Is there a name for the phenomenon in which a phrase consisting of several words is mentally parsed as a word? Two examples are when General Patton used as the plural of "son of a bitch" the phrase "son of a bitches" or when Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton was "one of the worst secretary of states".

Trick question: "Do they have a fourth of July in England?"

The answer, obviously, is "no" when "fourth of July" is parsed as a word rather than as a three-word phrase, and Americans usually parse it mentally as a word. (The etymology is that that word is derived from the three words "fourth" and "of" and "July".)

I suspect that when dogs follow instructions given as a complete sentence, the dog understands the sentence as a word.

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    You might mean an idiom. – lemontree Jul 6 '16 at 18:07
  • @lemontree : Probably this is one kind of idiom, but I doubt that all idioms are of this kind. – Michael Hardy Jul 6 '16 at 23:04
  • It could be a type of meme (mind you NOT an internet meme). Memes are language based idea of how information is passed along (google the term) . – Jesse Cohoon Jul 7 '16 at 2:21
  • @JesseCohoon : Everything about language is a type of meme. – Michael Hardy Jul 7 '16 at 3:32
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    The more common a phrase is, the more likely it is to get glued together, or "frozen", as we call it in the trade. Fillmore once compared frozen constructions with Tinkertoy™ pieces that had been stuck together and then left out in the rain. Since Tinkertoys are made of wood, this has the effect of making it impossible to separate the pieces, and the whole assembly has to be used in constructions in its current state, or not at all. – jlawler Jul 7 '16 at 12:41

There are several terms in use that are related to what you've asked, but there's some overlap between them.

  • Multiword Unit (MWU) or Multiword Expression (MWE). I believe this term fits what you are looking for most closely - it indicates 2 or more words that are treated as one in some way. The meaning of the MWU is not strictly determinate based on the meaning of the parts. Sometimes they can become psychologically linked to the point that we add suffixes onto the unit as a whole as per your examples.
  • Polywords is another term that's close to your explanation, but is not used as broadly. It refers to several words together that act as one. It's usually used for phrases like "by the way" and "of course" where they are so closely mentally linked that it cannot endure even the slightest change of terms (you could never say "by that way" - it seems like a completely different phrase).
  • Collocations are words that tend to co-occur. They may not have an idiomatic meaning, and though they are mentally linked, they are not necessarily idiomatic in meaning or mentally parsed as a single word. Collocations include MWUs, but also phrases like "pine tree" and "angry citizens" where the meaning is not idiomatic.
  • Idioms are any phrases where the meaning is quite different from the individual words. They are often figurative, but sometimes the figure of speech is forgotten. They are often parsed syntactically so that alterations are possible; for example, we could change "kick the bucket" (idiom meaning "to die") to "kick the proverbial bucket", and the idiom is still recognized. We can even turn the idiom on its head: "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" could become "the squeaky wheel doesn't always get the grease".

One word for this phenomenon is collocation - which is defined in many ways, but generally refers to two or more words which have a tendency to co-occur. The wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collocation) currently defines it both as 'a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance' and as 'partly or fully fixed expressions that become established through repeated context-dependent use' (two different definitions with different theoretical implications). Examples on the Wikipedia page include 'nuclear family' and 'make a decision'.

Research is ongoing to explore the idea that collocations are (mentally) processed differently from other groupings of words. A good starting-point to read about this could be Michael Hoey's theory of lexical priming, which holds that what we know about a word comes from our experience of it, so that our mental representation of it includes knowledge about the words it tends to co-occur with. Hence when we encounter word X, we will more easily retrieve words which often co-occur with word X than words which co-occur less often with word X. An example of a study referring to lexical priming in relation to language processing is Gagné (2001) [1].

[1] Gagné, C. L., (2001), 'Relation and lexical priming during the interpretation of noun–noun combinations.', Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 27(1), Jan 2001, 236-254. See: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/xlm/27/1/236/


I think the phenomenon you're looking for is reanalysis:

(linguistics) Analyzing a lexeme with a different structure from its original, often by misunderstanding. For example, hamburger, which is originally Hamburg + -er, was reanalyzed as ham + -burger, which produced words like cheeseburger.

While this definition gives examples in which a word is reanalysed in terms of its internal morphological structure, I don't see it as much of a difference if you're talking about multiple words (such as fourth of July) being treated as a single lexical unit. In essence the morpheme/word boundaries are being reanalysed.


A term I am aware of is Multiword expression (MWE). It seems quite fitting to the examples described.

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