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What is an idiom?



An idiom is a multiword construction that

  • is a semantic unit whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of its constituents, and
  • has a non-productive syntactic structure.
  • An idiom is a multiword expression. Individual components of an idiom can often be inflected in the same way individual words in a phrase can be inflected. This inflection usually follows the same pattern of inflection as the idiom's literal counterpart.


    have a bee in one's bonnet

    He has bees in his bonnet.

  • An idiom behaves as a single semantic unit.

    • It tends to have some measure of internal cohesion such that it can often be replaced by a literal counterpart that is made up of a single word.


      kick the bucket


    • It resists interruption by other words whether they are semantically compatible or not.


      pull one's leg

      *pull hard on one's leg

      *pull on one's left leg

    • It resists reordering of its component parts.


      let the cat out of the bag

      *the cat got left out of the bag

  • An idiom has a non-productive syntactic structure. Only single particular lexemes can collocate in an idiomatic construction. Substituting other words from the same generic lexical relation set will destroy the idiomatic meaning of the expression.


    eat one's words

    *eat one's sentences

    ?swallow one's words


An idiom often shows the following characteristics:

  • It is syntactically anomalous. It has an unusual grammatical structure .


    by and large

  • It contains unique, fossilized items.


    to and fro fro < from = away (Scottish)

    cobweb cob < cop = spider (Middle English)


Some linguists contend that compound words may qualify as idioms (e.g. cobweb Wood 1986; 93), while others maintan that an idiom must be more lexically complex Cruse 1986.


Idioms contrast with the following:

  • Metaphors satisfy the first requirement for an idiom, that their meaning be obscure, but not the second, that they not be productive.


    throw in the towel

    throw in the sponge

  • Collocates may have restricted lexical possibilities or use archaic vocabulary such that they are not productive, but their meaning is not opaque.


    heavy drinking

    mete out


Cruse 1986; 37–39


Crystal 1985 ;152


Pei and Gaynor 1954; 95–96


Mish 1991; 598


Drysdale 1981; 114


Wood 1986

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