Somewhat caught between lexicology and syntax: a look at Phraseology

Sabine Fiedler
University of Leipzig

Terminology and characteristics

A number of different terms have been used to name the topic of this blog entry. For example, in English, the following expressions are used synonymously: multi-word lexemes, phrasemes, set phrases, prefabricated speech, lexical bundles, formulaic sequences, clichés, idioms, lexical phrases, phrasal lexemes and phrasal lexical items. I prefer the traditional expression phraseological unit, which has been widely used recently, largely due to international cooperation between phraseology researchers and the dominant role the English language plays in the linguistic community. It is also significant that it has equivalents in many languages, such as unité phraséologique in French, фразеологическая единица in Russian, phraseologische Einheit in German. Charles Bally introduced unité phraséologique as early as 1909 in his Traité de Stylistique Française.

There are five main defining characteristics of phraseological units (PU) (cf. Burger et al. 2007; Fiedler 2007): (1) they have a polylexemic structure, i.e., phraseological units are word-groups or sentences; (2) they are characterized, in principle, by semantic and syntactic stability;1 (3) they are lexicalized, i.e., as ready-made units of the lexicon they are not created productively by the speaker/writer but reproduced; furthermore, (4) they are mainly idiomatic2 and (5) most of them have connotative features. Because of these characteristics PUs may fulfil various pragmatic functions in discourse.

Historical development

The term phraseology can be used, firstly, to denote the set of linguistic units that are defined above, which constitute the phrasicon of a language, i.e. the block or inventory of idioms and phrases, and, secondly, to name the field of study (phraseology research). Phraseology as a branch of linguistics can look back on a significant tradition. Charles Bally’s ideas were taken up by V.V. Vinogradov in the 1940s, resulting in a large number of publications on phraseological phenomena in Russian. It was only in the 1970s, however, that phraseology became an internationally recognized and rapidly developing field of research with a growing body of monographs and doctoral dissertations dealing with a variety of languages. A milestone for phraseology on its way to becoming an independent linguistic discipline was the establishment of the European Society for Phraseology (EUROPHRAS) in 1999. Its regular conferences and publications support the international exchange in this area. An international handbook on phraseology appeared in 2007 (Burger et al. 2007), and a de Gruyter journal, Yearbook of Phraseology, was initiated in 2010 – publishing exclusively on phraseology, and covering all areas of the field – to facilitate dialogue between English-speaking scholars in the field from all over the world.


There are different ways to classify phraseological units. A basic division into word-groups (word-like phraseological units) and sentences (sentence-like units) seems to be of importance. When applying a structural-semantic classification, as is often done in phraseology, we find the following types of units to be especially relevant (cf. Burger et al. 2007; Fiedler 2007):

  1. phraseological nominations (e.g. blind date; spill the beans)
  2. binomials (e.g. odds and ends; up and down)
  3. stereotyped comparisons (e.g. eat like a horse; as dry as a bone)
  4. proverbs (e.g. Let sleeping dogs lie; Every cloud has a silver lining)
  5. winged words/catch phrases (e.g. speak softly and carry a big stick; to boldly go where no man has gone before)
  6. routine formulae (e.g. you’re welcome; as it were)

In addition to this type of classification phraseological units are often subdivided according to their constituents. Beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries, some elements of the lexicon are productive to a higher extent than others as phraseological constituents. These are colour terms (e.g. a white lie), terms naming the parts of the human body (e.g. keep one’s fingers crossed), proper names (e.g. go Dutch), and numbers (e.g. on cloud nine).


Phraseological units fulfil a multitude of functions in texts. The fact that they carry connotative meanings and therefore give the text a special flavour in terms of expressive and stylistic values does not mean that they are merely ornamental and could thus be omitted. Indeed, phraseological units clearly work as text-forming elements. Their text-constituting function is based, more than anything else, on their complex structure. Since they are polylexemic (word groups and sentences), they are syntactically and structurally variable. Isolated phraseological constituents can, in fact, be reiterated to play a specific role in the text.

In journalistic texts they are often employed as the headlines of articles and in captions, where they function as catchphrases to attract the reader’s interest. In literary texts PUs are used for emotive and expressive effects. They are used to describe situations and feelings in a vivid way and to characterise literary figures (in the so-called linguistic portrait). What would be Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye without phrases such as not know one’s ass from one’s elbow; … as hell; not give a damn; … and all and give sb. a pain in the ass.

Creative uses

Text analyses show that in about a quarter of all examples phraseological units are used in a particular way. This means constituents are left out, other words are added, phraseological units are combined, used in both their literal and figurative meanings, or even made the theme of a whole paragraphs and texts to produce specific stylistic effects. In contrast to the phraseological variations mentioned in footnote 1, modifications are ad-hoc exploitations. They are situational, innovative and closely related to a specific text or communicative act. The most frequent types of modification are substitution (e.g. a breath of fresh Eire [about the smoking ban in Ireland]), expansion (e.g. … serve as the electoral Trojan horse), permutation, i.e. the reordering of phraseological constituents (e.g. Britannia has waived the rules [“Rebranding” of the National Maritime Museum]), and reduction (e.g. Grapevine [title of a column in a magazine announcing the latest gossip about celebrities]). In phraseological puns, authors provide conditions to make both readings (i.e. the literal and the figurative meaning) of a phraseological unite relevant to a textual environment and in doing so to produce deliberate ambiguity (e.g. Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat [article on the National Health Service]).

Processing advantages for native and non-native speakers

As mentioned before, phraseological units are a substantial constituent of language. Data about their proportion in communication vary and depend on register and genre. Erman and Warren (2000) found that as much as 58.6% of spoken discourse and 52.3% of written language was prefabricated. Howarth (1998) in his study on academic writing found that between 31% and 40% was made up of phraseological units (collocations and idioms). Phraseology serves to facilitate language use by providing a processing advantage and, as a number of studies have revealed, the use of prefabricated phrases and sentences decreases processing efforts in speech production and improves learners’ fluency (e.g. Wray, 2002; Conklin & Schmitt, 2008). Pawley & Syder (1983: 208), introducing the term “institutionalized sentence stem” for holistically stored sequences, were among the first to describe this:

Indeed, we believe that memorized sentences and phrases are the normal building blocks of fluent spoken discourse, and at the same time, that they provide models for the creation of many (partly) new sequences which are memorable and in their turn enter the stock of familiar usages.

The knowledge of phraseological units is also advantageous to foreign language learners — both in receptive and productive language use. It aids comprehension because it makes the incoming language flow predictive, and eases processing loads in speech production as the speaker is able to concentrate on passages which are produced creatively (Lennon, 1998: 18).

Recent trends

The phrasicon of a language is generally comprised of both a national (or culture-bound) and an international stock of items. In addition to expressions that are deeply embedded in the history of a speech community (such as send sb. to Coventry, catch-22 or be green with envy to take English examples), we find units that are widely known due to common sources, such as the Bible or antique mythology. Examples are black sheep, Pyrrhic victory, one hand washes the other and swim with the tide. Another important reason for transculturally common phraseological units is language contact. Currently, due to its dominant role in education, science, business, travel and popular media, English is making an important contribution in disseminating phraseological units. Young people, who want to be part of a global culture, find it attractive and stylish to insert ready-made English phrases (e.g. … at its best; the best … ever; just for fun) into their German sentences. Loan translations (e.g. literal translations of formulae such as The thing is; at the end of the day; to go the extra mile; and pigs might fly) can be heard and read everywhere. They provide hidden influences that are sometimes difficult to detect. Similar trends can be observed in other languages such as French and Spanish (cf. Furiassi et al. 2012: 169-277). This might be seen as an indicator of a globalization of language and culture, which would, however, be a topic for another blog entry.


1 The restriction in principle is to indicate the fact that, within definite constraints, there are variants. The use of function words (prepositions, determiners etc.) can vary (e.g. in/by leaps and bounds) as well as lexical constituents (e.g. sweep sth. under the carpet/rug).

2 Phraseological units can have different degrees of idiomaticity. At one end of the scale there are real idioms, i.e. fully opaque expressions. At the opposite end of the scale, we find fully transparent units, which are, however, legitimately included in the phrasicon because they are polylexemic, stable, and lexicalised. Idioms are therefore a subset of phraseological units.


Bally, C. (1909): Traité de Stylistique Française. Heidelberg: Winter.

Burger, H. et al. (eds.) (2007): Phraseologie. Phraseology. Ein internationales Handbuch zeitgenössischer Forschung. An International Handbook of Contemporary Research. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Conklin, C. & Schmitt, N. (2008): Formulaic Sentences: Are the Processed More Quickly Than Nonformulaic Language by Native and Nonnative Speakers? Applied Linguistics, 28, 1-18.

Erman, B. & Warren, B. (2000): The idiom principle and the open-choice principle. Text, 20, 29-62.

Fiedler, Sabine (2007): English Phraseology. A Coursebook. Tübingen: Narr.

Furiassi, Cristiano/Pulcini, Virginia/Rodríguez Ganzález, Félix (eds.) (2012): The Anglicization of European Lexis. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Howarth, P. (1998): Phraseology and second language proficiency. Applied Linguistics, 19 (1), 24-44.

Lennon, P. (1998): Approaches to the Teaching of Idiomatic English. IRAL, XXXVI (1), 11-30.

Pawley, A. & Syder, F.H. (1983): Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency. In Richards, J.C./Schmidt, R.W. (eds.), Language and Communication (pp. 191-226). Harlow & London: Longman.

Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How to cite this post

Fiedler, Sabine. 2015. Somewhat caught between lexicology and syntax: a look at phraseology. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 20th century, History, Lexicography, Linguistics, Phraseology

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