I had long believed there was such a thing as a "set phrase". I thought I had learned it in my school days.

Set phrases included but were not restricted to idioms.

Idioms were a special class of set phrases whose overall meaning is not transparently based on the sum of its parts, such as red herring and to kick the bucket.

Other set phrases were transparently based on their parts but still tended to occur as fixed units. Perhaps like at this point in time (but there may be better examples).

However the Wikipedia article on set phrases has always been very poor, which makes me wonder if the concept I learned may not be as widely held as I thought:

Are there some more solid references? Is this a linguistics concept? Do I have the right term but the wrong definition?

  • 1
    There are two related questions on english.SE and apparently I asked one of them and since forgot about it! Is 'set phrase' a set phrase? What is the difference between “set phrase” and “catch phrase”? Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 7:16
  • Hmm. generative linguistics doesn't have much interesting to say about this, although it certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that certain constituents generated by the grammar are stored in the memory as 'chunks'. In my opinion, generative grammar is right to view this as a matter of usage rather than build it into the core grammar. Construction grammar on the other hand builds something like the notion of a 'set phrase' directly into the core grammar - acquiring a language consists of learning a set of constructions: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Construction_grammar
    – P Elliott
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 9:16
  • I'm not familiar with the use of 'set phrase' in linguistics work, but then i'm not familiar with much linguistics work. It seems to me like your notion of 'set phrase' exists on a continuum with idioms - idioms are more semantically non-compositional, whereas set-phrases are more semantically compositional. Both are memorised as whole constructions.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 9:23
  • 1
    @Cerberus an idiom can be defined as a phrase that's non-compositional, ie it's meaning is not equivalent to the sum of its parts (as Hippietrail indicates in his question). Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 12:17
  • 1
    "Fixed phrase", occasionally "semi-fixed phrase" or "fixed formula" (or "freeze", as Cooper and Ross call them in 'World Order') are the usual terms in the trade. They're sui generis to a fault.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 19:57

2 Answers 2


No need to say that there is a lot of variation in linguistic terminology. See Table I.I below from Cowie 1998: 5

enter image description here

Here are some most common ones - based on Granger and Paquot 2008.

Cowie 1981

  • free combinations, e.g. to blow a trumpet
  • restricted collocations (or collocations proper), e.g. to blow a fuse
  • figurative idioms, e.g. to blow your own trumpet
  • pure idioms, e.g. to blow the gaff

The last three categories are also known as "composites," as opposed to formulae (i.e. pragmatically autonomous utterances).

Mel'chuk 1998

  • semi-phrasemes (or collocations);
  • quasi-phrasemes (or quasi-idioms);
  • full phrasemes (or full idioms).

Granger and Paquot 2008

  • referential phrasemes

    1. lexical collocations (heavy rain);
    2. idioms (spill the beans);
    3. irreversible bi- and trinomials (bed and breakfast);
    4. similes (swear like a trooper);
    5. compounds (black hole);
    6. grammatical collocations (depend on);
    7. phrasal verbs (make out).
  • textual phrasemes

    1. complex prepositions (with respect to);
    2. complex conjunctions (as if);
    3. linking adverbials (in other words);
    4. textual sentence stems (the final point is).
  • communicative phrasemes

    1. speech act formulae (take care!);
    2. attitudinal formulae (in fact);
    3. commonplaces (It's a small world.);
    4. proverbs (When in Rome);
    5. slogans (Make love, not war.)

The term "set phrase," when used in the broad sense, will include anything but free combinations (Cowie's classification above); semi-, quasi-, and full phrasemes (Melchuk's classification). For example, Mel'chuk 1998 says the following:

"People speak in set phrases, rather than in separate words, hence the crucial importance of set phrases. At the same time, set phrases, or PHRASEMES, represent one of the major difficulties in theoretical linguistics as well as in dictionary making" (Mel'chuk 1998: 24).

Burger, Dobrovol'skij, Kühn, and Norrick 2007 argue that "set phrase is a widely accepted term in English. [...] It thus includes all fixed expressions of a language, such as collocations, idioms, quasi-idioms, catch phrases, routines, proverbs" - in other words, it is equivalent to German Phraseologismsus in the broad sense (Burger 1998). To make things worse, some Anglo-American linguists use "idiom" or "collocation" in this sense, too. Here's what Burger et al. suggest:

enter image description here

To show how huge this terminological divide between Anglo-American linguists and the rest of the world is, in Granger and Meunier 2008 (23 papers, more than 400 pages), the term "set phrase" is used in two papers only (!), three or four occurrences only, the phraseological unit or phraseme being used much more frequently.

For more details, see Burger, Dobrovol'skij, Kühn, and Norrick 2007 or a collection of papers in Granger and Meunier 2008.

  • 2
    This is pretty much a perfect answer, it covers both the concept and the term. Now I know to avoid using set phrase as though it's a technical term in linguistics. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 10:55

Istvan Kecskes uses the term "situation-bound utterance" (SBU) to identify "highly conventionalized, prefabricated pragmatic units whose occurrences are tied to standardized communicative situations". Kecskes (following a line of thought in linguistic pragmatics led by Coulmas, 1981) notes that "set phrases" (that is, prefabricated pragmatic units) can be classified on a continuum from least obligatory in a given situation to most obligatory, i.e., an SBU. An example of an SBU is the set phrase "all aboard!" that is tied to the situation of boarding a train. SBUs differ from idioms for their situational obligatoriness and also for their semantic transparency. To differentiate between an idiom and an SBU, take "he has kicked the bucket" vs. "he has gone on". The idiom is not semantically transparent (it doesn't mean what its words say).

This is all to say that there are many kinds of "set phrases" in language, and linguists set out to identify them and give them precise terminology.

  • Coulmas, Florian, 1981. Conversational Routine: Explorations in Standardized Communicative Situations and Prepatterned Speech. The Hague, Mouton.

  • Kecskes, Istvan, 1997. A cognitive-pragmatic approach to situation-bound utterances. Paper Presented to Chicago Linguistics Society, March 7, 1997.

  • Kecskes, I., 2000. A cognitive-pragmatic approach to situation-bound utterances. Journal of Pragmatics 32 (6), 605–625.

  • Kecskes, Istvan, 2003. Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin/New York.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.