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Idioms within a Transformational Grammar

Author(s): Bruce Fraser


Source: Foundations of Language, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Feb., 1970), pp. 22-42
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25000426 .
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BRUCE FRASER

IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR

The main purpose of the present paper is to sketch out an approach to the
treatment of idiomswithin the framework of a transformational grammar
in the spirit, though not necessarily the content, of that found inAspects of
theTheory of Syntax (Chomsky, 1965).1For the purposes of this discussion
I shall regard an idiom as a constituent or series of constituents for which
the semantic interpretation is not a compositional function of the formatives
of which it is composed. Expressions such as figure out, make love to, beat
around the bush, by accident,pass the buck, and has the cat got your tongue
are all cases of what Iwould argue are idioms.Thus, in the example topass
the buck, there is no independentlymotivated interpretationof the verb to
pass and of the noun phrase the buck such that when taken together the
stringpass thebuck can receive the interpretationof to avoidwork by giving
thejob to someoneelse (where the someone elsemay ormay not be specified).2
Clearly everyword in the lexicon of a languagemeets the above definition of
an idiom and singlemorphemic words like sing, throw,and book are the
simplest examples of idioms.3However, as Katz and Postal (1964) noted,
there are numerous polymorphemic lexical entries, such as knucklehead,
turncoat,overturnand inside of, which must be analyzed as dominated by
single syntactic constituents (e.g. verb, adjective, noun, preposition, etc.).
1 This work was
supported in part by a contract to Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc. from
the Advanced Research Projects Agency (F19628-68-C-0125), and by a contract to The
Language Research Foundation, Cambridge, Mass., from the TEC Company, Tokyo.
I am particularly grateful toRobin Lakoff andMorris Halle formany useful and insightful
comments on an earlier version of this paper.
2 Familiar collocations such as bacon and eggs, here and there, an ounce of prevention is
worth a pound of cure are not to be analyzed as idioms since their interpretation is held to
be determined from the interpretation of the component constituents. Moreover, a string
of constituents analyzed as an idiom need not constitute the sole content of some higher
order constituent. For example, the verb phrase have a computer at our disposal contains
the idiom have at one's disposal as well as a direct object noun phrase a computer and the
possessive determiner our which are not part of the idiom.
3Hockett (A Course inModern Linguistics, MacMillan, London, 1958, p. 172)makes this
same point: "Let us momentarily use the term 'Y' for any grammatical form themeaning
of which is not deducible from its structure. Any Y, in any occurrence inwhich it is not a
constituent of a largerY, is an idiom. A vast number of composite forms in any language
are idioms. If we are to be consistent in our use of the definition, we are forced also to
grant every morpheme idiomatic status, save when it is occurring as a constituent of a
larger idiom, since a morpheme has no structure from which itsmeaning could be de
duced."

Foundations of Language 6 (1970) 22-42. All rights reserved.

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 23

These compound lexical entries they called lexical idiomsand we adopt this
usage. Idioms having a more complicated constituent structure such as
Has the cat got your tongue?,which clearlymust be analyzed as an entire
sentence,we will refer to as phrasal idioms (again following theKatz and
Postal usage). We are particularly concerned in this paper in accounting
for the properties of such phrasal idioms.
As I see it, there are twomain problems which arise in the treatment of
idioms within the framework of a transformational grammar. First is the
question of how to represent themeaning of an idiom in the deep structure
representation of a sentence. Inherent in answering this question is one in
volving the introduction of an idiom into the base P-marker generated by a
set of context-free phrase structure rules. Second is the question of how to
account for the recalcitrance of idioms to undergo particular syntactic
transformations.For example, consider the four idioms blow off some steam,
put on some weight, make up one'smind and lay down the law.We observe
that although these four idioms have identical syntactic structures, the first
is completely frozen, the second less frozen, the third even less so, and the
fourth, fairly amenable to transformational operations. Thus, note the
following facts concerning the application of the particle movement, the
passive, and the action nominalization transformations.4
(1) *He blew some steam off after he got home.
*Some steam was blown off at the party.
*Your blowing off of some steam surprisedus.

John has put someweight on.


*Some weight has been put on by John.
*The putting on of some weight by Henry caused great alarm.

No one can make your mind up for you.


Your mind can be made up by no one but you.
*Your making up of your own mind on that issue surprisedus.

Her father laid the law down when she came in at 4 a.m.
The law was laid down by her father before she was even twelve.
His laying down of the law didn't impressanyone.

4 It is
important to keep inmind that idioms, more thanmost aspects of language, vary
enormously from speaker to speaker. Thus it is quite possible that some of the examples
presented will be found unacceptable to the readerwhen I have claimed they are perfectly
acceptable transforms of a particular idiom. And vice-versa. This is not, in itself, a crucial
difference.What is important is that the general claims about idioms, in particular about
the hierarchy of frozenness presented below, hold true for each speaker although where a
particular idiom falls in this hierarchy may differ among speakers.

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24 BRUCE FRASER

This paper is devoted primarily to offering a solution to these two problems


within the transformationalgrammar framework.5
Turning now to the first problem, that of accounting for themeaning of
an idiom in the deep structure representationof a sentence, let us first con
siderwhat is involved in introducingjust a singleword into a base P-marker.
Sincewe are not trying to provide here a detailed analysis of either the form
of a lexical entry or themanner of lexical insertion, our discussion will be
rathergeneral and imprecise.What we are trying to do is provide the outline
of a reasonableway to characterize a singleword lexical item and its intro
duction into a base P-marker. We then want to show that phrasal idioms can
be characterized and introduced by a simple extension of what has been
already suggested for the simpler cases. In short, that mono-morphemic
idioms, lexical idioms, and phrasal idioms can all be treated in a similar
fashion.
We view each lexical item as having three component parts: (1) a set of
insertion restrictions; (2) a complex symbol containing a set of syntactic
features which dominates a phonological representation; and (3) a set of
semanticmarkers. Nothing depends crucially here on the form of the nota
tion which might be used to characterize these and the other parts of the
lexicon and I will adopt the schema ((>[] { }) to designate a lexical entry
with the angle brackets, < >, designating the insertionrestrictions, the square
brackets, [ ], designating the complex symbol, and the curly brackets, { },
designating the semantic markers associated with the entry. To take an
example, the insertion restrictions for the verb hit, in the sense of punch,
will restrict it to following a human subject noun phrase and preceding a
non-abstract solid or liquid object noun phrase and prevent it from co
occurring with manner adverbials like disastrously. The complex symbol

5 In a recent
paper, Chafe (1968) suggests that there are four facets of idioms which must be
handled. He writes: "Peculiarities of idioms-their anomalous meanings, their trans
formational deficiencies, the ill-formedness of some of them, and the greater text frequency
of well-formed idioms relative to their literal counterparts - must all be explained by a
theory of language adequate to cope with idiomaticity" (p. 112).
Clearly I have no argument with the first two of his peculiarities. In fact, this paper
represents an attempt to show that these two peculiarities can be accounted for within a
generative framework. In the course of the discussion Iwill argue that it is inappropriate to
label idioms such as trip the light fantastic, by and large, etc. as ill-formed just because they
have no literal counterpart and furthermore, that they can be treated quite straightfor
wardly by the approach suggested here. His claim about the frequency of idioms relative to
the literal counterparts, even if true - no evidence to support this claim is given - is com
pletely irrelevant to themain issue at hand: the treatment of idioms. His comment that
"generative syntax can account for the observation [greater text frequency of an idiom]
only in a contrived and ad hoc fashion" (p. 120) is absolutely true.But since this linguistic
theory was not developed to be a model of language performance (language usage) but
rather one of language competence, I would consider this fact irrelevant.

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 25

contains the syntactic features associated with the entry; the verb hit has
the specified syntactic features [+V + Voluntary Action + Process] in
cluded in its complex symbol as well as any rule exception featureswhich
might be relevant. (Cf. Lakoff, 1965, for a discussion of rule exception
notions.) At least one of the syntactic featuresmust indicatehow this lexical
entry is to function, given the set of insertion restrictions and the set of
semanticmarkers. In the above example, the feature [+V] indicates the
entry's syntactic function, that of a verb. The relevanceof thiswill become
clearer below. The complex symbol also contains the underlying phonemic
representationof the entry. Phonological considerations do not play a role
in this study and we will adopt normal orthography as the underlying repre
sentation whenever itmust be referred to. The third component, the set of
semanticmarkers, contains all of the semantic information contributing to
the semantic readingof the entry. Suggestions on how this informationmight
best be stated have been put forth by Katz (1966) and others (Weinreich,
1966) and will not be considered here.
We take the output of the base component of the grammar (the result of
the application of the context-freephrase structurerules) to consist of awell
formedphrasemarker (P-marker)forwhich the lowestnodes consist of either
complex symbols consisting of syntactic features, not necessarily specified,
or the phonological representation of some small class of formatives; e.g.,
the of of the determiner system as inmany of themen or the it in it's raining.
Each complex symbol is immediately dominated by a syntactic constituent
but never by another complex symbol.
Lexical insertion occurs in the following way. First, the insertion restric
tions are tested against a particular environment. Second, assuming a
successful first test, the complex symbol associated with the lexical entry is
tested to determine if it is compatible with the complex symbol associated
with that environment. (This notion of compatibility is discussed inAspects
but the notion, briefly stated, is this: two complex symbols are compatible
just in case one does not contain a positively (negatively) specified syntactic
feature for which the other is negatively (positively) specified.)And third,
the complex symbol of the lexical item is combined with the constituent
dominated complex symbolwith the following conventions: (1) the resulting
complex symbol is a set-union of the two original complex symbols; (2) the
insertion restrictions formerly associated with the lexical item are deleted
(they are no longerrelevant);and (3) the semantic'markers'associated with the
lexicalentry arenow associatedwith thedominating grammatical constituent.
But as we indicated earlier,we are primarily concerned in this paper with
phrasal idioms, not singleword idioms, even those of poly-morphemic com
position. And it is in attempting to introduce such idioms that a serious

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26 BRUCE FRASER

question arises:what is the deep structurerepresentationof a phrasal idiom?


To answer this, let us first consider idioms such as pass thebuckwhich have
literal counterparts. That is, the phrase pass the buck can mean idiomatically
to shove off a job (to someone else) and it can mean literally to convey a
dollar bill (to someone else). I think there are two strong pieces of evidence
which can be used to support the claim that an idiomatic expression has
precisely the same syntactic deep structure representation as its literal
counterpart. That is, if pass the buck in the literal sense is analyzed as a
verb-noun phrase sequence (pass-the buck) in which the noun phrase is
further analyzed into a determiner-noun sequence (the-buck), this analysis
holds as well for the idiomatic case.
The first piece of evidence derives from the fact thatmany although not
all idioms undergo some syntactic transformations.For example, pass the
buckmay be transformed into a gerundive nominal (Cf. Lees, 1961) as in
Your passing the buck on that issue has earned you much enmity,may be
passivized as in The buck's beenpassed on that issue,but may not undergo
the action nominalization (cf. Fraser, 1968) as in *Yourpassing of thebuck
createdmuch concern. By analyzing the idiomatic expressions as a verb
noun phrase sequence exactly like the literal case, we are able to account
quite naturally for those cases which undergo the various transformations
such as the gerundive nominalization, passive, etc. To be sure, the unac
ceptable cases (here the action nominalization) will not be prevented from
being generated, given this analysis.We deal with this issue in detail in the
laterpart of the paper.
The second argument for this claim comes from the area of phonology.
Whether or not any syntactic transformations have applied to a particular
idiomatic expression, its ultimate phonological shape is exactly that of the
corresponding literal expression. Thus, Johnpassed thebuck, John'spassing
the buck, The buck's been passed too often around here, are all ambiguous
semantically but no distinction ismade phonetically. By positing no differ
ence in the syntactic structure of the idiomatic and literal expressions, the
same phonological rules apply without exception to both to correctly pro
duce identical phonetic outputs. How much greater the complexity of the
phonological ruleswould be if idiomatic expressions had a different surface
structure representation than the literal counterparts is of course a function
of the character of the syntactic differences and the statement of the rules.
The force of the argument is, however, that the more simple statement of the
phonological component results from identical analyses. Of course, one
might arguethat the syntactic and semantic components are so greatly
complicated as a result that it is not worth such a phonological simplifica
tion. I attempt to show below that this is not the case.

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 27

Assuming now that an idiom has the same deep structure analysis as its
literal counterpart,we are faced with the problem of introducing the idiom
with its associated semantic interpretation.Recall that a singleword lexical
entry contains threeparts: insertionrestrictions,a complex symbol containing
syntactic features and a phonological representation, and a set of semantic
markers.We now extend the notion of a lexical entry in the following way.
Each entry contains, as before, a set of insertion restrictions and a set of
semanticmarkers for the entry.However, whereas formerly therewas but a
single complex symbol consisting of syntactic features and a phonological
representation,we now permit a complex symbol to consist of a string of
complex symbols. For example, the lexical entry for the idiom hit the sack
will consist of (1) insertion restrictions specifying that the entrymust occur
after an adult human subjectnoun phrase and possibly before certain types
of adverbials (e.g. a time adverbial such as at 5 p.m.); (2) three complex
symbols, the first containing the syntactic feature [+V] and the phonemic
string for hit, the second containing the syntactic feature [+DET] (deter
miner) and thephonemic string for the,and the thirdcontaining the syntactic
feature [+N] and the phonemic string for sack; and (3) a set of semantic
markers which has the semantic reading 'go to bed'. Schematically, this
lexical entrywill have the form (( > [[] [ [ ]] { ).6
Lexical insertionof an idiom occurs in just the sameway as for the single
formative. The complex symbol, however, instead of being treated as a
single entity, is now taken as a series of segments (each segment is of course
a well-formed complex symbol itself). Once the insertion restrictions have
been satisfied, each successive complex symbol of the lexical entrymust be
determined to be compatiblewith the corresponding complex symbol of the
P-marker (for this example, a sequence of complex symbolsmarked [+V]
[+DET] [+N]). The entire idiom is then inserted in a single operation, each
of its complex symbols being combined as described earlierwith the corre
sponding complex symbol of the P-marker.As before, the insertion restric
tions are deleted, and now the semantic reading is associated with the lowest
constituent dominating the idiom, in this example the verb phrase, VP,
6Note that I am making the claim that there is no semantic information associated with
the individual parts of the idiom but only a single set of markers associated with the entire
idiom. The significance of this claim is to assert that such information has no function in
the derivation of a sentence containing the idiom. To show that this claim is false, I think
itwill be necessary to show that a knowledge of the literal interpretation from which the
idiom (presumably) arose can account for certain transformational characteristics of the
idiom (see the next section) or that certain more permissible substitutions for a part of
the idiom are predictable. With respect to this last point, I find that the notion of the idiom
to hit the sack is preserved much better in the corruption to hit the bed than in topunch
the sack. I frankly have no idea how to account for such facts but a knowledge of the
literal counterpart could presumably be relevant.

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28 BRUCE FRASER

assuming it dominates the verb and direct object noun phrase of a sentence.
There are, however, some apparent problems which we consider now.
First consider noun-noun compounds such as cheese soup, chicken coop,
and filing cabinet.Certainly each of these compoundsmust be analyzed as a
noun: each takes a relative clause, pluralizes, etc. But furthermore, each
combinationmust have at least some internal structure to permit the genera
tion of a sentence like I want chickennot cheese soup.However, I know of no
motivation for analyzing the top noun (e.g. cheese soup) intomore structure
than separatecomplex symbols, one associatedwith each of theparticipating
nouns. Such an analysis will certainly permit the grammar to account for
the limited syntactic transformationswhich such compounds undergo. And
there isno syntactic evidence, outside of the realmof idioms,which motivates
having a base component rule introduce the syntactic category noun
dominating two, three or even more complex symbols, each marked as
[+N]. In fact, I think that all evidence points to having the lexical entry
reflect this compound structure.But this is not difficult to handle within the
framework suggestedhere.What we must do is permit compound complex
symbols to occur in lexical entries. For example, to account for cheese soup,
the complex symbol (the second component of the lexical entry)must have
one set of syntactic features, those associated with the compound noun
cheese soup (e.g. [+ Count + Liquid]) but instead of containing a pho
nological representation, it contains two other complex symbols. The first
contains the syntactic feature associated with cheese (e.g. [-Count, -Liq
uid]), the second the features associatedwith soup (e.g. [+ Count, + Liquid]).
Each of these complex symbols contains the obvious phonological repre
sentations. Schematically we represent this lexical entry as [< ) [Syntactic
Features [ ]] ]]{ ). In testing for compatibility between the lexical entry
for this compound noun and the complex symbol dominated by the con
stituentN of the P-marker, only the topmost complex symbol of the lexical
entry is used.7
A second apparent problem arises in handling discontinuous idioms like
bring (something) to light, lead (someone) amerry chase, etc.One alternative
is to extend the concept of insertion restrictions to permit them to include
a variable having certain properties. For the case of bring (something) to

7 The use of just the topmost complex symbol in the process of lexical insertion is relevant
for verb-particle combinations such as auction off, chicken out, trueup as well inwhich the
combination is functioning as a verb but where neither of the component parts ever func
tions as a verb in the language.Auction is only a noun as is chicken, and true functions only
as an adjective or adverb. The formatives off, out, and up function variously as adverbs or
prepositions but never as verbs.
Thus for these cases, the topmost complex symbol bears little if any relation to the
complex symbols associated with the component parts.

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 29

light, the restrictionsmust account for the environment of the verb bring
in terms of the relevant syntactic and semantic considerations of both the
subject noun phrase (e.g. after a human adult subject noun phrase) and an
intervening object noun phrase (e.g. direct object noun phrase). Essentially
what I am suggesting is that the complex symbol contain four segments
bring-X-to-light,where Xis considered as standing for a complex symbol, the
analysis of which has already been determined by the insertion restrictions.
The lexical insertion rules simply treatX as an empty complex symbol.We
can, of course, require that the X contain sufficient syntactic features to
ensure that it be matched correctlywith the structureforwhich it represents
a place holder. In this example,X would have the feature [+NP]. Whether
or not a variable such as X may always stand for only a single constituent
(hereNP) is an open question.
Alternatively, we can argue that the idiom is entered as bring to light similar
to verb-particle combinations such as look up and that the samemovement
rulewhich optionally converts look up thatpoint to look thatpoint up ob
ligatorily converts bring to light that point into bring that point to light.
This second solution removes the necessity for the variable X suggested in
the first alternative and treats the two classes of idioms in a like fashion. In
any event, the bring to light cases can be accounted forwithout any difficulty
within the suggested form of the lexicon.
Another potential difficulty concerns idioms such as lose one'smind, lose
one's cool, break someone'sheart and take it out of someone's hide, each of
which contains a possessive noun phrase not part of the idiom. In the first
two cases, the one's must be the pronominal form of the subject noun phrase
(e.g. John lost his mind - *John lost Mary's mind) while in the third and
fourth examples the someone'smay not be co-referentialwith the subject
noun phrase (e.g.He brokeMary's heart with his departure- *Johnbroke his
heart by leaving).Notice also that the syntactic number of the direct object
noun phrase is determined by the number of the possessivized noun phrase
(e.g. They lost theirminds, I'll take it out of theirhides if theyfail me). Cool
acts as a mass noun, not having a plural form in a case as They lost their cool
and rioted.
There are, however, at least two solutions to account for these cases.
Analogous to the bringX to lightcases,we can require the lexical representa
tion for the above idioms to contain a variable X but in these cases holding
the place of a possessive determiner. The insertion restrictionswill require
that the possessive determiner in the base P-marker into which the idiom is
being insertedbe co-referential, not co-referential or unspecified, as the case
may be, with the subject noun phrase. An analogous solution is already
needed to account for obligatorily reflexiveverbs such as behave and pride

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30 BRUCE FRASER

and for obligatorily non-reflexive verbs such as murder and bequeath.


Alternatively, we can require that the possessive be unspecified at the
time that the idiom is inserted into the base P-marker and that the idiom
be marked with respect to the requirements of the object's determiner. A
later copying rule could then be used to specify the appropriate form.
Again, either solution fits in naturally with the framework suggested
earlier.
A fourth case arises in treating idioms like kill the goose that lays the
golden egg which has the analysis verb-noun phrase where the noun phrase
contains a restrictive relative clause that lays the golden egg. One problem
here iswhether or not this surface structure form will follow automatically
from positing a deep structure identical to the literalcounterpart.Assuming
that a restrictive relative clause is associated with the determiner of a noun
phrase (not necessarily true but sufficient for the point I'mmaking here),
we can talk about the lexical entry for this idiom as containing the sequence
of complex symbols [+V; kill], [+DET; the], [+DET +WH; that]; [+N;
goose], [+V; lay], [+DET; the], [+ADJ; golden], [+N; egg], [+N;
goose]. The relative clause will be automatically moved to the post-noun
position as for the literal cases to produce thegoose that lays thegolden egg
and no further relative clause rules are applicable.
A second problem of this idiom concerns the derivation of the noun
phrase thegolden egg. For this case, we cannot pretend that the underlying
analysis is related to theegg which isgolden unlesswe can argue that adjective
preposing (to derive thegolden egg) is obligatory (obviously not true) or is
marked by, e.g., the absence of the verb be in the deep structure representa
tion of the relative clause.However, we can account for this noun phrase in
the same way we account for phrases such as the chief engineer and the
Red Army, which have, at least for purposes of the surface structureand the
application of the phonological rules, the same analysis of determiner
adjective-noun and which cannot, on any analysis, be derived noun phrases.
That is, althoughwe recognize that the noun phrase thegolden egg does have
a literal counterpartwhich can be derived from a relative clause, we must
forego this analysis here and choose a less appealing one, but one which can
account for the facts.
This case leads directly into the treatment of idiomswhich do not have
any literalcounterpart, idioms such as trip the lightfantastic, beat around the
bush, by and large,by accident, etc.Although they have been called syntactic
ally not well formed (Katz and Postal, 1964; Chafe, 1968;Weinreich, 1966),
I think that this is a misnomer. I think a term such as without literal counter
part ismore to thepoint for these are idiomswhich have lostwhatever literal
interpretation they originally had either through loss of use of a meaning

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 31

(trip doesn't normally mean dance anymore) or through loss of what had
been originally elided, etc.
We can account for an idiom like trip the lightfantastic by analyzing it as
a verb-noun phrase sequence inwhich the noun phrase consists of a deter
miner-adjective-noun sequence, exactly the same analysis as for the idiom
pull afast one.We need not be concernedwith what each of these segments
might have meant originally or what theymean in other contexts today; this
expression has a syntacticallywell-formed analysis which permits the gram
mar to account for the correct phonological shape and, when appropriate,
the relevant syntactic transformations. I have been able to find no cases of
literally uninterpretable idioms which can undergo any syntactic transfor
mations whatsoever. These constitute a part of the class of themost frozen
idiomswhich we discuss below.
Idioms such as beat around the bush, by accident, etc. are treated in an
analogous fashion. By and large raises another problem: Presumably this
idiom is of the same class as sentence adverbials such as certainly, surely,
generally, etc. However, I have not been able to find any examples of
conjoined adverbials of any sortwhich one can arguemust be introduced in
the base, analogous to the arguments for introducing a conjoined subject
noun phrase for verbs likemeet, argue, etc. (cf.Dougherty, 1968).But taking
a rather pragmatic view of this situation, what are the consequences of
simply introducing an idiom such as by and large as just that sequence,
without any structure, and, in the P-marker, as dominated by the con
stituent adverbial, if one exists, or else by the constituent sentence?That is,
are there any disastrous consequences, or for thatmatter, any consequences
at all? To date, I have not been able to find any.8
Summarizing the preceding discussion, I am making the claim that an
idiom and its literalcounterpart should be analyzed as having identicaldeep
structure syntactic representations. (The golden egg case is an exception.)
All other idioms- those I've calledwithout literalcounterpart- are analyzed
as having a deep structure representationanalogous to an expressionwhich
resembles the idioms in its surface structure representation.Note that we
are not attempting to account within the syntactic part of the grammar for
the origin of an idiom or predict some or all of its meaning in the sense of
Weinreich (1966). In fact, all that we require of an idiom, once introduced
into a base P-marker, is that its surface structure representation be such that
the phonological rules developed for the non-idiomatic part of the language
apply to derive the correct phonetic shape of the sentences and that each
8 It is
certainly possible that some constituent structure can be motivated. If so, then I
propose that the by and large, spic and span cases be handled in a way analogous to the
cheese soup cases mentioned above.

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32 BRUCE FRASER

transformational rule which should apply so as to generate acceptable


alternate syntactic forms of the idiom,may do sowithout any change in the
statement of the structural description of the rule.Notice that we do not
require that any transformationswhich cannot apply to generate an accept
able alternate formmust be blocked by the syntactic structureof the idiom.
It is this matter which we turn to now.
As Weinreich correctly remarks, there is no idiomwhich does not reflect
some transformational defect, that is, that fails to undergo some trans
formationwhich its syntactic structurewould suggest is appropriate.How
ever, the idioms of English differwidely with respect to how frozen they are
in terms of the application of various syntactic transformations.We find
almost completely frozen idioms such as beat around thebushwhich should,
on analogy to the phrase walk near thehouse, permit a short adverbial to be
inserted between the verb and noun phrase (*John beat quietly around the
bush), should permit the preposing of the prepositional phrase (*Aroundthe
bush John beat), should permit the clefting of the noun phrase (*It was the
bush that John beat around), and so forth. The only transformation I have
been able to find which ought to and in fact can apply to this idiom is the
gerundive nominalization (John'sbeating around thebush reallyannoyedus).
The idiom kick thebucket (to die) is another very frozen case since it cannot
be passivized (*The bucket was kicked), and cannot be action nominalized
(*Your friend's kicking of thebucket causedgreat concern).Here again only
the gerundive nominalization is acceptable (Yourfriend's kicking the bucket
causedgreat concern).9
At the other end of the spectrum we find idioms such as read the riot act to
(to chastise)which undergoes the indirectobjectmovement rule (John read
me the riot act), can have two passive forms (The riot act was read to me by
John himself; I was read the riot act by John), and can undergo both the
gerundive and action nominalization transformations(John's reading the riot
act to me was not appreciated; John's reading of the riot act to me really

9
Chomsky (personal communication) has suggested that the gerundive nominalization
ought to apply correctly to all of these verbal idioms since the restrictions of applicability
of any rulemust be in terms of some specific lexical category (e.g. noun, verb, adjective)
which is explicitly mentioned in the structural description of the rule. Since the statement
of the gerundive nominalization transformation mentions only the verb phrase but none
of its dominated constituents, these idioms should not be susceptible to restrictions of this
rule. However, if the facts are as I find them, namely that numerous idioms cannot have
the gerundive nominalization form (cf. especially the list in (18) - L0 later in this paper),
then following Chomsky's claim, the auxiliary must become part of the idiom, and the
inapplicability must be stated in terms of this category. However, I find this an unintuitive
result, if only because the content of the auxiliary is practically free for almost all of these
idioms.

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 33

annoyedme). Pass thebuck is another very flexible idiom: it toomay undergo


the passive, gerundive, and action nominalization.
However, I have been able to find no idioms inwhich a noun phrasemay
be clefted. That is, even in these relativelyunfrozen idioms such as read the
riot act to, pass the buck, add insult to injury,make thepunishment (to) fit
the crime, etc. the appropriate noun phrase cannot be extracted and topic
alized. Thus, note the unacceptable strings *It was the riot act that John read
tome, *It was thepunishment that we shouldmake (to) fit the crime, and
*It was thebuck that Johnpassed. But given our definition of an idiom, this
should not be surprising. Implicit in this definition is the assumption that no
part of the idiom has retained any literal interpretation, if it ever had any in
this construction. That is, we maintain that no part of the idiom actually
contributes to the semantic interpretationof the expression, once the idiom
has been formed. It follows from this assumption that to topicalize one part
of the idiom, in this instance a noun phrase, is to impute to the noun phrase
some semantic integritywhich it does not have. A clefted noun phrasemust
have some interpretationand this violates the notion of an idiom consisting
of components without interpretation.Notice, however, that an idiomatic
noun phrasemay be clefted if it isnot part of a larger idiom (It was aforegone
conclusion that we would leave late; It was the business end of a gun that he
shoved inmy face). Furthermore, a noun phrasewithin a discontinuous idiom
may be clefted (It is a computer that John has at his disposal; It is your advice
thatMary has taken to heart).
It also follows from our notion of what constitutes an idiom that con
junction between parts of presumably similar idioms is not possible. Thus,
we can have the sentence He gave no credence to Johnson's proposal but gave
complete support toMcCarthy's suggestionbut when conjunction reduction
is attempted, we end up with an unacceptable result: *He gave no credence
to Johnson's proposal but complete support to McCarthy's suggestion.
Similarly, for sentences likeMary took heed of John's warning and later
took steps to rectify the situation, *Mary took heed of John'swarning and
later steps to rectify the situation. For conjunction to apply correctly, the
semantic interpretation (not just the phonetic or syntactic shape) of the
deleted parts must be identical. But since there is no semantic information
associatedwith any component part of the idiom, conjunction reductionwill
never be applicable. Similar remarks may be made about the fact that no
noun phrase in an idiom may ever be pronominalized, take a restrictive
relative clause, and that gapping never occurs.
But the main problem here is to account for the fact that many idioms
having the requisite syntactic structure do not permit the acceptable ap
plication of certain transformations.The most obvious suggestion is tomark

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34 BRUCE FRASER

each idiom with some indication of whether or not it may undergo each
relevant transformation.Thus, using the verb-particlenoun phrase examples
presented in (1), and adopting the familiar specified feature notation, we
would have tomark blow offsome steam as [- ParticleMovement; - Passive;
-Action Nominalization], mark put on some weight as [+Particle Move
ment; -Passive; -Action Nominalization], mark make up one's mind as
[+Particle Movement; +Passive; -Action Nominalization], andmark lay
down the law as [+Particle Movement; +Passive; +Action Nominaliza
tion]. This is the sense of the suggestion byWeinreich (1966) and that of a
suggestionmade recently by Katz (1968).
However, there are two serious objections to any solution which consists
of marking an idiom in terms of which transformationsmay not apply.
Recall that all that may apply will do so because of the deep structure
representationwe have given the idiom.
The first objection involves the notion of an ungoverned rule, introduced
by Lakoff (1965).Lakoff suggests that thereare two typesof transformations
in a grammar: thosewhich permit of lexicalexceptions - governed rules; and
thosewhich do not permit of lexical exceptions - ungoverned rules.Of the
first type (according to Lakoff) are the particlemovement, passive, indirect
object movement, and action nominalization transformations.This means
that there are lexical items which must be marked as not permitting the
application of one of these rules even though the syntactic structure in
which the lexical item appearsmeets all other restrictions.For example, the
verb suit in the sentence That secretary suits me fine must be marked as
[-Passive] because the passive form is unacceptable (*I am suitedfine by
that secretary). Other verbs marked [-Passive] include befit, marry, fit,
weigh, lack, and contain. I am not at all convinced that there are any lexical
exceptions to the particle movement rule or the action nominalization.10
Thus I will assume, no evidence to the contrary, that only the passive is a
governed rule.Examples of ungoverned rules (according to Lakoff) include
the yes-no question transformation, the imperative, negation placement,
gerundive nominalization, adverbial insertion, and prepositional phrase pre
posing. Thus, none of these rules should permit exceptions if the relevant
structuraldescription has been met.
As we have noted idioms do not behave as predicted by their structure.
We find unacceptable idiomatic imperatives such as *Cut off your nose to

10 The facts
concerning these three transformations, as I understand them, are discussed in
Fraser (1969) and (1968), respectively. To be sure, there are many restrictions on the
application of these three rules but the point at issue is this: are these restrictions based on
systematic syntactic or semantic facts about the lexical items in question or are they simply
exceptions, thus lexical exceptions?

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 35

spite your face, *Kick the bucket and *Put him on totally unacceptable
although the required underlying syntactic structure is available. Similarly,
the yes-no questions associatedwith idioms such as I'll betmy bottom dollar
thatJane ispregnant and It is rainingcats and dogs outside are unacceptable:
(*Will I bet my bottom dollar that Jane ispregnant?; *Is it raining cats and
dogs outside?).And finally, negation in expressions like I'm fromMissouri,
you have to showme and Thatmakes all the difference in theworld renders
them unacceptable. These three rules are supposed to be ungoverned but
here we findwhat appear to be lexical exceptions.With these three trans
formations, however, there is an out. Recall thatwe are operating under the
assumption that the deep structure representation of the sentence provides
all the relevant semantic information.Because the imperative,question, and
negation placement transformations do have the effect of changing the
meaning of the sentence, theremust be some indication in the base P-marker
that theywill apply. Katz and Postal (1964) suggest that these transforma
tions be triggeredby grammaticalmorphemes I, Q, and NEG, respectively.
But of course the insertion restrictions associated with idioms, or for that
matter any lexical item, can be sensitive to the presence of these grammatical
morphemes. For example, we need only have as one of the insertion re
strictions on I'll bet my bottom dollar that the Q not be present and the
unacceptable question form will never be generated. Similarly for the other
two rules. In fact, I suggest that thenotion of ungoverned rule for these three
transformations is a vacuous claim.ll
A claim of vacuity may not be appropriate for the particle movement,
gerundive nominalization, action nominalization, adverb inserting,and pre
positional phrase preposing transformations. Exceptions to each of these
rules are easy to find and we list some examples here.

(2) Particle blow off some steam, put on a good face,


Movement: close up shop, screw up one's courage,
take up heart, dance up a storm

11 I really do not want to argue in favor of having an underlying I Q, NEG, etc. to account
for the interpretation of imperative, question, and negative sentences. All I am trying to
point out here is that the force of my argument concerning the restriction of ungoverned
rules to idiomatic expressions can be countered by certain existing mechanisms in the usual
analysis of these constructions. The examples presented below more thanmake the point,
I think, and should an analysis of the imperative, etc. reject the underlying I, then these
above examples provide additional support tomy argument.Morris Halle has pointed out
to me that apparently all of these idioms do occur in negative imperatives; e.g. Don't cut
off your nose to spite your face, Don't kick the bucket and Don't put him on. I have no
explanation for this.

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36 BRUCE FRASER

(3) Gerundive cook one's goose, chew the rag, rub


Nominalization: someone thewrong way, bite off
more than one can chew, not cry over
spiltmilk, not spare any pains
(4) Action hit the sack, blow off some steam,
Nominalization: weigh anchor, beat the rap, screw up one's
courage, give the cold shoulder to
(5) Adverb amount to, care for, aspire to, bear on,
Insertion: insist on, repent of, stand for,
believe in
(6) Prepositional arrange for, amount to,
Phrase brag of, repent of, assent to, bank on,
Preposing: clamor for, embark on, encroach on,
rail at

The following sentences, corresponding to the list above, are illustrativeof


the unacceptable results from the application of these rules.

(7) *Theman blew some steam off.


*I told John to take heart up.
(8) *Your cooking your goose was stupid.
*His not sparing any pains impressed them.
(9) *Her hitting of the sack occurredwhile we were visiting.
*The giving of the cold shoulder toMary wasn't very nice.
(10) *That baby sitter cares frequently formy children.
*He insisted immediatelyon service.
(11) *For what did you arrange? (a birthday party)
*At what did the people rail? (the idea that Johnson should
decide to run again)

Thus we are in a dilemma: either the notion of an ungoverned rule must be


abandoned in the face of thismultitude of counterexamples- nothing would
be left of this notion if all of the above transformations were to be char
acterized as governed; or we must account for the transformational recal
citrance of idioms in some other way and thereby save the ungoverned rule
notion.
In order to account for this transformational recalcitrance, it will be
necessary to talk about the vagaries of idioms not in terms of those trans
formations which may not acceptably apply but in terms of what types of
operations may not be carried out on a particular idiom.We will find it
convenient to talk about the following types of operations which are defined
over P-markers: (1) adjunction of some non-idiomatic constituent to the

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 37

idiom; (2) insertion of some constituent into the idiom; (3) permutation of
two successive constituents of the idiom; (4) extraction of some constituent
of the idiom to some extra-idiom position in the sentence; and (5) recon
stitution of the idiom into another constituent structure organization. It is
important to keep inmind the following two points: (1) that these operations
do not in any interestingway correspond to the definitions of elementary
transformationsdiscussed in the literature (Chomsky, 1955; Fraser, 1967);
and (2) that these operations are not defined in terms of any particular
transformation(s) but in terms of operations on P-markers. Obviously,
transformations do use these operations to affect the mapping of a deep
structure to a surface structureP-marker.
By adjunction I have inmind operations such as what occurs in the ap
plication of the gerundive nominalization transformation.For example, in
relating John hit the ball to John's hitting the ball the possessive marker 's
must be adjoined to the subject noun phrase and the Ing adjoined to the
main verb.12
Insertion involves the placement of some non-idiomatic constituent into
the idiom sequence. The indirect objectmovement transformationuses this
operation in relating the following two strings: John read the riot act to the
class - John read the class the riot act. The idiom is read the riot act to and
the indirect object, the class, must be thought of as being inserted into the
idiom after the verb and before the direct object.We point out here that for
an idiom such as can't teach new tricks to an old dog, give the Devil's due to
him the indirect object movement rulemust be regarded as permuting the
objects rather than inserting the indirectobject. This analysis holds because
both the direct and indirectobjects are part of the idiom.13We view adverb
in relating such as We on him - We
placement strings depend implicitly
depend implicitlyon him and The chairmandispensedwith thebusinessquickly
- The chairmandispensedquicklywith thebusiness as adjunctive.Notice that
to relate It well may be that S to It may well be that S (that is, to change the
position of the adverbial well) involves permutation, not insertion.
We have alreadymentioned one example of the operation of permutation,
namely, when the indirect object movement rule applies to an idiom con
taining both a direct and indirectobject.Another case occurs in the applica
tion of the particlemovement rule to idioms of the form verb-particle-noun
phrase. For example, relating the phrases put on some weight - put some
12 Itwould be
possible to consider various morphological operations such as affix attach
ment, number attachment, etc. as transformations and thus relevant to this discussion.
However, we omit such rules which alter morphological composition from consideration.
13There is disagreement as to whether these idioms can occur in the direct-indirect object
order. If only the derived order is acceptable for the idiomatic interpretation, these cases
must be marked as obligatorily requiring the indirect object movement rule to apply.

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38 BRUCE FRASER

weight on and lay down the law- lay the law down involves the operation of
permutation.Here again, we notice that if the noun phrase following a verb
particle combination isnot part of the idiom, then theparticlemovement rule
inmoving the particle to the post-noun phrase position uses extraction, not
permutation. The yes-no question transformation in relating strings such as
It goes without saying thatS - Does it go without saying thatS? and The cat
has got your tongue- Has the cat got your tongue?permutes the successive
constituents.
Extraction is indicatedby a number of transformations.To relate look up
the information- look the informationup, the particlemovement rulemust
extract the particle from the idiom. The passive transformation in deriving
The buck has been passed too often around here and The lawwas laid down
by her father extracts the direct object noun phrase (the buck; the law) and
places it outside the idiom, in the subjectnoun phrase position. Note that if
there are idiomswhich consist of an entire sentence (not to say that various
adverbialsand subordinateclauses could not co-occur) and that if theypermit
the passive transformation to acceptably apply,we have not a case of extrac
tion but rather one of reconstitution, the operation to be discussed next.
The proverb A rolling stone gathers no moss would be such an example if
the corresponding passive No moss is gathered by a rolling stone received
the idiomatic interpretation, viz. 'keep doing things and you won't get
stale'. This interpretation does not occur in my dialect for the passive
form. Preposing of prepositional phrases is another instance of extraction,
when either only the preposition or the entire prepositional phrase is a part
of the idiom. Thus, the preposition on has been extracted from the verbal
idiom depend on in On whom can we depend? and the entire prepositional
phrase with a 10 foot pole has been extracted inWith a 10 foot pole I wouldn't
touch (that job).
The single case of reconstitution involves the operation of the action
nominalization transformation.After transforming theP-marker underlying
He laid down the law to his daughter to that underlyingHis laying down of
the law to his daughter the subject noun phrase (not part of the idiom)
functions as a determiner in addition to having the possessive marker
attached, and the verb phrase now functions as a noun, in addition to having
had an Ing attached to the verb and an of inserted after the verb-particle
combination. In short, the syntactic function of the entire idiom has been
altered.
Consideration of the idioms used as examples in the foregoing discussion
shows that some will not undergo one particular operation, say the extrac
tion operation, althoughwe would expect them to.Thus, kick thebucket ought
to passivize but it does not. Blow of some steam ought to undergo the particle

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 39

movement rule but it does not. Nor does this idiom permit the extraction
operation - it does not passivize. However, I do not want to suggest that the
way we should characterize idioms is to mark each with a set of features
designating which operations itwill not permit. This is but a terminological
hedge from the suggestion of Katz discussed earlier.Rather, Iwant to suggest
a Frozenness Hierarchy of the following sort:

(12) L6 - Unrestricted
L5 - Reconstitution
L4 - Extraction
L3 - Permutation
L2 - Insertion
L1 - Adjunction
L0 - Completely Frozen
We have already discussed the interpretationof levelsL1-L5. The topmost
level, L6, has the interpretation of permitting any operations to an idiom
so characterized. L0 signifies that no operations whatsoever may apply to
an idiom so characterized. Literally uninterpretable idioms such as trip the
light fantastic belong to level L0. On the other hand, there are no idioms
which can be analyzed as belonging to level L6, because this level presup
poses operations such as topicalization, as in clefting, something impossible
for an idiom. Intuitively speaking this hierarchy reflects, from bottom to
top, an increasing degree of distortion permitted to the basic idiom shape
of the untransformed idiom. The most frozen idioms, those characterized
by L0, permit no distortion, those least frozen, L5, permit considerable
alteration.l4
But themost significantfeatureof thisproposed hierarchy is the following:
any idiom marked as belonging to one level is automatically marked as
belonging to any lower level. For example, pass the buck to is analyzed as
belonging to level L5. This indicates that any reconstitution operation will
apply acceptably (the action nominalization does so) but also that any other
operations lower in the hierarchy are also acceptable on this idiom. Thus,
the hierarchy correctly predicts that the extraction operation (passive trans
formation) and insertion operation (indirect object movement) correctly
apply. On the other hand, the idiom blow off some steam is analyzed as
belonging to level LI which predicts that adjunction operation (the gerund
14 Since all idioms will not be
analyzable syntactically as amenable to all types of operations
(e.g. act the fool) could undergo the operations of reconstitution (action nominalization),
extraction (passive), and adjunction (gerundive nominalization) but not permutation
(particlemovement, indirect objectmovement) or insertion (adverb placement), the analysis
of an idiom as belonging to level L1, e.g., may say nothing about its frozenness to permuta
tion or insertion but only that it does not undergo extraction.

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40 BRUCE FRASER

nominalization) but no other operations will acceptably apply - a fact.And


finally, keep watch overwill be marked as belonging to the level L4 which
predicts that extraction (the passive and prepositional phrase preposing),
insertion (adverbial placement) and adjunction (gerundivenominalization)
will acceptably apply but that reconstitution (the action nominalization) will
not. Again these are the facts. In the lists (4) below, we have arranged some
representativeexamples of idiomswith respect to the levels of analysis.

L5
(13) blow thewhistle on, cast pearls before swine, crack thewhip over,
hit the high points, keep one's word, kill the goose that lays the
golden egg, lay down the law, let the cat out of the bag,make the
best of a bad deal, make the punishment fit the crime, pop the
question, pull some strings, read the riot act to, spendmoney
likewater, spill the beans, take libertieswith, tip the scale at, toe
the line, throw in the sponge,
L4
(14) add up to, ask for, auction off, bear down on, belong to, boast
of, bone up on, bow down to, break the ice, break the news to,
call attention to, check up on, close up, draw a blank, get control
over, give the axe to, give a wide berth to, hit the nail on the head,
lose sight of, make note of, make use of, pay attention to, poke
fun at, qualify for, rely on, respond to, scream at, take interest
in, think of, try for, wait on, worry about,
L3
(15) bring down the house, give away the show, give up someone for
dead, keep up one's end, keep up one's guard, put down one's
foot, put down something to, put on a good face, put on some
weight, teach new tricks to an old dog, the cat has someone's
tongue, turn back the clock, wipe up the floor with someone,
let one's hair down,
L2
(16) bear witness to, do a good turn to, drop a line to, give chase to,
give ground to, give hell to, give the back of one's hand to,
give the benefit of the doubt to, give what for to, lend a hand to,
pay homage to, care (a lot) for, depend on, feel for, fish for,
harp on, hit on, look for, marvel at, run into, set upon, stick to,
LI
(17) kick the bucket, care for (children),aspire to, insist on, repent of,
stand for, encroach on, burn the candle at both ends, angle for,
ask after, bank on, look in on, bring oneself to, catch fire, clamor

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IDIOMS WITHIN A TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR 41

for, dance up a storm, give birth to, give ear to, keep up heart,
knock off work, pull up stakes, put pen to paper, shoot the bull,
stir up trouble, turn over a new leaf,
L0
(18) bite off one's tongue, bleed one white, blow one's cool, amount
to, bear on, rail at, beware of, build castles in the air, dawn on,
dip into one's pocket, face themusic, get up one's energy, kick
over the traces, let off some steam, pluck up courage, sit on pins
and needles, stew in one's own juice, take up heart, turn a deaf
ear to

The reader must keep inmind that his use of each idiom need not require that
it be on the same level as indicatedhere, only that the predictions indicated
hold true. Thus, if keep watch over for some reader cannot be passivized,
it should be analyzed as belonging to levelL4, not L5. The action nominal
ization should still be unacceptable and adverbial insertion should still be
acceptable. However, and this is crucial, prepositional phrase preposing
should also be unacceptable.Thus, ifWatch was kept over themost dangerous
prisoners is unacceptable, the hierarchy predicts the unacceptability of Over
whichmen did they keep close watch. If this does not hold true for the large
majority of cases, then this particular frozenness hierarchy does not hold for
that speaker.And clearly, ifmany readers find the facts in contradiction to
their idiolects, thenwe must seriously suspect the entire hierarchical notion.
Looking again at the first objection I raised to Katz's solution, namely,
that it conflictedwith the notion of an ungoverned rule,we can see that this
solution avoids this conflict nicely. By requiring that each idiom has as one
of its syntactic features the name of the level to which it belongs, (e.g. pass
thebuck to ismarked as [+ L5]), and by establishing the convention that no
transformation, be it a governed or ungoverned rule, can apply to any
string having a syntactic feature for a level which does not entail all the
operations carried out by the transformation, the appropriate transforma
tions are prevented from applying, but without reference to any notion of
lexical exceptions.Moreover, transformational inapplicabilities are treated
uniformly, without regard to the type of transformation (governed or
ungoverned) or where the rule is applicable (verbphrase, noun phrase, etc.).
To summarize, I have made the claim that phrasal idioms of English
should be considered as a more complicated variety of mono-morphemic
lexical entries, and that the insertion into a P-marker of all lexical entries
may be handled by essentially the same mechanism. In addition, I have
claimed that idioms can be analyzed as permitting certain typesof operations
defined on P-markers.Moreover, they fall into a hierarchy of these oper

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42 BRUCE FRASER

ations such that by being characterized as belonging to some level in the


hierarchy, they automatically are characterized as belonging to each lower
level. In short, the higher up on the hierarchy, themore syntactically un
frozen the idiom.

Language Research Foundation


Cambridge,Massachusetts

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