Pragmatic Idioms

Term Paper, 2003

17 Pages, Grade: 2.0 (B)



Pragmatic Idioms

1. Introduction
1.1. Fixed Expressions
1.2. Idioms and Idiomacity
1.3. Pragmatics

2. Pragmatic Idioms
2.1. Social Formulae
2.2. Discourse-Structuring Formulae
2.3. Expressive Formulae

3. Conclusion

4. References

1. Introduction

Pragmatic Idioms play an important role in the English language and even more in everyday conversation and comprehension. We necessarily use expressions like How do you do?, Thank you, I am sorry and so on. They are fixed parts in human interaction and “closely bound to a special function or communication situation”[1]. They are a fixed part in our everyday conversation.

This figure[2] shows the importance of pragmatics and consequently pragmatic idioms in linguistics:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Phonetics, the study of human speech sounds in the centre. Followed by phonology, the sound patterning, that is surrounded by syntax, the arrangement and the form of words, which also links together the sound patterns and the meaning. Next is semantics (meaning), that together with phonology, syntax and semantics is the “bread and butter”[3] of linguistics (grammar). Around the centre of grammatical hub comes pragmatics, which is a relatively new and fast expanding topic that has connections both with semantics, and with the various branches of linguistics.

Pragmatic idioms have a great variety of definitions and terms that continuously change. Some of these expressions are: pragmatic idioms[4], conversational routines[5], situational fixed expression-idioms[6], interactional idioms[7], Routineformeln[8] or speech act idioms[9].

In this paper I am going to use the expression pragmatic idioms (as well as in our presentation in the seminar) to present and illustrate this branch of linguistics. Because of this confusing and enormously wide field of definitions and information, I am going to start with a first overview, some basic definitions concerning fixed expressions, idioms and idiomacity in general before having a closer look at pragmatic idioms in detail.

1.1. Fixed Expressions

To really understand what fixed expressions are all about one requires some basic information. First of all it has to be mentioned that the English language has a vocabulary or lexican that consists of lexical items. These can be subdivided into two major groups.

The first group contains simple words, for instance ball, go, nice or complex words, such as musician. The other group in this category are fixed expressions like so long, light at the end of the tunnel, boys will be boys. All the fixed expressions are part of the linguistic branch of phraseology, that is why they can also be called phraseological items.

Fixed expressions are combinations of words. They “are combinations of signs” and “therefore not arbitrary but motivated to some extend”[10].

According to Roos an expression is motivated when total meaning is derived form meaning of its parts. The whole is more and completely different than just the sum its parts. For this reason motivation is “the systematic relationship between the meaning of a complex lexeme and the meaning of its parts”[11].

As the term “fixed expressions” already implies, this word group cannot be changed, in contrast to free word groups. They have “a stable form in all the contexts in which they occur”[12].These types of fixed expressions can be distinguished, for instance there are proverbs, catchphrases, slogans, quotations, stereotypes, similes or stereotype comparisons. All these categories overlap in many cases and are not clearly delimited. A very important category, which some see as the prototype of fixed expressions, consists of idioms like red tape, white slave, blind date, by and large, so long, kick the bucket, how do you do, etc.

1.2 Idioms and Idiomaticity

All phraseological items underlie the principle of stability and all fixed expressions can be characterized by stability of collocation. Collocation is a matter of use and it describes the fact that two words are used together with the result that certain words combined are used more frequently than others. Idiomaticity is the opposite of motivation and differs in quantity, in other words it can have different degrees depending “on the number of elements that contribute their literal meaning”[13]. The term idiomaticity explicitly describes “the characteristic that the total meaning is more or different than the sum of the parts”[14].

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In the case that stability of collocation and idiomaticity occur at the same time, they form a certain group of fixed expressions called idioms, which has already been mentioned in the previous chapter of this page. Even though idioms are subcategories among other various types of fixed expressions, they are especially important, because English is very rich in idiomatic expressions.

Also idioms are not only colloquial expressions; they can appear in formal conversation as well as in slang. Furthermore native speaker tend to forget that idioms can often be more or less grammatically incorrect. It is the stability of collocation which allows the speaker to use it.

To put it in a nutshell there are two main characteristics of English Idioms.

First of all they are more or less fixed expressions. Secondly, apart from being fixed, an idiom consists of at least two components, that express a different meaning than the literal sense. The result is, that knowing the literal meaning of the consisting words, does not lead us automatically to the meaning of the whole phrase (e. g. blind date). Idioms are especially for non-native speakers a challenge, because most of the time you are in desperate need of somebody explaining the phrase to you.

According to Roos “an idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning is not- or not exclusively- a sum of the meanings of the constituent parts”[15].

The term idiom comes from the Greek lexeme idios, which means ‘own, private, peculiar’[16].

Some other definitions are:

- Lexical units of two or more words, but under sentence-lengths carrying a figurative meaning.
- The form of speech peculiar or proper to a people or country; own language or tongue. […]
- The specific character, property or genius of any language; […]
- A characteristic mode of expression in music, art or writing; an instance of this[17].
- A form of expression grammatical construction, phrase, etc., peculiar to language; a peculiarity of phraseology approved by usage of language, and often having significance other than its grammatical or logical one.


[1] Aijmer 1996: 1

[2] Aitchinson 1999: 7

[3] Aitchinson 1999: 8

[4] Roos 2001: 70

[5] Coulmas 1981; Aijmer 1996

[6] Moon 1998: 225

[7] Roos 1989: 221

[8] Gläser 1986: 129

[9] Saddock 1974: 158

[10] Roos 1989: 216

[11] Roos 1989: 216

[12] Aijmer 1996: 220

[13] Roos 1989:221

[14] Roos 1989: 218

[15] Roos 1989: 218

[16] Strässler 1982: 13

[17] OED as cited in Strässler 1982: 13

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Pragmatic Idioms
University of Paderborn  (Anglistics)
English Idioms in Linguistics and Language Teaching
2.0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
627 KB
Pragmatic, Idioms, English, Linguistics, Language, Teaching
Quote paper
N. Hoffmeister (Author), 2003, Pragmatic Idioms, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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