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Phraseological units and free word-groups. Criteria for distinguishing

The confusion in the terminology reflects insufficiency of positive or wholly reliable criteria by which phraseological units can be distinguished from “free” word-groups.

It should be pointed out at once that the “freedom” of free word groups is relative and arbitrary (произвольная). Nothing is entirely “free” in speech as its linear relationships are governed, restricted and regulated, on the one hand, by requirements of logic and common sense and, on the other hand, by the rules of grammar and combinability. One can speak of a black-eyed girl but not of a black-eyed table.

Free word-groups are so called not because of any absolute freedom in using them but simply because they are each time built up anew in the speech process whereas idioms are used as ready-made units with fixed and constant structures.

How to distinguish phraseological units from free word-groups?This is probably the most discussed – and the most controversial – problem in the field of phraseology.

There are two major criteria for distinguishing between phraseological units and free word-groups: semanticandstructural.

Compare the following examples:

A.Cambridge don: I’m told they’re inviting more American professors to this university. Isn’t it rather carrying coals to Newcastle?


(To carry coals to Newcastle means “to take something to a place where it is already plentiful and not needed”. Compare with the Russian В Тулу со своим самоваром.)

B.This cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool.


The first thing that captures the eye is the semantic differenceof the two word-groups consisting of the same essential constituents. In the second sentence the free word-group is carrying coal is used in the direct sense, the word coal standing for real hard, black coal and carry for the plain process of taking something from one place to another. The first context quite obviously has nothing to do either with coal or with transporting it, and the meaning of the whole word-group is something entirely new and far removed from the current meanings of the constituents.

V.V. Vinogradov spoke of the semantic change in phraseological units as “a meaning resulting from a peculiar chemical combination of words”. This seems a very apt comparison because in both cases an entirely new quality comes into existence.

The semantic shift affecting phraseological units does not consist in a mere change of meanings of each separate constituent part of the unit. The meanings of the constituents merge to produce an entirely new meaning: e.g. to have a bee in one’s bonnet means “to have an obsession about something; to be eccentric or even a little mad”.

In the traditional approach,phraseological unitshave been defined as word-groups conveying a single concept (whereas in free word-groups each meaningful component stands for a separate concept).

It is this feature that makes phraseological units similar to words: both possess semantic unity. Yet, words are also characterized by structural unity which phraseological units lack being combinations of words.

Most Russian scholars today accept the semantic criterionof distinguishing phraseological units from free word-groups as the major one and base their research work in the field of phraseology on the definition of a phraseological unit offered by Professor A.V. Koonin, the leading authority on problems of English phraseology in our country: “A phraseological unit is a stable word-group characterized by a completely or partially transferred meaning”.

The definition clearly suggests that the degree of semantic change in a phraseological unit may vary (“completely or partially transferred meaning”). In actual fact the semantic change may effect either the whole word-group or only one of its components. The following phraseoloical units represent the first case: to skate on thin ice (= to put oneself in a dangerous position; to take risks. – Rus. быть на грани опасности; играть с огнём); to wear one’s heart in one’s sleeve (=to expose, so that everyone knows, one’s most intimate feelings – не уметь скрывать свои чувства; что на уме, то и на языке); to have one’s heart in one’s mouth (= to be greatly alarmed by what is expected to happen. – Rus. струсить; душа в пятки ушла).

The second typeis represented by phraseological units in which one of the components preserves its current meaning and the other is used in a transferred meaning: to lose one’s temper, to fall ill, to fall in love, bosom friends (закадычные друзья), small talk (пустая болтовня).

The term “idiom”, both in this country and abroad, is mostly applied to phraseological units with completely transferred meanings, that is to ones in which the meaning of the whole unit does not correspond to the current meanings of the components. There are many scholars who regard idioms as the essence of phraseology and the major focus of interest in phraseology research.

The structural criterionalso brings forth pronounced distinctive features characterizing phraseological units and contrasting them to free word-groups.

Structural invariability is an essential feature of phraseological units and it finds expression in a number of restrictions.

1) First of all, restriction in substitution.As a rule, no word can be substituted for any meaningful component of a phraseological unit without destroying its sense. To carry coals to Manchester makes as little sense as В Харьков со своим самоваром.

At the same time, in free word-groups substitution does not present any dangers and does not lead to any serious consequences. In The cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool all the components can be changed: The ship/vessel/boat carries/transports/brings coal to (any port).

2) The second type of restriction is the restriction in introducing any additional components into the structure of a phraseological unit.

In a free word-group such changes can be made without affecting the general meaning of the utterance: This big ship is carrying a large cargo of coal to the port of Liverpool.

In the phraseological unit to carry coals to Newcastle no additional components can be introduced.

3) The third type of structural restrictions in phraseological units is grammatical invariability.A typical mistake with students of English is to use the plural form of fault in the phraseological unit to find fault with somebody (придираться). Though the plural form in this context is logically well-founded, it is a mistake in terms of the grammatical invariability of phraseological units.

Yet, there are exceptions to the rule. One can built a castle in the air, butalso castles. A shameful or dangerous family secret is picturesquely described as a skeleton in the cupboard (из избы сору не выносить). The first substantive component being frequently and easily used in plural form, as in: I’m sure they have skeletons in every cupboard!

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