Phrasal idioms have been used as evidence in syntactic theorizing for decades. A common assumption, occasionally made explicit (e.g., Larson 2017), is that non-literal phrasal idioms differ significantly from completely literal collocations in the kinds of syntactic structures they can be built from. I show with a detailed empirical study that this is false. In fact, the syntactic constraints on idioms and collocations are identical. In particular, patterns that are missing from one are missing from the other, most strikingly ditransitives with a fixed first object and open second object (*throw the wolves X). Idioms and collocations should therefore be treated the same, as a broad class of conventionalized expressions. I propose a new analysis of the syntactic forms that conventionalized expressions can take. Unlike most previous analyses, I take the open slots to be part of the expression, and the task then becomes to explain the distribution of the open slots. A structural constraint on open slots accounts for the missing ditransitive pattern. It also explains why expressions with a fixed subject but open object are rare, but also why certain examples of this pattern do exist in English and in other languages.
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Some idioms with open slots for possessors require that the possessor be identical to the subject, while others require disjointness. I indicate this throughout this paper with the variables X and Y.
Note that this seems to be the definition of idiom in Weinreich (1969).
Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=374dTEMGii0.
Larson (2017:note 15) also claims that book titles can be non-constituents, citing data from a 2008 Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/005333.html). This is supposed to show that formulaic language more broadly is subject to no syntactic constraints whatsoever. However, the point of that Language Log post is how rare non-constituent titles are and how strained they often feel (many also appear to me to be elliptical). I conclude, with Pullum, that these titles show nothing about the syntactic constraints that conventionalized expressions are subject to.
A reviewer points out that be dragged kicking and screaming can also occur as an active, as drag X kicking and screaming. This is true of the majority of the expressions here, both literal and non-literal: they can appear in different syntactic permutations. I list them in the form that my sources do.
The expression the X-er, the Y-er could also be put into this category (Fillmore et al. 1988; den Dikken 2005). This expression comes in two forms: it can have two open slots which can be filled in extemporaneously (e.g., the more you eat, the hungrier you get), and it also occurs in several fixed expressions (e.g., the more, the merrier; the bigger they come, the harder they fall). Another expression that could be put into this category is long time, no see, which consists of two fully specified clauses in juxtaposition. If these are not to be viewed as conditionals, then they would just be examples of two clauses put together (two instances of pattern 8).
Just as there is no legitimate distinction between idioms and collocations, I believe that there is also no evidence for distinctions that people have made within the class of idioms. Nunberg et al. (1994) and numerous publications that follow them make a distinction between “idiomatically combining expressions” and “idiomatic phrases,” but this distinction has been called into question by Abeillé (1995), Everaert (2010), Bargmann and Sailer (2018). Similarly, Lebeaux (2009) argues for a distinction in determiner types in idioms, but Fellbaum (1993) and Bruening et al. (2018) show that this distinction is not real. Stone (2016) claims that there is a distinction in how much VP structure idioms have, and this correlates with how flexible they are; but syntactic flexibility has been shown to be largely a matter of pragmatics, see again Bargmann and Sailer (2018). The available evidence indicates that we only need to recognize a single category of conventionalized expression, with no sub-categories.
Expressions like too many cooks spoil the broth are sometimes dismissed as proverbs rather than idioms. It is unclear why they should be, when the shit hit the fan is always discussed in the syntactic literature as a syntactically relevant idiom. Too many cooks spoil the broth participates in all the syntactic alternations that the shit hit the fan does, for instance raising: Too many cooks always seem to spoil the broth.
A reviewer suggest that the expression give me X (any day/time) is an example of this pattern (e.g., Give me a good beer any day!). However, every native speaker that I have asked (n = 7) would permit a different NP in place of me, for instance, My father doesn’t like any of those fancy-schmancy cocktails, give him a good beer any day! This expression does overwhelmingly occur with me, but this seems to be due to the confluence of it expressing a strong personal preference and its imperative mood (compare X will take Y any day/time, which is synonymous but not imperative, and easily allows a non-first-person subject).
A reviewer contends that in give hostages to fortune, hostages to fortune is a single NP. It is true that hostages to fortune occurs as an NP by itself (e.g., “But my two little hostages to fortune cut off that chance.”) However, attested usage with give clearly indicates that in that expression, hostages and to fortune are not a constituent: “Hers had been a butterfly existence, life all one Summer holiday, no hostages given to fortune, no bond taken against future wreck or change.” (Bidwell’s Travels, from Wall Street to London Prison by Austin Biron Bidwell.) Even where they occur together and could be a constituent, analyzing them that way would mean that give is being used with only one object, which would be very odd. No English speaker would analyze the PP as part of the NP after give, they would all analyze this as an NP and a PP argument of give.
I should note here that the problem with the selection theory is the constraint in (97)/(100), not the idea that idioms involve chains of selection. The open slots never introduce discontinuities in selection (or dependencies). The open slots are always either the lowest complement or a left branch (see the summary in Sect. 6.3). This means that the selection (Bruening 2010) and dependency (O’Grady 1998) theories could still be correct, it is only the constraint in (97)/(100) that needs to be replaced with something like the constraint proposed here.
I am aware of three potentially problematic examples. Two of these are the close synonyms X’s late, lamented Y and X’s dear departed Y. These seem to be NPs which have an open slot just for the head N. On closer inspection, however, there is reason to think that these do not have the structure of simple NP. The head N can be a proper name, for instance, with a definite determiner rather than a possessor: the late, lamented John Smith. The adjectives are not interpreted restrictively, but are rather non-restrictive. The dear departed can also occur by itself as an NP, with no other noun. I suggest that the pair of adjectives in both cases forms a full phrase, and that phrase modifies another full NP appositively. The latter full NP is then what is an open slot.
The third potentially problematic example is every single X, which seems to consist of a determiner and an adjective with an open slot for a head N. This example is unlikely to involve apposition. It is also problematic for the selection and dependency theories, unless one could maintain that every and single are involved in a direct (selectional) dependency, excluding the open N. This move would also save the current theory, since then the conventionalized XP would just be the phrase every single, and not an NP at all. I will have to put this example aside for now.
Note that when a conventionalized expression is used, an open slot can be filled in with something that is bound, as in you have to cut yourself some slack. Since the open slots are truly open, an NP of any type can be inserted there, including a bound one. This is very different from elements that are specified as part of the expression that they form a binding pair.
Hallman (2015) claims that there is a syntactic difference between caused possession PPs and locational PPs in their ability to control into non-subject-gap purpose clauses, but this is false. Locational PPs can control into purpose clauses, contra Hallman (thanks to Larson Stromdahl for discussion and examples):
I put it beside her1 [PRO1 to look over when she got the chance].
I set it in front of her1 [PRO1 to sign].
(What did you do with the microprocessor?) We inserted it in him1 [PRO1 to track himself1 with].
Hallman also claims that the purported difference in the ability to control is due to a difference in c-command. However, c-command is not required at all for non-subject-gap purpose clauses, as Whelpton (2002) showed. The possessor of the object of a locational P can also control into a purpose clause (these examples are also from Larson Stromdahl):
I put it in her1 mailbox [PRO1 to look over when she returned from the Bahamas].
I threw it into his1 cell [PRO1 to eat after his trial].
Hallman’s claimed differences between the two types of PPs have no empirical basis, then.
Briefly, derivational analyses like that of Larson (2014) and Hallman (2015) fail because they cannot rule out the missing double object pattern without also ruling out the corresponding prepositional dative one (throw X to the wolves). Small clause analyses like that of Harley and Jung (2015) fail because they have no piece of structure in common between the double object structure and the prepositional dative; they therefore cannot account for alternating expressions.
An interesting case is as best X can, which is an adjunct clause. It attaches to a matrix clause, the subject of which binds the embedded subject X. It also has VP ellipsis in the embedded clause, where the missing VP is understood as having the matrix VP as its antecedent (e.g., she will have to write the proposal as best she can). Hence every variable is bound.
The same reviewer also suggests the spirit moves X and I could murder X. The former does not seem to be a conventionalized expression in that form, as the majority of examples I can find lack a direct object. I do find if/when the spirit moves you, but the object of this expression seems to be limited to you. As for I could murder X, it seems to occur with any subject. I find numerous examples of first and second person.
This expression must actually be a full main clause with an embedded clause, since the subject of the passive is a variable bound by the subject of the matrix clause: [[PROx given time] NPx ZP]. It then has an open slot for some kind of clausal phrase (ZP), one that can be a VP up to a ModalP (given time, they would have caught the discrepancy).
Mishani-Uval and Siloni (2017) criticize the selection theory of Bruening (2010) for incorrectly predicting the existence of double object idioms with both NP objects fixed. The current proposal also predicts that such conventionalized expressions are possible. This is an odd criticism for Mishani-Uval and Siloni (2017) to make, however, given that they present three examples of Hebrew idioms that confirm the prediction. The pattern does exist, in Hebrew and English at least (but apparently not Korean). Any adequate theory will have to allow for it.
Andrew Murphy (p.c.) points out that obligatorily negative conventionalized expressions can occur with NEG raising, as in I don’t think he has a pot to piss in. If NEG is a specified part of the expression, then this would necessitate a movement derivation of NEG raising, as in Collins and Postal (2014). If negative conventionalized expressions are instead negative polarity items, then it would not.
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For helpful comments, the author would like to thank Andrew Murphy, the anonymous NLLT reviewers, and the associate editor, Amy Rose Deal.
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Bruening, B. Idioms, collocations, and structure. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 38, 365–424 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-019-09451-0
- Double object constructions