Имя материала: Лексикология английского языка

Автор: Антрушина Галина Борисовна

Chapter 13 phraseology: principles of classification


It would be interesting now to look at phraseological units from a different angle, namely: how are all these treasures of the language approached by the linguistic science? The very miscellaneous nature of these units suggests the first course of action: they must be sorted out and arranged in certain classes which possess identical characteristics.

But which characteristics should be chosen as the main criteria for such a classification system? The structural? The semantic? Those of degree of stability? Of origin?

It should be clear from the previous description that a phraseological unit is a complex phenomenon with a number of important features, which can therefore be approached from different points of view. Hence, there exist a considerable number of different classification systems devised by different scholars and based on different principles.

The traditional and oldest principle for classifying phraseological units is based on their original content and might be alluded to as "thematic" (although the term is not universally accepted). The approach is widely used in numerous English and American guides to idiom, phrase books, etc. On this principle, idioms are classified according to their sources of origin, "source" referring to the particular sphere of human activity, of life of nature, of natural phenomena, etc. So, L. P. Smith gives in his classification groups of idioms used by sailors, fishermen, soldiers, hunters and associated with the realia, phenomena and conditions of their occupations. In Smith's classification we also find groups of idioms associated with domestic and wild animals and birds, agriculture and cooking. There are also numerous idioms drawn from sports, arts, etc.

This principle of classification is sometimes called "etymological". The term does not seem appropriate since we usually mean something different when we speak of the etymology of a word or word-group: whether the word (or word-group) is native or borrowed, and, if the latter, what is the source of borrowing. It is true that Smith makes a special study of idioms borrowed from other languages, but that is only a relatively small part of his classification system. The general principle is not etymological.

Smith points out that word-groups associated with the sea and the life of seamen are especially numerous in English vocabulary. Most of them have long since developed metaphorical meanings which have no longer any association with the sea or sailors. Here are some examples,

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). V. H. Collins remarks that the metaphor is that of a boat tossed about, out of control, with its occupants not knowing where they are. [26]

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.

To be in the same boat with somebody — to be in a situation in which people share the same difficulties and dangers (e. g. I don't like you much, but seeing that we're in the same boat I'll back you all I can). The metaphor is that of passengers in the life-boat of a sunken ship.

To sail under false colours — to pretend to be what one is not; sometimes, to pose as a friend and, at the same time, have hostile intentions. The metaphor is that of an enemy ship that approaches its intended prey showing at the mast the flag ("colours") of a pretended friendly nation.

To show one's colours — to betray one's real character or intentions. The allusion is, once more, to a ship showing the flag of its country at the mast.

To strike one's colours — to surrender, give in, admit one is beaten. The metaphor refers to a ship's hauling down its flag (sign of surrender).

To weather (to ride out) the storm — to overcome difficulties; to have courageously stood against misfortunes.

To bow to the storm — to give in, to acknowledge one's defeat.

Three sheets in(to) the wind (sl.) — very drunk.

Half seas over (sl.) — drunk.

Though, as has been said, direct associations with seafaring in all these idioms have been severed, distant memories of the sea romance and adventure still linger in some of them. The faint sound of the surf can still be heard in such phrases as to ride out the storm or breakers ahead! (@ Take care! Danger'). Such idioms as to sail under false colours, to nail one's colours to the mast (@ to be true to one's convictions, to fight for them openly) bring to mind the distant past of pirate brigs, sea battles and great discoveries of new lands.

It is true, though, that a foreigner is more apt to be struck by the colourfulness of the direct meaning of an idiom where a native speaker sees only its transferred meaning, the original associations being almost fully forgotten. And yet, when we Russians use or hear the idiom первая ласточка, doesn't a dim image of the little bird flash before our mind, though, of course, we really mean something quite different? When we say на воре и шапка горит, are we entirely free from the picture built up by the direct meanings of the words? If it were really so and all the direct associations of the idioms had been entirely erased, phraseology would not constitute one of the language's main expressive resources. Its expressiveness and wealth of colour largely — if not solely — depend on the ability of an idiom to create two images at once: that of a ship safely coming out of the storm — and that of a man overcoming his troubles and difficulties (to weather/ride out the storm); that of a ship's crew desperately fighting against a pirate brig — and that of a man courageously standing for his views and convictions (to nail one's colours to the mast). .,

The thematic principle of classifying phraseological units has real merit but it does not take into consideration the linguistic characteristic features of the phraseological units.

The considerable contribution made by Russian scholars in phraseological research cannot be exaggerated. We have already mentioned the great contribution made by Academician V. V. Vinogradov to this branch of linguistic science.

The classification system of phraseological units devised by this prominent scholar is considered by some linguists of today to be outdated, and yet its value is beyond doubt because it was the first classification system which was based on the semantic principle. It goes without saying that semantic characteristics are of immense importance in phraseological units. It is also well known that in modern research they are often sadly ignored. That is why any attempt at studying the semantic aspect of phraseological units should be appreciated.

Vinogradov's classification system is founded on the degree of semantic cohesion between the components of a phraseological unit. Units with a partially transferred meaning show the weakest cohesion between their components. The more distant the meaning of a phraseological unit from the current meaning of its constituent parts, the greater is its degree of semantic cohesion. Accordingly, Vinogradov classifies phraseological units into three classes: phraseological combinations, unities and fusions (R. фразеологические сочетания, единства и сращения). [9]

Phraseological combinations are word-groups with a partially changed meaning. They may be said to be clearly motivated, that is, the meaning of the unit can be easily deduced from the meanings of its constituents.

E. g. to be at one's wits' end, to be good at something, to be a good hand at something, to have a bite, to come off a poor second, to come to a sticky end (coil.), to look a sight (coil.), to take something for granted, to stick to one's word, to stick at nothing, gospel truth, bosom friends.

Phraseological unities are word-groups with a completely changed meaning, that is, the meaning of the unit does not correspond to the meanings of its constituent parts. They are motivated units or, putting it another way, the meaning of the whole unit can be deduced from the meanings of the constituent parts; the metaphor, on which the shift of meaning is based, is clear and transparent.

E. g. to stick to one's guns (@ to be true to one's views or convictions. The image is that of a gunner or guncrew who do not desert their guns even if a battle seems lost); to sit on the fence (@ in discussion, politics, etc. refrain from committing oneself to either side); to catch/clutch at a straw/straws (@ when in extreme danger, avail oneself of even the slightest chance of rescue); to lose one's head (@ to be at a loss what to do; to be out of one's mind); to lose one's heart to smb. (@ to fall in love); to lock the stable door after the horse is stolen (@ to take precautions too late, when the mischief is done); to look a gift horse in the mouth (@ to examine a present too critically; to find fault with something one gained without effort); to ride the high horse (@ to behave in a superior, haughty, overbearing way. The image is that of a person mounted on a horse so high that he looks down on others); the last drop/straw (the final culminating circumstance that makes a situation unendurable); a big bug/pot, sl. (a person of importance); a fish out of water (a person situated uncomfortably outside his usual or proper environment).

Phraseological fusions are word-groups with a completely changed meaning but, in contrast to the unities, they are demotivated, that is, their meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of the constituent parts; the metaphor, on which the shift of meaning was based, has lost its clarity and is obscure.

E. g. to come a cropper (to come to disaster); neck and crop (entirely, altogether, thoroughly, as in: He was thrown out neck and crop. She severed all relations with them neck and crop.); at sixes and sevens (in confusion or in disagreement); to set one's cap at smb. (to try and attract a man; spoken about girls and women. The image, which is now obscure, may have been either that of a child trying to catch a butterfly with his cap or of a girl putting on a pretty cap so as to attract a certain person. In Vanity Fair: "Be careful, Joe, that girl is setting her cap at you."); to leave smb. in the lurch (to abandon a friend when he is in trouble); to show the white feather (to betray one's cowardice. The allusion was originally to cock fighting. A white feather in a cock's plumage denoted a bad fighter); to dance attendance on smb. (to try and please or attract smb.; to show exaggerated attention to smb.).

It is obvious that this classification system does not take into account the structural characteristics of phraseological units. On the other hand, the border-line separating unities from fusions is vague and even subjective. One and the same phraseological unit may appear motivated to one person (and therefore be labelled as a unity) and demotivated to another (and be regarded as a fusion). The more profound one's command of the language and one's knowledge of its history, the fewer fusions one is likely to discover in it.

The structural principle of classifying phraseological units is based on their ability to perform the same syntactical functions as words. In the traditional structural approach, the following principal groups of phraseological units are distinguishable.

A. Verbal. E. g. to run for one's (dear) life, to get (win) the upper hand, to talk through one's hat, to make a song and dance about something, to sit pretty (Amer. sl.).

B. Substantive. E. g. dog's life, cat-and-dog life, calf love, white lie, tall order, birds of a feather, birds of passage, red tape, brown study.

C. Adjectival. E. g. high and mighty, spick and span, brand new, safe and sound. In this group the so-called comparative word-groups are particularly expressive and sometimes amusing in their unanticipated and capricious associations: (as) cool as a cucumber, (as) nervous as a cat, (as) weak as a kitten, (as) good as gold (usu. spoken about children), (as) pretty as a picture, as large as life, (as) slippery as an eel, (as) thick as thieves, (as) drunk as an owl (sl.), (as) mad as a hatter/a hare in March.

D. Adverbial. E. g. high and low (as in They searched for him high and low), by hook or by crook (as in She decided that, by hook or by crook, she must marry him), for love or money (as in He came to the conclusion that a really good job couldn't be found for love or money), in cold blood (as in The crime was said to have been committed in cold blood), in the dead of night, between the devil and the deep sea (in a situation in which danger threatens whatever course of action one takes), to the bitter end (as in to fight to the bitter end), by a long chalk (as in It is not the same thing, by a long chalk).

E. Interjectional. E. g. my God! by Jove! by George! goodness gracious! good Heavens! sakes alive! (Amer.)

Professor Smirnitsky offered a classification system for English phraseological units which is interesting as an attempt to combine the structural and the semantic principles [12] Phraseological units in this classification system are grouped according to the number and semantic significance of their constituent parts. Accordingly two large groups are established:

A. one-summit units, which have one meaningful constituent (e. g. to give up, to make out, to pull out, to be tired, to be surprised1);

B. two-summit and multi-summit units which have two or more meaningful constituents (e. g. black art, first night, common sense, to fish in troubled waters).

Within each of these large groups the phraseological units are classified according to the category of parts of speech of the summit constituent. So, one-summit units are subdivided into: a) verbal-adverbial units equivalent to verbs in which the semantic and the grammatical centres coincide in the first constituent (e. g. to give up); b) units equivalent to verbs which have their semantic centre in the second constituent and their grammatical centre in the first (e. g. to be tired); c) prepositional-substantive units equivalent either to adverbs or to copulas and having their semantic centre in the substantive constituent and no grammatical centre (e. g. by heart, by means of).

Two-summit and multi-summit phraseological units are classified into: a) attributive-substantive two-summit units equivalent to nouns (e. g. black art),

 b) verbal-substantive two-summit units equivalent to verbs (e. g. to take the floor), c) phraseological repetitions equivalent to adverbs (e. g. now or never);

d) adverbial multi-summit units (e. g. every other day).

Professor Smirnitsky also distinguishes proper phraseological units which, in his classification system, are units with non-figurative meanings, and idioms, that is, units with transferred meanings based on a metaphor.

Professor Koonin, the leading Russian authority on English phraseology, pointed out certain inconsistencies in this classification system. First of all, the subdivision into phraseological units (as non-idiomatic units) and idioms contradicts the leading criterion of a phraseological unit suggested by Professor Smirnitsky: it should be idiomatic.

Professor Koonin also objects to the inclusion of such word-groups as black art, best man, first night in phraseology (in Professor Smirnitsky's classification system, the two-summit phraseological units) as all these word-groups are not characterized by a transferred meaning. It is also pointed out that verbs with post-positions (e. g. give up) are included in the classification but their status as phraseological units is not supported by any convincing argument.


* * *


The classification system of phraseological units suggested by Professor A. V. Koonin is the latest outstanding achievement in the Russian theory of phraseology. The classification is based on the combined structural-semantic principle and it also considers the quotient of stability of phraseological units.

Phraseological units are subdivided into the following four classes according to their function in communication determined by their structural-semantic characteristics.

1. Nominative phraseological units are represented by word-groups, including the ones with one meaningful word, and coordinative phrases of the type wear and tear, well and good.

The first class also includes word-groups with a predicative structure, such as as the crow flies, and, also, predicative phrases of the type see how the land lies, ships that pass in the night.

2. Nominative-communicative phraseological units include word-groups of the type to break the ice — the ice is broken, that is, verbal word-groups which are transformed into a sentence when the verb is used in the Passive Voice.

3. Phraseological units which are neither nominative nor communicative include interjectional word-groups.

4. Communicative phraseological units are represented by proverbs and sayings.

These four classes are divided into sub-groups according to the type of structure of the phraseological unit. The sub-groups include further rubrics representing types of structural-semantic meanings according to the kind of relations between the constituents and to either full or partial transference of meaning.

The classification system includes a considerable number of subtypes and gradations and objectively reflects the wealth of types of phraseological units existing in the language. It is based on truly scientific and modern criteria and represents an earnest attempt to take into account all the relevant aspects of phraseological units and combine them within the borders of one classification system. [10]




I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. What is the basis of the traditional and oldest principle for classifying phraseological units?

2. What other criteria can be used for the classification of phraseological units?

3. Do you share the opinion that in idioms the original associations are partly or wholly lost? Are we entirely free from the picture built up by the current meanings of the individual words in idioms? Illustrate your answer with different examples.

4. What are the merits and disadvantages of the thematic principle of classification for phraseological units?

5. Explain the semantic principle of classification for phraseological units.

6. What is the basis of the structural principle of classification for phraseological units?

7. Analyse Professor A. I. Smirnitsky's classification system for phraseological units. What is it based on? Do you see any controversial points in the classification system?

8. Discuss the merits of Professor A. V. Koonin's system for the classification of phraseological units. What is it based on? Do you find any points in the classification system which are open to question?


II. a. Read the following text. Compile a list of the phraseological units used in it. Translate them into Russian by phraseological units (if possible) or by free word-groups. On what principle are all these idioms selected?


If you feel under the weather, you don't feel very well, and if you make heavy weather of something, you make it more difficult than it needs to be. Someone with a sunny disposition is always cheerful and happy, but a person with his head in the clouds does not pay much attention to what is going on around him. To have a place in the sun is to enjoy a favourable position, and to go everywhere under the sun is to travel all over the world. Someone who is under a cloud is in disgrace or under suspicion, and a person who is snowed under with work is overwhelmed with it.

When you break the ice, you get to know someone better, but if you cut no ice with someone, you have no effect on them. To keep something on ice or in cold storage is to reserve it for the future, and to skate on thin ice is to be in a dangerous or risky situation. If something is in the wind, it is being secretly planned, and if you have the wind up, you became frightened. To throw caution to the winds is to abandon it and act recklessly, but to see how the wind blows is to find out how people are thinking before you act. If you take the wind out of someone's sails, you gain the advantage over him or her by saying or doing something first. To save something for a rainy day is to put some money aside for when it is needed. To do something come rain or shine is to do it whatever the circumstances. Finally, everyone knows that it never rains but it pours, that problems and difficulties always come together. But every cloud has a silver lining — every misfortune has a good side.

(Журнал Англия, 1973)

b. Give at least fifteen examples of your own to illustrate the phraseological units in your list.


III. a. Read the following text. Compile a list of the phraseological units used in it.1 Classify them according to Academician Vinogradov's classification system for phraseological units.

English has many colloquial expressions to do with parts of the human body — from head to toe! Here are some of the commonest ones.

To keep your head is to remain calm, but to lose it is to panic and do something foolish. If something is above or over your head, it is too difficult for you to understand. An egg-head is an intellectual, and someone who has their head screwed on, is very sensible.

If you split hairs, you are very pedantic, but if you don't turn a hair you are very calm.

To pay through the nose is to pay a very high price for something, but if you turn up your nose at something you despise it. If you are all ears, you listen very attentively, and if you keep your ear to the ground, you listen and watch out for signs of future events. To see eye to eye with someone is to agree with them, and if you don't bat an eyelid, you show no surprise or excitement. If you are down in the mouth, you're rather depressed. A stiff upper lip is the traditionally British quality of not showing any emotions in times of trouble.

To have your tongue in your cheek is to say one thing and mean something else. To have a sweet tooth is to have a taste for sweet food, and to do something by the skin of your teeth is to just manage to do it.

To stick your neck out is to do something risky or dangerous, and to keep someone at arm's length is to avoid getting too friendly with them. To be high-handed is to behave in a superior fashion, but to lend someone a hand is to help them. If you have a finger in every pie, you are involved in a lot of different projects, and if you have green fingers, you are very good at gardening. To be all fingers and thumbs is to be very clumsy, and to be under someone's thumb is to be under their influence. If you pull someone's leg, you tease them, and if you haven't a leg to stand on, you have no reason or justification for what you do. To put your foot down is to insist on something and to fall on your feet is to be very fortunate. To find your feet is to become used to a new situation, but to get cold feet is to become frightened or nervous about something. If you put your foot in it, you say or do something to upset or annoy someone else, and if you tread on someone's toes you do the same without meaning to.


b. Give at least fifteen examples of your own to illustrate the phraseological units in your list.


IV. In the texts of exercises II and III find examples of phraseological synonyms and antonyms.


V. Complete the following sentences, using the phraseological units given in the list below. Translate them into Russian.


1. If I pay my rent, I won't have any money to buy , food. I'm between ——. 2. It's no use grumbling about your problems — we're all ——. 3. He's sold his house and his business to go to Australia, so he's really ——. 4. She prefers not to rely on anyone else, she likes to — —. 5. They didn't know whether to get married or not, but they finally ——. 6. You can't expect everything to go right all the time, you must learn to ——.

to take the rough with the smooth; between the devil and the deep sea; to take the plunge; in the same boat; to paddle one's own canoe; to burn one's boats


VI. Complete the following similes. Translate the phraseological units into Russian. If necessary, use your dictionary.



as black as

as green as

as cold as

as white as

as old as

as changeable as

as safe as

as brown as

as clean as

as dull as


as a lion

as a lamb

as a mouse

as a cat

as a kitten

as an eel

as an owl

as a wolf

as a cricket

as a bee


VII. Complete the following sentences, using the words from the list below. Translate the phraseological units into Russian.


1. She was so embarrassed that she went as red as a ——. 2.1 can carry the suitcase easily, it's as light as a ——. 3. The room is as warm as ——. 4. My sister does so many things that she's always as busy as a ——. 5. He is as proud as a —— of his new car. 6. It's as cold as —— in that office. 7. Once he's made up his mind, he'll never change it, he's as stubborn as a ——. 8. She was so frightened that her face went as white as a ——. 9. The postman always calls at 8 o'clock, he's as regular as ——. 10. However much he eats, he's always as thin as a ——.

ice, beetroot, mule, feather, sheet, toast, clockwork, bee, rail, peacock


VIII. In the examples given below identify the phraseological units and classify them on the semantic principle.


1. The operation started badly and everyone was in a temper throughout. 2.1 know a man who would love meeting you. The perfect nut for you to crack your teeth on. 3.1 wish I had you for Maths (my favourite subject). But alas, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. 4. He said: "Well, never mind, Nurse. Don't make such heavy weather about it." 5. Did you know that 50\% of the time I've been barking up all the wrong trees. 6. However, while appreciating that the best way to deal with a bully is to bully back, I never quite had the nerve. 7. What is it — First Aid? All you need know is how to treat shock and how to stop haemorrhage, which I've drummed into you till I'm blue in the face. 8. Don't let them (pupils) lead you by the nose. 9. But I thought he was afraid I might take him at his word. 10. Ruth made no bones about the time she was accustomed to have her dinner. 11. Poor Eleanor — what a mess she made of her life, marrying that man Grey! 12. There was a list of diets up in the kitchen, but Auntie had it all at her finger-tips. 13. "Bob, give me a hand with the screen," Diana said. "Now be very careful, won't you, sweetie?" 14. My common sense tells me that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. 15. She thought, he's obviously a very sensitive man, he can read between the lines. 16. Oh, said Arthur, someone might've bought the things cheap at an auction and put them by for a rainy day. 17. "I played like a fool," said Guy, breaking a silence. "I'm feeling a bit under the weather."


IX. In the examples given below identify the phraseological units and classify them on the structural principle. Translate the phraseological units into Russian.


1. Ella Friedenberg thinks she's Freud, but actually she's Peeping Tom. 2. What it symbolized was a fact of banking-corporate life: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. 3. There was a man I cared about, and this afternoon he told me out of a clear sky that he was poor as a churchmouse. 4. Finally he asked me out of the blue if I could drive a car. 5. But Nelson did not believe in letting the grass grow under his feet and applied for the headmastership of a Mission School that was being started in New Guinea. 6. He took his ideas from "Daily Telegraph" and the books in prep-school library, and his guiding rule in life was to play safe. 7. By God! I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me. They meet all kinds of crazy fish. 8. Then I got a shock that stiffened me from head to toe.


X. Read the following jokes. Classify the italicized word-groups, using Professor Smirnitsky's classification system for phraseological units.


Out of the Fire Into the Frying Pan


A fighter pilot bailed out of his aircraft which had suddenly caught fire. He safely landed in an orchard on an apple tree and climbed down without a scratch, but a few minutes later he was taken to hospital. The gardener's fierce and vigilant dog had been waiting for him under the tree.


More Precise


Two aviation meteorologists were engaged in shop talk.

"No, I don't watch the TV weather commentary. I reckon you get better weather on the radio," said one of them thoughtfully.


XI. Group the following italicized phraseological units, using Professor Koonin's classification system. Translate them into Russian.


1. Margot brightened "Now you are talking! That would be a step up for women's lib (= liberation)." 2. Why was I more interested in the one black sheep than in all the white lambs in my care? 3. To the young, cliches seem freshly minted. Hitch your wagon to the star! 4. Out of sight out of mind. Anyway it'll do you good to have a rest from me. 5. In a sense it could be said that the ice was broken between us. 6. Rose Water-ford smothered a giggle, but the others preserved a stony silence. Mrs. Forrester's smile froze on her lips. Albert had dropped a brick. 7. "The fact is that Albert Forrester has made you all look a lot of damned fools." "All," said Clifford Boyleston. "We're all in the same boat." 8. It's no good crying over spilt milk. 9. Like many serious patriots, in her inability to know for certain which way the cat would jump she held her political opinions in suspense. 10. "How long do you want to go for? For always?" "Yes, for always." "Oh, my God!" 11. That also was a gentleman's paper, but it had bees in its bonnet. Bees in bonnets were respectable things, but personally Soames did not care for them.


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