I have noticed that many idioms in English include a fixed preposition at the same time that the complement of the preposition is free, e.g.

a. light a fire under X

b. carry a torch for X

c. cast a pall on X

d. keep in touch with X

The verb-preposition combination is fixed in these cases, whereas the complement of the preposition is free (as indicated by the use of X). One can vary the complement, e.g. light a fire under John/you/the students/ etc. In contrast, there seem to be no idioms in which the verb and complement noun of the preposition are fixed at the same time that the preposition itself is free, light a fire above/beside/behind John -- only the literal readings possible here.

Why is the preposition so special? What does this situation reveal about idiosyncratic verb-preposition combinations?

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    I don’t understand what you mean. The noun phrases aren’t substitutable either. We don’t ‘light a pall under’ or ‘carry a fire for’ someone any more than we ‘light a fire behind’ or ‘cast a pall with’ someone. In idioms, the entire thing is fixed – verbs, noun phrases, prepositions, adverbs. That’s why idioms are considered fixed expressions. The prepositions are in fact probably the least fixed part of the expression, since you can actually say things like, “light a fire in [someone’s] ass” or “it’s cast a pall over the whole village” with a different preposition. Aug 7 at 9:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I think OP gets at the fact that the prepositional object isn’t fixed.
    – Keelan
    Aug 7 at 10:00
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    Nouns, verbs, and other types of words that are modified by prepositional phrases are often said to govern individual prepositions. For instance, listen and look are both intransitive verbs, but they can be made into "verb + preposition" constructions that are transitive: listen to and look at. But only with those prepositions, which they govern. The object of a preposition may be anything, but which preposition gets used frequently depends on what words it's modifying.
    – jlawler
    Aug 7 at 14:49
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    @JanusBahsJacquet. This question should be re-opened. I have edited it for clarity. It concerns which word combinations can (or cannot) be assigned idiosyncratic meaning. The issue is important for our understanding of the interface between syntax and semantics. Aug 9 at 1:23
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    @Janus Bahs Jacquet. Verbal idioms are predicates, and predicates semantically select their arguments. Hence the fact that something cannot cast a pall over the kettle/rainbow/spider is perfectly consistent with the nature of predicates in general. If you can come up with any idioms where the verb and noun are fixed but the preposition can vary, please post it/them. I am not aware of any such idioms, and have argued extensively in my writings that no such idioms exist. Aug 9 at 13:32


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