Glossary of Linguistic Terms

Idiom

Definition: 

An idiom is a multiword construction that

  • is a semantic unit whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of its constituents, and
  • has a non-productive syntactic structure.
Discussion: 

An idiom often shows the following characteristics:

It is syntactically anomalous. It has an unusual grammatical structure.

  • Example:
    • by and large

It contains unique, fossilized items.

  • Examples:
    • to and fro fro < from = away (Scottish)
    • cobweb cob < cop = spider (Middle English)
NonExamples: 

Idioms contrast with the following:

Metaphors satisfy the first requirement for an idiom, that their meaning be obscure, but not the second, that they not be productive.

  • Examples:
    • throw in the towel
    • throw in the sponge

Collocates may have restricted lexical possibilities or use archaic vocabulary such that they are not productive, but their meaning is not opaque.

  • Examples:
    • heavy drinking
    • mete out