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Classification of phraseological units


There are diverse views on which conventionalized complex expressions should be the subject matter of phraseology, and that is why there are variances in categorization and classification of these units.


There are a considerable number of classifications based on different principles established by different scholars.


Classification of phraseological units may be based on their grammaticalcharacteristics. In this case scholars distinguish between word-like(side by side)and sentence-like phraseological units (or phraseological expressions) (Life is not a bed of roses).


Etymological classification of phraseological units reveals their origin. Many of them come from the Bible (Love not in word but in deed; Man shall not live by bread alone; In much wisdom is much grief; Appearances are deceitful; A good name is better than riches; The forbidden fruit is sweetest), some of them come from farming (to call a spade a spade, to speed the plough; hold your horses), some of them originated from collocations habitually used by sailors (between wind and water; to know the ropes; to blow off steam), medical people (to take one’s medicine), and lawyers (burden of proof).


The traditional and the oldest principle for classifying phraseological units is based on their content and might be called thematic.This approach is widely used in numerous English and American guides to idioms (e.g. idioms referring to confusion: slipped my mind, can't make head or tail of it, on the tip of the tongue, I haven't the clue; to meeting people: feeling a bit under the weather, talking shop, I don't feel up to;idioms of complaining or commiserating: a stab in the back, pay lip service to, fed up to the teeth with). The thematic approach has its merits but it does not take into consideration the linguistic features of phraseological units.


Russian phraseological theory is based predominantly on linguistic parameters. From the mid-1970s it has had the strongest influences on British phraseological theory /Cowie 1998:213/


Classification of phraseological units by V.V. Vinogradov is based on the semantic approach,i.e. the different degree of semantic cohesion between the components of a phraseological unit, semantic motivation. He singles out three classes of them:

phraseological combinations (фразеологические сочетания);

phraseological unities (фразеологические единства);

phraseological fusions (also called idioms) (фразеологические сращения).


Phraseological combinations are word groups with a partially changed meaning. They are usually made up of two open-class words and one of them is used figuratively. Phraseological combinations are clearly and fully motivated, i.e. their meaning can be easily deduced from the meanings of its constituents and common knowledge of the world (to take something for granted, a bosom friend, to meet the demand/necessity/requirement).


Phraseological unitiesare word groups with a completely changed meaning when the meaning of the word group does not correspond to the meanings of its constituent parts, yet the metaphor on which the shift of meaning is based is transparent (to look a gift horse in the mouth ‘to examine a present too critically’; to blow off steam ‘to release pent-up emotions’, Arcadian life ‘simple and pleasant country life’).


Phraseological fusions are word groups with a completely changed, demotivated meaning, the metaphor has lost its clarity and became obscure and opaque (at sixes and sevens ‘in confusion or in disagreement’; to spill the beans ‘to divulge information indiscreetly’).


The weak points of this classification is that the borderline between the types of phraseological units, especially the borderline separating unities from fusion, is vague and subjective. Moreover, it does not take into account the structural characteristics of phraseological units.


Classification of phraseological units (mainly two-word collocations) by N.N. Amosova is based on contextual approach. She argued that free word groups make up variable contexts, and substitution of one element in the word group does not change the meaning of the other (e.g. a small/large/great town/room/audience). But phraseological units make up a non-variable, fixed context, they allow no substitution of the kind (small (early) hours but not *little/big hours, red tape not *blue or *ribbon for ‘bureaucracy’).


She subdivides phraseological units into phrasemes in which only one word has a specialized meaning and restricted context (small in the meaning of ‘early’ is used only with hours, small in the meaning of ‘trivial’ is used only with talk) and idioms where the whole word group possesses a specialized meaning, none of the words are used literally, and all the words are mutually contextually bound (red tape, blue stocking).


The classification of phraseological units may be based on the analysis of their syntactic functions.


In the traditional functional approach to classification of phraseological units they distinguish the following their types:

verbal (or verb-equivalent) (to run for one's life);

substantive (or noun equivalent) (red tape; dog's life);

adjectival (or adjective equivalent) (safe and sound, as cool as a cucumber);

adverbial (or adverb equivalent) (by hook or by crook ‘at any cost’);

interjectional (or interjection-equivalent) (Good grief! Good heavens!).


A.I. Smirnitsky offered a classification which combines structuraland semantic approaches. Phraseological units in this classification are grouped according to the number of significant elements. Two large groups were established: a) one-summit unitswith one meaningful constituent: to give up, to be lifted; and b) two- or multi-summit units with two or more meaningful parts: black art; first night, common sense.


Then, within each of these large groups of phraseological units they are further classified according to the part-of-speech meaning of the summit member into verbal-adverbial (to give up); verbal adjectival (to be tired); prepositional-substantitive (by heart), attributive-substantitive units (black art), and others.


A.I. Smirnitsky also distinguished between proper phraseological units with non-figurative meaning and idioms, which are metaphorical.


A.V. Kunin worked out the most comprehensiveclassification of phraseological units and combined structural-semantic principles of classification, quotient of stability of phraseological units and their functions in communication. His classification needs a special analysis, here only the most important features of this theory are mentioned.


From the point of view of the functionthat phraseological units perform in speech, he subdivided them into the following four major classes:

1) nominativethat perform nominating function; they are utterances below the level of a sentence(to breath one’s last ‘to die’, Hobson’s choice ‘no alternative; take what you are offered or none at all’, off colour ‘not in the usual form’, safe and sound, see how the land lies, wear and fear);

2) communicative that convey the thought; they include proverbs and sayings:It is as broad as it is long‘it is the same whichever way you view it’ A cheerful wife is the joy of life; A hungry man is an angry man; A fool may make money but it takes a wise man to spend it; Fingers were made before forks; He is the richest that has fewest wants; and If a man deceived me once, shame on him; if twice, shame on me;

3) nominative-communicativeword groups that normally perform anominating function but only slight transformations in grammar make them perform a communicative function(to break the ice – the ice is broken; to square the circle ‘to attempt something impossible’—the circle is squared);

4) interjectionalphraseological unitsthat mainlyexpress emotions (Well, I’ll never! By George! It’s a pretty kettle of fish!).


He was also the first to apply in practice theoretical principles to the choice and classification of phraseological units. They helped to determine which units are to be included and how they should be presented in an entry. The first edition of his Англо-русский фразеологический словарь(English-Russian Phraseological Dictionary) was in 1955. The second (1956), the third (1967), the fourth (1984) and the fifth (1998) editions are improved in selection, systematic analysis and descriptive precision.


In his dictionary A.V. Kunin is careful to limit coverage of restricted collocations to those that allow no or minimal variation (e.g. the naked truth;ask/look for trouble).


At the same time he distinguishes several types of phraseological variants:

lexical (to bear/give/lend a hand; not to lift/raise/stir/turn a finger);

grammatical (in deep water/waters; Damocles’ sword/the sword of Damocles);

lexical-grammatical (close/shut a/the door);

positional (head over ears/over head and ears);

orthographical (hand in glove/hand-in-glove) and some others.


In cases when variation involves fundamental structural and semantic differences they are regarded as members of the same phraseological series and are treated as distinct entries each having their own number (for example, C 179. care killed a/the cat, C 270. a cat has nine lives, C 280. a cat with nine lives, C 290. have as many lives as a cat, C 314. cat and dog existence).


A.V. Kunin’s dictionary arranges phraseological units according to the pivotal word – the central and invariable component of the word group which is determined by a number of principles. To facilitate use of the dictionary, all phraseological units are also listed in alphabetical order with the index of their entry in the dictionary. Thus, in the alphabetical list of the included word groups the phraseological unit misfortunes never come alone/singly) has the index number M-811.This index number means that phraseological unit is to be found in the dictionary under the letter M in entry 811, and the letter M indicates that the pivotal word here is misfortunes.


As A.P. Cowie remarks, “despite its limitations, which arise chiefly from the difficulties experienced by the compiler in gaining access to up-to-date texts and, in particular, modern non-literary material, the English-Russian Phraseological Dictionary is a meticulous work of scholarship and a model of theory-driven lexicography” /Cowie 1998:220/.


The first (and probably the best), large-scale, theoretically grounded English phraseological dictionary compiled by native speakers is the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English(1975, 1983)byA.P. Cowie, R. Mackinand I.R. McCaig. Like A.V. Kunin’s Dictionary it contains a theoretical section where the authors explain how word groups – candidates for inclusion – were accessed, and which framework of categories of phraseological units (compositesand functional expressions) the authors followed.


The composites and functional expressions were subdivided according to the degree of idiomaticity and called pure idiomswith totatllytransferred and hardly deducible meanings (spill the beans ‘to tell a secret too soon or to the wrong person’), figurative idiomsin which interpretation ofmetaphormay restore the meaning of the phrase(a clean sheet ‘a good reputation’) andrestricted collocationswithout a metaphor (a safe job). In the list of restricted collocationsthe authors included only the entirely invariable items (to break one’s journey, a safe job) or items with limited valence (to do the necessary/needful).


Another characteristic of the dictionary is that the compilers provide lexical and grammatical information about internal and external valence and variability of phraseological units. For example, they use special conventions to signal that the figurative idiom hold water ‘to be sound, valid’ is usually preceded by the subjects theory, argument, explanation, reason, excuse, belief, need. This information is of great value for a non-native speaker, it helps to use phraseological units with confidence.


The most comprehensive Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms by Sophia Lubensky,edited by Random House in1995, is also compiled under the influence of A.V. Kunin’s theory. It presents some 13,000 traditional Russian idioms and combines features of translation and learner’s dictionaries. It uses the term ‘idiom’ in its wider sense treating it like a ‘phraseological unit’.


The most common 500 proverbs and sayings used in Russian and Soviet fiction literature in the 19th – 20th centuries and in oral communication with their English equivalents are presented in the Русско-английский словарь пословиц и поговорок by S.S. Kuzminand N.L. Shadrin /1996/. The dictionary is richly illustrated with quotations.



Further reading:


Амосова Н.Н. Основы английской фразеологии. – Л.: Изд-во Ленинградского университета, 1968.

Англо-русский словарь глагольных словосочетаний (English-Russian Dictionary of Verbal Collocations) /Под редакцией Э.М.Медниковой. – М.: Русский язык, 1986.

Виноградов В.В. Лексикология и лексикография. Избранные труды. – М.: Наука, 1977.

Кузьмин, С.С., Шадрин Н.Л. Русско-английский словарь пословиц и поговорок. – Спб.: МИК/Лань, 1996.

Кунин А.В. Английская фразеология. – М.: Высшая школа, 1970.

Кунин А.В. Англо-русский фразеологический словарь. – М.: Советская Энциклопедия, 1984.

Кунин А.В. Курс фразеологии современного английского языка. – М.: Высшая школа, 1986.

Телия В.Н. Типы языковых значений. Связанное значение слова в языке. – М.: Наука, 1981.

Шадрин Н.Л. Перевод фразеологических единиц и сопоставительная стилистика. – Саратов, Изд-во Саратовского университета, 1991.

Benson M., Benson E., Ilson R. The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English. – Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 1986; M.: Русский язык, 1990.

Cowie A.P., Mackin R. Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English. – Oxford: OUP, v.1-2, 1984.

Idioms: structural and psychological perspectives (ed. by Martin Everaert, et al.) – Hillsdale, New Jersey: LEA, 1995.

Lubensky, Sophia. Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms. – New York: Random House, 1995.

Phraseology (Ed. by A.P. Cowie). – Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.





You shall know a word by the company it keeps.

— J.R. Firth

Most wonderful of all are words, and how they make friends one with another.

— O. Henry

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