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A set phrase or fixed phrase is a phrase whose parts are fixed in a certain order, even if the phrase could be changed without harming the literal meaning. This is because a set phrase is a culturally accepted phrase. A set phrase does not necessarily have any literal meaning in and of itself. Set phrases may function as idioms (e.g. red herring) or as words with a unique referent (e.g. Red Sea).[1] There is no clear dividing line between a commonly used phrase and a set phrase. It is also not easy to draw a clear distinction between set phrases and compound words.[1]

It is different from a proverb in that it is used as a part of a sentence, and is the standard way of expressing a concept or idea.

In theoretical linguistics, two-word set phrases are said to arise during the generative formation of English nouns.[citation needed]

A certain stricter notion of set phrases, more in line with the concept of a lexical item, provides an important underpinning for the formulation of meaning–text theory.

Examples of set phrases

Some set phrases are used as either their own statement or as part of a longer statement:

  • I see – can be used both metaphorically and literally.
  • I don't know
  • Thank you
  • You're welcome – while 'You are welcome' would have the same literal meaning, it is very rarely used in the same way.
  • all of a sudden
  • come into mind
  • fall in line
  • I can assure you
  • so to speak
  • surf the web
  • Irreversible binomials like mix and match, wear and tear, and rock and roll
  • trinomials (3-word fixed expressions); e.g. lights, camera, action; signed, sealed, and delivered; and lock, stock, and barrel.
  • pop the question[2]

Others are almost always used with more detail added:

  • Don't look now... – used either literally or figuratively to warn someone about an imminent misfortune.
  • You know... – usually used rhetorically to make the audience think about the following topic.

In other languages

Fixed expressions occur in other languages, as well, such as:

  • Alex gab den Löffel ab (German, "Alex passed the spoon on," meaning: "Alex died")[3]
  • 血浓于水 (Mandarin, literally: "Blood is thicker than water")[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b McArthur, TomsamDam. (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Tabossi, P.; Wolf, K.; Koterle, S. (1 July 2009). "Idiom syntax: Idiosyncratic or principled?". Journal of Memory and Language. 61 (1): 77–96. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.03.003.
  3. ^ Sailer, Manfred (2017). Multiword expressions: Insights from a multi-lingual perspective. Phraseology and Multiword Expressions. Language Science Press.[page needed]
  4. ^ Liu, Dayan (22 November 2012). "Translation and Culture: Translating Idioms between English and Chinese from a Cultural Perspective". Theory and Practice in Language Studies. 2 (11). CiteSeerX doi:10.4304/tpls.2.11.2357-2362.

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