Word combinations. Phraseology.


Free and bound (phraseological) word combinations

A Word combination  (word group, phrase ) is a non-predicative unit of speech which is, semantically, both global and articulated.

In grammar, it is seen as a group of words that functions as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. It is an intermediate unit between a word and a sentence.

The main function of a word combination is polinomination (it describes an object, phenomenon or action and its attributes and properties at the same time).

There are two types of word combinations (also known as set expressions, fixed expression, set phrases, phrases etc):

  • Free word combinations in which each component may enter different combinations
  • Set (fixed) combinations consist of elements which are used only in combination with one another

Differences between free and set (fixed) word combinations:

Semantic criterion.

The meaning in set phrases has partially or fully shifted. The words have a transferred (metaphorical or metonymical) meaning.

cf: a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a man in cheap clothing 

Structural criterion.

Set phrases are characterized by stability of components:

  • It is impossible to change the components of a phraseological unit;

e.g. to have a bee in the bonnet (hat)

  • It is impossible to add new components;
  • It is impossible to change grammatical form of components, even if their form violates grammar rules:

e.g. at (the) first sight, from head to foot (feet), to find faults with 

However the degree of stability varies: a skeleton/skeletons in the cupboard, a (big) white elephant. 

Other features ensuring stability are rhythm, alliteration, contrast, repetition, simile etc.

e.g. on and on, safe and sound, as busy as a bee

Free word combinations allow any changes.

Classifications of set phrases

According to thematic (etymological) classification, set phrases are classified according to their sources of origin.

E.g. Word-groups associated with the sea and the life of seamen are especially numerous in English vocabulary. Thus there may be singled out a group of “marine” phraseological units.

To be all at sea — to be unable to understand; to be in a state of ignorance or bewilderment about something (e. g. How can I be a judge in a situation in which I am all at sea? I’m afraid I’m all at sea in this problem

To sink or swim — to fail or succeed (e. g. It is a case of sink or swim. All depends on his own effort.)

In deep water — in trouble or danger.

In low water, on the rocks — in strained financial circumstances.

Semantic classification describes word combinations from the viewpoint of the shift in meaning of words:

  • Phraseological fusions (idioms) are most idiomatic, the meaning of both words is fully transferred.

e.g. tit for tat, to skate on thin ice

  • Phraseological unities are motivated semantically, based on imagination. Usually one of the components has retained its meaning.

e.g. to fall ill, to fall in love, small talk

  • Phraseological combinations are less idiomatic, most motivated

e.g. as dead as mutton

Structural classification takes into consideration the fact that set phrases are, in fact, equivalents of words. Set phrases can perform the same functions as words. So, set phrases are classified according to their function.

  • Verbal : to run for one’s life, to get the upper hand
  • Substantive: dog’s life, red tape
  • Adjectival: high and mighty, safe and sound
  • Adverbial: high and low
  • Equivalents of auxiliary parts of speech: by way of, as long as, Good God!
  • Stereotyped sentences: take your time!

Stylistic classification

Set expressions, as well as words, may be stylistically neutral and stylistically marked.

e.g. it’s raining cats and dogs (bookish)

to do smb brown (colloquial)

  Notions related  to set expressions

A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words «like», «as», or «than».

Even though both similes and metaphors are forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities, whereas metaphors compare two things directly.

e.g. as alike as two peas in a pod (identical or nearly so)

as blind as a bat (completely blind)

A cliché is a stereotyped expression mechanically reproduced in speech, very often overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty.

e.g. Love is blind. Put two and two together.

A proverb is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of mankind. They are often metaphorical. A proverb that describes a basic rule of conduct may also be known as a maxim. If a proverb is distinguished by particularly good phrasing, it may be known as an aphorism.

Professor A. V. Koonin called proverbs communicative phraseological units.

A collocation is sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.


time flies

Times passes

the appointed time

Present time

Right time

Wrong time

Opening time

Closing time

A phrasal verb is a phrase (as take off or look down on) that combines a verb with a preposition or adverb or both and that functions as a verb whose meaning is different from the combined meanings of the individual words.

Translation Tips

Free word combinations and collocations are usually translated by calque (word-for-word). However, translating attributive word groups is challenging, because one and the same attributive word may be translated differently depending on the meaning of the defined head word.

E.g. public opinion – общественное мнение

Public debt – государственный долг

Public scandal – публичный скандал

Sometimes more complicated transformations are needed:

E.g. working expectancy – ожидаемая продолжительность трудовой деятельности

Phraseological unities are usually translated by one word or equivalent combinations:

e.g. to take a chance – рисковать

To take offence – обидеться

To put an end to – положить конец, преодолеть

To take into account – принимать во внимание

Phraseological fusions (idioms) are translated by their Russian equivalents or analogues or description.

e.g. whip-and-carrot policy – политика кнута и пряника (equivalent)

To beat about the bush – ходить вокруг да около (analogue)

Carbon footprint — негативные экологические последствия какой-либо деятельности (decription)

 Origin of set expressions


  1. One of the words becomes archaic: kith and kin
  2. One of the meanings of a word becomes archaic: to be in two minds
  3. An expression may pass from professional use into common use: to hit below the belt (from boxing)
  4. Part of a proverb may become isolated: the last straw (that was the last straw which broke the camel’s neck)
  5. Literary sources: a Troyan horse; to be or not to be
  6. Translation borrowings:  to kill two birds with one stone (calque translation from French)

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What do we call word combinations in which the components retain their main meaning, and can freely enter different combinations?

Show answer »

Free word combinations

What do we call word combinations in which the components typically have shifted meaning and are not freely chosen?

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Set/phraseological expressions

What do we call a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words «like», «as», or «than»?

Show answer »


What do we call a trite or overused phrase or expression?

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What is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of mankind?

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A proverb

What do we call a familiar grouping of words that habitually appear together and thereby convey meaning by association?

Show answer »


Which of the following underlined word combinations with the word “stand” is free and which one is fixed?

a)      The British government would not stand in the way of such a proposal.

b)      She was standing beside my bed staring down at me.

Show answer »

“to stand in the way of” is a set expression. It means “to prevent something from happening”“To stand beside smth” is a free combination. The verb “stand” has its direct meaning here; you can also say “She was standing beside by chair/sofa etc.”

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Further reading

Антрушина Г. Б. и др. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1999 and other editions – CHAPTER 12. Phraseology: Word-groups with transferred meanings. CHAPTER 13 Phraseology: Principles of Classification.

Арнольд И.В. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1973; Флинта, Наука, 2012 and other editions – Chapter 9. Set expressions

D.Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995 and other editions – Part II English Vocabulary. 9 – The sources of the lexicon. Collocations. Lexical predictability. Idioms.

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Exercise 1. Which of the following word combinations in bold are set phrases? Classify them according to the semantic approach. What ensures the stability of their components?


1)    Where do you think you lost your purse?

2)    Don’t lose you lose your temper when you talk to her.

3)    Have a look at the reverse side of the coat.

4)    The reverse side of the medal is that we’ll have to do it ourselves.

5)    Keep the butter in the refrigerator.

6)    Keep an eye on the child.


Exercise 2

Numeral idiom quiz.

Fill in the blanks with proper numerals to make an idiom with the specified meaning.




1)    She crawled on all _____ to the window = on her knees, feet and hands.

2)    He is at _____ and _____ = He is confused and doesn’t know what to do.

3)    He puts _____ and _____ together.= He begins to draw conclusions about something

4)    He looks out for number _____ = He only thinks about his interests.

5)    «the _____ R’s.» = The basics of education

6)    He has a _____ o’clock shadow. =  A man hasn’t shaved for a day or two

7)    Things that are very cheap and common are _____ a penny.

8)    This four bedroom home, located in Country Club Estates, is completed and ready to move in. This home has «the whole _____ yards» in convenience.’ (=all of it)

Exercise 2

Color idiom quiz

Many expressions and idioms in English are based on colours. Can you fit the correct expression into each sentence? The meaning of each expression is shown in brackets.

out of the bluein black and whitein the red saw redonce in the blue moonbrowned off

1)    I’ve overspent this month and I’m _____.(owing money in the bank)

2)    The manager said he would consider my complaint if I put it down _____.(in writing)

3)    She used to visit me every week, but now I only see her _____.( very occasionally)

4)    I hadn’t heard form my brother for years and last week I got a letter from him _____. ( very unexpectedly)

5)    He says that he is very _____ (depressed) because he doesn’t enjoy his job.

6)    I listened to his stupid argument for about ten minutes and suddenly I _____. (lost my temper)




Exercise 1

1)    lost your purse — it is a free word combination, as it allows any combinations without change of the basic (denotative) meaning of words, e.g. lost you bag, found your purse etc.

2)    lose your temper  – it is a set (phraseological) word combination, as the meaning of the word ‘lose’ in this combination is not direct but figurative (= to become angry).

3)    reverse side of the coat — it is a free word combination, as it allows any combinations without change of the basic (denotative) meaning of words, e.g. reverse side of the dress

4)    reverse side of the medal — it is a set (phraseological) word combination, as the meaning of the words in this combination  is not direct but figurative (= other side of the matter)

5)    Keep the butterit is a free word combination, as it allows any combinations without change of the basic (denotative) meaning of words, e.g. keep the cheese in the refrigerator etc.

6)    Keep an eye — it is a set (phraseological) word combination, as the meaning of the words in this combination  is not direct but figurative (= to watch closely or carefully)

Exercise 2

1)    fours

2)    sixes and sevens

3)    two and two

4)    one

5)    three

6)    five

7)    ten

8)    nine

Exercise 3

1)    in the red

2)    in black and white

3)    once in the blue mood

4)    out of the blue

5)    browned off

6)    saw red