Idiomatic Expression

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An Idiomatic Expression is a multiword expression that appear to be a phrase but whose meaning differs from the literal phrasal meaning.



  1. The Oxford companion to the English language (1992:495f.)
  2. Jackendoff (1997).


  • (Vespignani et al., 2010) ⇒ Francesco Vespignani, Paolo Canal, Nicola Molinaro, Sergio Fonda, and Cristina Cacciari. (2010). “Predictive Mechanisms in Idiom Comprehension.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22, no. 8
    • QUOTE: … In this study, we investigated the ERPs elicited during the comprehension of idioms, that is, prefabricated multiword strings stored in semantic memory. When a reader recognizes a string of words as an idiom before the idiom ends, she or he can develop expectations concerning the incoming idiomatic constituents.


    • Noun
      • 1. A phrase characteristic of a particular language, that cannot necessarily be fully understood from the separate meanings of the individual words which form it, but instead must be learned as a whole unit of meaning. You can't translate "kick the bucket" verbatim into French with the same meaning because it's an idiom.
      • 2. A manner of speaking, a way of expressing oneself.
      • 3. An artistic style (for example, in art, architecture, or music).
      • 4. An instance of such a style.
      • 5. (linguistics) A communicative system under study, which could be called either a dialect or a language, when its status as a language or dialect is irrelevant.
      • 6. (programming) A programming technique which experienced programmers in a language are assumed to know.



  • (Sag et al., 2003) ⇒ Ivan A. Sag, Thomas Wasow, and Emily M. Bender. (2003). “Syntactic Theory: A Formal Introduction, 2nd edition." CSLI Publications.
    • QUOTE: We now have encountered two nonreferential NPs with highly restricted distributions, namely, the dummies there and it. Other NPs that share the properties of nonreferentiality and restricted distribution can be found in idioms - that is, in fixed (or partially fixed) combinations of words that are used to express meanings that aren't determined in the usual way from those words.
      The idioms kick the bucket, keep tabs on, and take advantage of each have an idiosyncratic meaning, which requires that all of its parts co-occur. That is, the words in these idioms take on their idiomatic meanings only when they appear together with other parts of the idioms.
      This amounts to treating idiom parts (or "idiom chunks", as they are often called) in much the same way that we treated the dummies there and it in the previous section of this chapter.


  • (Manning and Schütze, 1999) ⇒ Christopher D. Manning and Hinrich Schütze. (1999). “Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing." The MIT Press.
    • QUOTE: A COLLOCATION is an expression consisting of two or more words that correspond to some conventional way of saying things. Or in the words of Firth (1957:181): "Collocations of a given word are statements of the habitual or customary places of that word." Collocations include noun phrass like strong tea and weapons of mass destruction, phrasal verbs like to make up, and other stock phrases like the rich and powerful. Particularly interesting are the subtle and not-easily-explainable patterns of word usage that native speakers all know: why we say a stiff breeze but no ??a stiff wind (while either a a strong breeze or a a strong wind is okay), or why we speak of broad daylight (but not ?bright daylight or ??narrow darkness)).

      Collocations are characterized by limited compositionality. We call a natural language expression compositions if the meaning of the expression can be predicted from the meaning of the parts. Collocations are not fully compositional in that there is usually an element of meaning added to the combination. In the case of strong tea, strong has acquired the meaning rich in some active agent which is closely related, but slightly different from the basic sense having great physical strength. Idioms are the most extreme examples of non-compositionality. Idioms like to kick the bucket or to hear it through the grapevine only have an indirect historical relationship to the meaning of the expression. We are not talking about buckets or grapevines literally when we use these idioms.

      There is considerable overlap between the concept of collocation and notions like term, technical term and terminological phrase. As these names suggest, the latter three are commonly used when collocations are extracted from technical domains (in a process called terminology extraction). The reader should be warned, though, that the word term has a different meaning in information retrieval. There, it refers to both words and phrases. So it subsumes the more narrow meaning that we will use in this chapter.