Phraseological units

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Minestry of Education and science of Ukraine

Chernivtsi National University College of Modern European Languages

Department of English







“Structure and classification

of phraseological   units.”








                                                                                                3rd Year Student

                                                                                     Group 13

                                                                                     Sorochuk Victoria



                                              Chernivtsi 2001


The vocabulary of a language is enriched not only by words but also by phraseological units. Phraseological units are word-groups that cannot be made in the process of speech, they exist in the language as ready-made units. They are compiled in special dictionaries. The same as words phraseological units express a single notion and are used in a sentence as one part of it. American and British lexicographers call such units «idioms». We can mention such dictionaries as: L.Smith «Words and Idioms», V.Collins «A Book of English Idioms» etc. In these dictionaries we can find words, peculiar in their semantics (idiomatic), side by side with word-groups and sentences. In these dictionaries they are arranged, as a  rule, into different semantic groups.

Phraseological units can be classified according to the ways they are formed, according to the degree of the motivation of their meaning, according to their structure and according to their part-of-speech meaning.

A.V. Koonin  classified phraseological units according to the way they are formed. He pointed out primary and secondary ways of forming phraseological units.

Primary ways of forming phraseological units are those when a unit is formed on the basis of a free word-group :

a) The most productive in Modern English is the formation of phraseological units by means of transferring the meaning of terminological word-groups, e.g. in cosmic technique we can point out the following phrases: «launching pad» in its terminological meaning is «стартова площадка» , in its transferred meaning - «відправний пункт», «to link up» - «cтикуватися, стикувати космічні човни»  in its tranformed meaning it means -«знайомитися»;

b) a large group of phraseological units was formed from free word groups by transforming their meaning, e.g. «granny farm» - «пансионат для старих людей», «Troyan horse» -  «компьютерна програма, яка навмиснестворена для пвиведення з ладу компьютера»;

c) phraseological units can be formed by means of  alliteration , e.g. «a sad sack» - «нещасний випадок», «culture vulture» - «людина, яка цікавиться мистецтвом»,  «fudge and nudge» - «ухильність».

d) they can be formed by means of expressiveness, especially it is characteristic for forming interjections, e.g. «My aunt!», « Hear, hear !» etc

e) they can be formed by means of distorting a word group, e.g. «odds and ends» was formed from «odd ends»,

f) they can be formed by using archaisms, e.g. «in brown study» means «in gloomy meditation» where both components preserve their archaic meanings,

g) they can be formed by using a sentence in a different sphere of life, e.g. «that cock won´t fight» can be used as a free word-group when it is used in sports (cock fighting ),  it becomes a phraseological unit when it is used in everyday life, because it is used metaphorically,

h) they can be formed when we use some unreal image, e.g. «to have butterflies in the stomach» - «відчувати хвилювання», «to have green fingers» - «досягати успіхів як  садовод-любитель» etc.

i) they can be formed by using expressions of writers or polititions in everyday life, e.g.  «corridors of power» (Snow), «American dream» (Alby) «locust years» (Churchil) , «the winds of change» (Mc Millan).

      Secondary ways of forming phraseological units are those when a phraseological unit is formed on the basis of another phraseological unit; they are:

  1. conversion, e.g. «to vote with one´s feet» was converted into «vote with one´s


b) changing the grammar form, e.g. «Make hay while the sun shines» is transferred into a verbal phrase - «to make hay while the sun shines»;

c) analogy, e.g. «Curiosity killed the cat»  was transferred into «Care killed the cat»;

d) contrast, e.g. «cold surgery» - «a planned before operation» was formed by contrasting it with «acute surgery»,  «thin cat» - «a poor person» was formed by contrasting it with «fat cat»;

e) shortening of proverbs or sayings e.g.  from the proverb «You can´t  make a silk purse  out of a sow´s ear» by means of clipping the middle of it the phraseological unit «to make a sow´s ear» was formed with the meaning «помилятись».

f) borrowing phraseological units from other languages, either as translation loans, e.g. «  living space» (German), « to take the bull by the horns»  (Latin) or by means of phonetic borrowings «meche blanche» (French), «corpse d´elite» (French), «sotto voce» (Italian)  etc.

Phonetic borrowings among phraseological units refer to the bookish style and are not used very often.

There are diffrenent combinations of words. Some of them are free, e.g. to read books (news papers, a letter, etc.) others are fixed, limited in their combinative power, e.g. to go to bed, to make a report. The combinations of words which are fixed (set-expressions) are called phraseological units.

A free combination is a syntactical unit, which consists notional and form words, and in which notional words have the function of independent parts of the sentence. In a phraseological unit words are not independent. They form set-expressions, in which neither words nor the order of words can be changed. Free combinations are created by the speaker. Phraseological units are used by the speaker in a ready form, without any changes. The whole phraseological unit has a meaning which may be quite different from the meaning of its components, and therefore the whole unit, and not separate words, has the function of a part of the sentence.

Phraseological units consist of separate words and therefore they are different words, even from compounds. Word have several structural forms, but in phraseological units only one of the components has all the forms of the paradigm of the part of speech it belongs to e.g. to go to bed, goes to bed, went to bed, gone to bed, going to bed, etc., the rest of the components do not change their form.

By the classification of Academician V.Vinogradov phraseological units are devided into three groups: phraseological combinations, phraseological unities and phraseological fusions.

Phraseological combinations are often called traditional because words are combined in their original meaning but their combinations are different in different languages, e.g.  cash and carry -  (self-service shop), in a big way (in great degree) etc. It is usually impossible to account logically for the combination of particular words. It can be explained only  on the basis of tradition, e.g. to deliver a lection ( but not to read a lecture).

In phraseological combinations words retain their full semantic independence although they are limited in their combinative power, e.g. to wage war (but not to lead war), to render assistance, to render services (but not to render pleasure).

Phraseological combinations are the least idiomatic of all the kinds of phraseological units. In other words, in phraseological combinations the meaning of the whole can be inferred from the meaning of the components, e.g. to draw a conclusion, lo lend assistance, to make money, to pay attention to.

In phraseological combinations one of the components (generally the component which is used fugiratively) can be combined with different words, e.g. to talk sports, politics, business (but to speak about life), leading worker, leading article (but the main problem), deadly enemy, deadly shot (but a mortal wound), keen interest, keen curiosity, keen sence of humour ( but the great surprise).

Words of wide meaning, as to make, to take, to do, to give, etc. Form many phraseological units, e.g. to take an examination, to take a trip, to take a chance, to take interest, to make fun of, to make inquiries, to make a statement, to make friends, to make haste.

Sometimes traditional combinations are synonyms of words, e.g. to make inquiries = to inquire, to make haste=to hurry.

Some traditional combinations are equivalents of prapositions, e.g. by means of, in connection with.

Some phraseological combinations have nearly become compounds, e.g. brown bread.

Traditional combinations often have synonymous expressions, e.g. to make a report=to deliver a report.

Phraseological combinations are not equivalents of words. Though the components of phraseological combinations are limited in their combinative power, that is, they can be combined only with certain words and cannot be combined with any other words, they preserve not only their meaning, but all their structural forms, e.g. nice distinction is a phraseological combinations and it is possible to say nice distinctions, nicer distinction, etc., or to clench one’s fist ( clenched his fists, was clenching his fists, etc.).

In Prof. A. Smirnitsky’s opinion traditional combinations are not phraseological units, as he considers only those word combinations to be phraseological units which are equivalents of words.

In phraseological unities the meaning of the whole can be guessed from the meanings of its components, but it is transferred (metaphorical or metonymical), e.g. to play the first fiddle (to be a leader in something), old salt (experienced sailor) etc. The meaning of the whole word combination is not the sum of the meanings of its components, but  it  is based on them and the meaning of the whole can be inferred from the image that underlies the whole expression, e.g. to get on one’s nerves, to cut smb short, to show one’s teeth, to be at daggers drawn.

Phraseological unities are often synonyms of words, e.g. to make a clean breast of=to confess; to get on one’s nerves=to irritate.

Phraseological unities are equivalents of words as 1) only one of components of a phraseological unity has structural forms, e.g. to play (played, is playing, etc.) the first fiddle (but  not played the first fiddles); to turn ( turned, will turn, etc.) a new leaf ( but not to turn newer leaf or new leaves); 2) the whole unity and not its components are parts of the sentence in syntactical analysis, e.g. in the sentence He took the bull by the horns

(attacked a problem boldly) there are only two parts: he – the subject, and took the bull by the horns - the predicate.

In phraseological fusions the degree of motivation is very low, we cannot guess the meaning of the whole from the meanings of its components, they are highly idiomatic and cannot be translated word for word into other languages, e.g.. to pull one’s leg (to deceive); at sixes and sevens ( in comfusion); a mare’s nest ( a discovery which turns out to be false or worthless); to show the white feather ( to show cowardice); to ride the high horse ( to put on airs).

Phraseological fusions are the most idiomatic of all the kinds of phraseological units.

Phraseological fusions are equivalents of words: fusions as well as unities form a syntactical whole in analysis.

Prof. A.I.Smirnitsky worked out structural classification of phraseological units,comparing them with words. He points out one-top units which he compares with derived words because derived words have only one root morpheme. He points out two-top units which he compares with compound words because in compound words we usually have two root morphemes.

Among one-top units he points out three structural types;

a) units of the type «to give up» (verb + postposition type), e.g.  to art up, to back up,  to drop out,  to nose out,  to buy into,  to sandwich in etc.;

b) units of the type «to be tired» . Some of these units remind the Passive Voice in their structure but they have different prepositons with them, while in the Passive Voice we can have only prepositions «by» or «with», e.g. to be tired of, to be interested in, to be surprised at etc.  There are also units in this type which remind free word-groups of the type «to be young», e.g. to be akin to,  to be aware of etc.  The difference between them is that the adjective «young» can be used as an attribute and as a predicative in a sentence, while the nominal component in such units can act only as a predicative. In these units the verb is the grammar centre and the second component is the semantic centre;

c) prepositional - nominal phraseological units. These units are equivalents of unchangeable words: prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs , that is why they have no grammar centre, their semantic centre is the nominal part, e.g.  on the doorstep (quite near), on the nose (exactly), in the course of, on the stroke of, in time, on the point of etc. In the course of time such units can become words, e.g. tomorrow, instead etc.

Among two-top units A.I. Smirnitsky points out the following structural types:

a) attributive-nominal such as: a month of Sundays, grey matter,  a millstone round one´s neck  and many others.  Units of this type are noun equivalents and can be partly or perfectly idiomatic. In partly idiomatic units (phrasisms) sometimes the first component is idiomatic, e.g. high road, in other cases the second component is idiomatic, e.g. first night. In many cases both components are idiomatic, e.g. red tape, blind alley,  bed of nail, shot in the arm and many others.

b) verb-nominal phraseological units, e.g. to read between the lines , to speak BBC, to sweep under the carpet etc.  The grammar centre of such units is the verb, the semantic centre in many cases is the nominal component, e.g. to fall in love. In some units the verb is both the grammar and the semantic centre, e.g. not to know the ropes.  These units can be perfectly idiomatic as well, e.g. to burn one´s boats,to vote with one´s feet, to take to the cleaners´ etc.

Very close to such units are word-groups of the type to have a glance, to have a smoke. These units are not idiomatic and are treated in grammar as a special syntactical combination, a kind of aspect.

c) phraseological repetitions, such as: now or never, part and parcel , country and western etc. Such units can be built on antonyms, e.g. ups and downs , back and forth; often they are formed by means of alliteration, e.g  as busy as a bee. Components in repetitions are joined by means of conjunctions. These units are equivalents of adverbs or adjectives and have no grammar centre. They can also be partly or perfectly idiomatic, e.g. cool as a cucumber (partly), bread and butter (perfectly).

Phraseological units the same as compound words can have more than two tops (stems in compound words), e.g. to take a back seat, a peg to hang a thing on, lock, stock and barrel, to be a shaddow of one´s own self, at one´s own sweet will.

Phraseological units can be clasified as parts of speech (syntactical classification).. This classification was suggested by I.V. Arnold. Here we have the following groups:

a) noun phraseologisms denoting an object, a person, a living being, e.g. bullet train, latchkey child,  redbrick university, Green Berets.

b) verb phraseologisms denoting an action, a state, a feeling, e.g. to break the log-jam, to get on somebody´s coattails, to be on the beam, to nose out , to make headlines.

c) adjective phraseologisms denoting a quality, e.g. loose as a goose, dull as lead.

d) adverb phraseological units, such as: with a bump,  in the soup, like a dream , like a dog with two tails.

e) preposition phraseological units, e.g. in the course of, on the stroke of

f) interjection phraseological units, e.g. «Catch me!», «Well, I never!» etc.

In I.V.Arnold´s classification there are also sentence equivalents, proverbs, sayings and quatations, e.g. «The sky is the limit», «What makes him tick», »« I am easy». Proverbs are usually metaphorical, e.g. «Too many cooks spoil the broth», while sayings are as a rule non-metaphorical, e.g. «Where there is a will there is a way».

    1. Set expressions functioning like nouns (noun phraseologisms):

N+N: maiden name ‘the surname of a woman before she was married´; brains trust ‘a committee of experts´ or ‘a number of reputedly well – informed persons chosen to answer questions of general interest without preparation´.

N´s + N: cat´s paw ‘one who is used for the convinience of a cleverer and stronger person´ (the expression comes from a fable in which a monkey wanting to eat some chestnuts that were on a hot stove, but not wishing to burn himself while getting them, seized a cat and holding its paw in his own used it to knock the chestnuts to the ground); Hobson´s choice, a set expression used when there is no choice at all, when a person has to take what is offered or nothing (homas Hobson, a 17th century London stableman, made every person hiring horses take the next in order).

N+prep+N: the arm of the law.

N+A: knight errant (the phrase is today applied to any chivalrous man ready to help and protect oppressed and helpless people).

N+and+N: lord and master ‘husband´; all the world and his wife ‘everybody´; rank and file ‘the ordinary working members of an organization´( the origin of this expression is military life, it denotes common soldiers); ways and means ‘methods of overcoming difficulties´.

A+N: green room ‘the general reception room of a theatre´ (it is said that formerly such rooms had their walls coloured green to relieve the strain on the actors´eyes after the stage lights); high tea ‘an evening meal which combines meat or some similar extra dish with the usual tea´.

N+subordinate clause: ships that pass in the night ‘chance acquaintances´.

II.        Set expressions functioning like verbs:

V+N: to take advantage

V+postpositive: to give up

V+and+V: to pick and choose

V+(one´s)+N+(prep): to snap one´s fingers at

V+one+N: to give one the bird ‘to fire smb´.

V+subordinate clause: to see how the land lies ‘to discover the state of affairs´.

    1. Set expressions functioning like adjectives:

A+and+A: high and mighty

(as)+A+as+N: as old as the hills, as mad as a hatter

    1. Set expressions functioning like adverbs:

A big group containing many different types of units, some of them with a high frequency index, neutral in style and devoid of expressiveness, others expressive.

N+N: tooth and nail

Prep+N: by heart, of course

Adv+prep+A+N: once in a blue moon

Prep+N+or+N: by hook or by crook

Conj+clause: before one can say Jack Robinson

    1. Set expressions functioning like prepositions:

Prep+N+prep: in consequence of

It should be noted that the type is often but not always characterized by the absence of the article e.g. by reason of – on the ground of.

    1. Set expressions functioning like interjections.

These are often structured as imperative sentences: Bless (one´s soul)! God bless me! Hang it (all)! Take your time!

There is one more type of combinations, also rigid and introduced into discource ready-made but different from all the types given above in so far as it is impossible to find its equivalent among the parts of speech. These are formulas used as complete utterances and syntactically shaped like sentences, such as the well-known American maxim Keep smiling! or British Keep Britain tidy.

A.I. Smirnitsky was the first among Russian scholars who paid attention to sentences that can be treated as complete formulas, such as How do you do? Or I beg you pardon; It takes all kinds to make the world; Can the leopard change his spots? They differ from all the combinations so far discussed because they are not equivalent to words in distribution and are semantically analysable. The formulas discussed by N. N. Amosova are on the contrary semantically specific, e.g. save your breath ‘shut up´or tell it to the marines (one of the suggested origins is tell that to the horse marines; such a corps being non-existent, as marines are sea-going force, the last expression means ‘tell it to someone who does not exist because rel people will not believe it´) very often such formulas, formally identical to sentences, are in reality used only as insertions into other sentences: the cap fits ‘the statement is true´(e.g. “He called me a liar.”- “Well, you should know if the cup fits.”)Cf. also: Butter would not melt in his mouth; His bark is worse than his bite.

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