Words typically occur with other words to make up phrases. Most of these phrases have a meaning that is closely related to the meanings of the words that they contain, for example, next week, six o’clock, strong tea, in a minute. For some phrases, the relationship between the meaning of the phrase and the words it contains is not quite so clear, but there is still a strong connection. For example, kill two birds with one stone, see the light at the end of the tunnel, you know, for instance, think about. For a small number of phrases, the meaning of the parts has no obvious connection with the meaning of the whole, for example, at all, of course, as well, by and large, raining cats and dogs.
There are many words to describe these various kinds of phrases such as idioms, collocations, multiword units, figuratives, and lexical bundles. However, what is important about all the various kinds of phrases is that it is worth giving some deliberate attention to them as phrases, because this will help towards more accurate and fluent use of the language.
There are several ways of giving this attention.
- Work out how the meanings of the parts relate the meaning of the whole. For phrases and clauses that have a figurative meaning, this may involve seeing the connection between the literal meaning and the figurative meaning. For example, gave me the green light has the literal meaning of seeing a green traffic light. Its figurative meaning is getting permission to move forward.
- Look at the form of the phrase. About 20% of phrases in English make use of alliteration (words beginning with the same sound), such as leading light, baby boom, head held high or some other sound connection such as similar vowel sounds (blue moon), rhyme (when the cat’s away, the mice will play), repetition (by and by), and partial rhyme (last gasp).
- Think about and find out about the history of the phrase. Where do toe the line and cut and run come from?
Just as words differ in their frequency of occurrence, so do phrases. Some are very frequent and a much larger number are not so frequent. You can check to see how frequent a phrase is by using a concordance.