliments of the season, a bone of contention ).


The term ‘idiom’ is especially widely used in English and American linguistics, though it is too polysemantic for a linguistic term. Its major meaning is ‘the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community or class: DIALECT’; ‘the syntactical, grammatical or structural form peculiar to a language’. It also denotes ‘a style of form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or movement, or a medium, or instrument: the modern jazz idiom)’ and ‘an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for ‘the Monday a week after next Monday’)’ /WNCD/. Due to the ambiguity of the term ‘idiom’ many linguists are looking for a special term to denote word complexes that serve as ready-made units.


The most inclusive term used by Russian phraseologists is a ‘ phraseological unit ’.


Phraseological units make up the ‘phrasecon’ of a language – the whole list of idioms ( to break the ice ‘to begin’) and non-idiomatic set-phrases ( to shrug shoulders ), both word-like ( as far as, side by side, at first sight ) and sentence-like (as proverbs, sayings, routine formulae, slogans, maxims, and quotations: Who knows most, speaks least, Teach your child to hold his tongue. he’ll learn enough to speak; Speech is the picture of the mind; It is better to say nothing than not enough ).


Phraseological units are chraracterized, like a word, by semantic unity ( to have a bee in one's bonnet ‘to have a strange fixed idea about something’), grammatical invariability ( to find fault ( not *faults ) with somebody ) and structural integrity ( to carry coal to Newcastle ‘to do anything superfluous or unnecessary’ and nothing can be changed here, for example, to carry coal * toManchester ).


Yet, the degree of word integrity and stability in phraseological units may be different. Many of them may undergo certain structural, grammatical, lexical, stylistic and pragmatic changes and variation because they may include components that allow a certain degree of variability ( as black as coal/ink/midnight/soot; she built herself the (most magnificent) castle in the air, and a bull/elephant in a china shop ).


Though the term ‘phraseological unit’ is very inclusive, the problem of determining the borderline between free word groups and phraseological units remains. Such complexes pronounced as compounds as snowman ‘a figure of a man made of snow’ , nightmare ‘an unplesant and terrible dream’, fiddle-sticks ‘nonsense’ , green belt ‘a stretch of land round of town where building is not allowed, so that trees, woods, etc., remain’ are often regarded as exocentric compoundsand are not included in phraseological dictionaries. But such complexes as jailbird ‘a habitual criminal confined in jail’, night-owl ‘a person who keeps late hours at night (Am.)’, red tape ‘bureaucracy’ are usually included into phraseological dictionaries though the difference between them is very vague.


The closeness of phraseological units to compound words may be regarded as an additional argument for regarding them as ready-made lexical units and including them into the lexicon.





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