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1 See ‘Word-Groups and Phraseological Units’, § 1, p. 64.

the lexical valency of member words heavy, bad, takepresupposes their collocability with rain, mistake, care.

3. The criterion of stability is also criticised as not very reliable in distinguishing phraseological units from other word-groups habitually referred to as phraseology. We observe regular substitution of at least one of the lexical components. In to cast smth in smb’s teeth,e.g. the verb castmay be replaced by fling; to take a decisionis found alongside with to make a decision; not to care a twopennyis just one of the possible variantsof the phrase, whereas in others the noun twopennymay be replaced by a number of other nouns, e.g. farthing, button, pin, sixpence, fig,etc.

It is also argued that stability of lexical components does not presuppose lack of motivation. The word-group shrug one’s shoulders,e.g., does not allow of the substitution of either shrugor shoulders;the meaning of the word-group, however, is easily deducible from the meanings of the member-words, hence the word-group is completely motivated, though stable. Idiomatic word-groups may be variable as far as their lexical components are concerned, or stable. It was observed that, e.g., to cast smth in smb’s teethis a highly idiomatic but variable word-group as the constituent member castmay be replaced by flingor throw;the word-group red tapeis both highly idiomatic and stable.

It follows that stability and idiomaticity may be regarded as two different aspects of word-groups. Stability is an essential feature of set-phrases both motivated and non-motivated. Idiomaticity is a distinguishing feature of phraseological units or idioms which comprise both stable set-phrases and variable word-groups. The two features are not mutually exclusive and may be overlapping, but are not interdependent.

Stability of word-groups may be viewed in terms of predictability of occurrence of member-words. Thus, e.g., the verb shrugpredicts the occurrence of the noun shouldersand the verb clenchthe occurrence of either fistsor teeth.The degree of predictability or probability of occurrence of member-words is different in different word-groups. We may assume, e.g., that the verb shrugpredicts with a hundred per cent probability the occurrence of the noun shoulders,as no other noun can follow this particular verb. The probability of occurrence of the noun lookafter the verb castis not so high because castmay be followed not only by lookbut also by glance, light, lotsand some other nouns. Stability of the word-group in clench one’s fistsis higher than in cast a look,but lower than in shrug one’s shouldersas the verb clenchpredicts the occurrence of either fistsor teeth.

Itis argued that the stability of all word-groups may be statistically calculated and the word-groups where stability exceeds a certain limit (say 50%) may be classified as set-phrases.

Predictability of occurrence may be calculated in relation to one or, more than one constituent of the word-group. Thus, e.g., the degree of probability of occurrence of the noun bullafter the verb takeis very low and may practically be estimated at zero. The two member-words take the bull,however, predict the occurrence of by the hornswith a very high degree of probability.

Stability viewed in terms of probability of occurrence seems a more reliable criterion in differentiating between set-phrases and variable or free word-groups, but cannot be relied upon to single out phraseological units. Besides, it is argued that it is practically impossible to calculate the stability of all the word-groups as that would necessitate investigation into the lexical valency of the whole vocabulary of the English language.

§ 15. Criterion of Function

Another angle from which the problem of phraseology is viewed is the so-called functional approach. This approach assumes that phraseological units may be defined as specify word-groups functioning as word-equivalents.1 The fundamental features of phraseological units thus understood are their semantic and grammatical inseparability which are regarded as distinguishing features of isolated words.

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 wordgroup 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.2 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 meanings of the member-words heavyand fathertaken in isolation are in no way connected with the meaning of the phrase heavy father — ’serious or solemn part in a theatrical play’.

The same is true of the stylistic reference and emotive charge of phraseological units. In free word-groups each of the components preserves as a rule its own stylistic reference. This can be readily observed in the stylistic effect produced by free word-groups made up of words of widely different stylistic value, e.g. to commence to scrub, valiant chapand the like.

A certain humorous effect is attained because one of the member-words (commence, valiant)is felt as belonging to the bookish stylistic layer, whereas the other (scrub, chap)is felt as stylistically neutral or colloquial. When we say, however, that kick the bucketis highly colloquial or heavy fatheris a professional term, we do not refer to the stylistic value of the component words of these phraseological units kick, bucket, heavyor father,but the stylistic value of the word-group as a single whole. Taken in isolation the words are stylistically neutral. It follows that phraseological units are characterised by a single stylistic reference irrespective of the number and nature of their component words. Semantic inseparability of phraseological units is viewed as one of the aspects of idiomaticity 3 which enables us to regard them as semantically equivalent to single words.

1 This approach and the ensuing classification were suggested by Prof. A. I. Smirnitsky in his monograph “Лексикология английского языка". М., 1956.

2 See ‘Word-Groups and Phraseological Units’, § 4, p. 68.

3 Idiomaticity in the functional approach is understood as intralingual phenomenon.

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. Comparing the free word-group, e.g. a long day,and the phraseological unit, e.g. in the long run,we observe that in the free word-group the noun dayand the adjective longpreserve the part-of-speech meaning proper to these words taken in isolation. The whole group is viewed as composed of two independent units (adjective and noun). In the phraseological unit in the long runthe part-of-speech meaning belongs to the group as a single whole. In the long runis grammatically equivalent to single adverbs, e.g. finally, ultimately, firstly,etc. Inthe case of the phraseological unit under discussion there is no connection between the part-of-speech meaning of the member-words (in — preposition, long — adjective, run — noun) and the part-of-speech meaning of the whole word-group. Grammatical inseparability of phraseological units viewed as one of the aspects of idiomaticity enables us to regard them as grammatically equivalent to single words.

It is argued that the final test of the semantic and grammatical inseparability of phrases is their functional unity, i.e. their aptness to function in speech as single syntactic units.

It will be observed that in the free word-groups, e.g. heavy weight, long time,the adjectives heavyand longfunction as attributes to other members of the sentence (weight, time),whereas the phraseological units heavy fatherand in the long runare functionally inseparable and are always viewed as making up one and only one member of the sentence (the subject or the object, etc.), i.e. they are functionally equivalent to single words.

Proceeding from the assumption that phraseological units are non-motivated word-groups functioning as word-equivalents by virtue of their semantic and grammatical inseparability, we may classify them into noun equivalents (e.g. heavy father),verb equivalents (e.g. take place, break the news),adverb equivalents (e.g. in the long run),etc.

As far as their structure is concerned these groups are not homogeneous and may be subdivided into the same groups as variable phrases. Among verb equivalents, for example, we may find verb-noun units (take place)and verb-adverb units (giveup), l adverb equivalents comprise preposition-noun groups (e.g by heart, at length),adverb-conjunction-adverb groups (e.g. far and wide),etc.

§ 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 upand 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.

Anattempt 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 Grundysay?, 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,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.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., tobe or not tobe (Shakespeare), to cleanse the Augean stables(mythology), 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 careis perceived as a single unit functioning as the predicate, whereas in the sentence great care was taken to keep the children happy — take careis undoubtedly separable into two components: the verb takefunctions as the predicate and the noun careas 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 acomparatively 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 townthe word townmay be substituted for by a number of other nouns, e.g. room, audience,etc., the adjective smallby a number of other adjectives, e.g. large, big,etc. The substitution of nouns does not change the meaning of smallwhich 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. In other word-groups such as small business, a small farmerthe variable members serve as a clue to the meaning of the adjective small.It may be observed that when combined with the words town, room,etc. a smalldenotes ‘not large’, whereas it is only in combination with the nouns business, farmer, etc. that smalldenotes ‘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 smalldenotes ‘early’ only in collocation with hours.In the phraseological unit small beer smallhas 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 (hours)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,and three hours, pleasant hours,etc.).

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 outof 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)and cast (throw, fling) something in somebody’s teethmay 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.

Thus 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 victoryaccording to the semantic approach is a phraseological combination because it is almost completely motivated and allows of certain variability to win, to gaina victory.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 hoursaccording 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.

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

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

7. 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 hoursand red tape.)Their structural separateness, an important factor of their stability, distinguishes them from compound words (cf. e.g. blackbirdand black market).

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

8. 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.

9. 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 questionby the verb to settle (to settle a question)changes

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’sears.

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

§ 21. Some Problems of the Diachronic Approach

The diachronic aspect of phraseology has scarcely been investigated. Just a few points of interest may be briefly reviewed in connection with the origin of phraseological units and the ways they appear in language. It is assumed that almost all phrases can be traced back to free word-groups which in the course of the historical development of the English language have acquired semantic and grammatical inseparability. It is observed that free word-groups may undergo the process of grammaticalisation or lexicalisation.


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