chapter 5 Phrases in context

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Despite the regularities apparent in the cotext of phrasal chunks, it should be remembered that even ‘so-called “fixed” phrases are not in fact fixed’ (Sinclair 1996b: 30). One aspect of idiom fixity which is often overlooked is the idiom’s colligational preference in terms of syntactic role and positioning. Most of the idioms included in this study have a marked preference for one particular syntactic role and one particular syntactic position, rarely (if ever) deviating from that preference. Yet in those cases when they are found in unusual forms or positions, that novelty attracts the reader’s attention and interferes with the delexicalisation process typical of canonical instances. The first part of this chapter is dedicated to an investigation of this type of variation. Another way in which delexical meanings can be relexicalised is by making them more semantically transparent. By far the most common means of doing this is to pair an idiom or metaphorical collocation with unusual collocates, which blocks delexicalisation and relexicalises the phrase. Instead of co-occurring with one or two recurrent collocates, a much wider semantic preference is brought into play, and this can activate salient meanings within the idiom or collocation’s constituents, or indeed allude to an image schema. How this works will be illustrated in a series of case studies; for now consider the difference of meaning conjured up by the usual collocates of red tape, i.e. cut and tie (up), compared to alternative collocates within the same semantic preferences, including hack, slash, hogtie, and strangle. The chapter ends with a case study illustrating how salient meanings can be resuscitated, sometimes through the smallest of changes.


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