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Idiom modifications: What grammar reveals about conceptual structure

Jelena Parizoska


This paper deals with modifications, which are defined as creative changes of idioms’ conventionalized forms for communicative purposes. The focus is on verb phrase (VP) idioms and their structural modifications – deliberate alterations of the grammatical structure (which may be accompanied by lexical changes). Idiom modifications are analyzed within the framework of Cognitive Grammar. The aim is to show that structural modifications are systematic to a certain extent and that the restrictions governing such changes are similar to those that apply to conventionalized variations. We performed a study of 160 VP idioms in the English Web corpus 2013 (enTenTen13). Two groups of results were obtained. Firstly, structural modifications of VP idioms are limited to four types – active and passive voice, transitive and intransitive constructions, directional opposites and nominalization – which are parallel to those usually mentioned for conventionalized variations. Secondly, modifications exhibit systematicity in how conceptual content is expressed grammatically in that they follow established grammatical patterns. This implies that, when using an idiom creatively, the speaker can choose from a set of options, but those options allow for creativity within certain boundaries. Overall, this study shows that structural modifications are jointly constrained by semantic and grammatical factors.

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1. Introduction

1Corpus-based studies of English idioms show that a number of such expressions vary their lexico-syntactic structure regularly (e.g. Moon [1998]; Cignoni et al. [1999]; Wulff [2008]) and some variant forms may become conventionalized through frequent use. Furthermore, idioms are often creatively exploited in discourse (Naciscione [2010]; Jaki [2014]), that is, speakers manipulate their lexical components and structure for communicative purposes. Consider the following examples of deliberate changes to the grammatical structure of idioms from the English Web corpus 2013 (enTenTen13):

(1) After Winnipeg announced that the Mexico specimens they had been sent were the same virus, the CDC said that the California cases were linked to the Mexican outbreak. So a number was done on Mexico.

(2) I think I’ve known for a while, just don’t want to admit it. 35 years is a long time to dump down the drain.

(3) Ah yeah, Julia loathes being inspected and getting medically stuffed. Or more properly, detested. The reason of such a magical tune changing is the latest hospital gyno examination.

2In (1) the expression do a number on someone (‘hurt or harm someone’) is passivized and this form is used to leave the agent unspecified. In (2) object motion expressed by the intransitive construction go down the drain (‘be totally wasted’) is conceived as an event in which one entity causes the motion of another entity and this is expressed by the transitive construction dump something down the drain (‘waste something totally’). Example (3) illustrates nominalization of the idiom change your tune (‘change your opinion completely’). While the verbal form profiles a relation, the derived expression tune changing designates an abstract thing which may be interpreted as ‘a complete change of opinion’. Sentences (1-3) thus show that, when changing an idiom’s structure in non-conventional use, the speaker can choose among several ways of conceiving and expressing a given situation.

  • 1 Some other terms used in the literature for deliberate changes of idioms’ lexis and structure are a (...)

3Most studies of idioms make a distinction between conventional changes (which are usually termed variations) and deliberate manipulations of idioms’ components and structure for communicative purposes, for which we will use the term modifications (adopted from Omazić [2015]).1 It has been shown that modifications are governed by certain constraints despite being idiosyncratic by nature. Cognitive linguistic studies of idiomatic creativity have determined constraints on idiom variation in general (Langlotz [2006]) and constitutive principles of modification in particular (Omazić & Čačija [2020]). It has been shown that non-conventional use of idioms is constrained by semantic, pragmatic and grammatical factors. Grammatical constraints on modifications are defined broadly: changes of an idiom’s structure must be compatible with its figurative meaning and, more generally, they must adhere to the rules of grammar of a language. It has also been argued that the syntactic behaviour of idioms – in terms of forms they can appear in, including novel constructions – is largely determined by their analyzability or decomposability (e.g. Gibbs & Nayak [1989]; Gibbs [1994]). Analyzability is defined as the extent to which the meanings of idiomatic components contribute to the overall figurative meaning. It is used to explain why idioms such as kick the bucket, chew the fat and shoot the breeze cannot be passivized even though they are transitive constructions. For example, as the idiomatic meaning of shoot the breeze is intransitive (‘talk in an informal way’), it is argued that its grammatical structure cannot be changed without disrupting the figurative meaning and therefore the construction the breeze was shot can be interpreted only literally. Corpus data provide evidence to the contrary. In the following example from enTenTen13, shoot the breeze is used in the passive voice and its meaning is clearly figurative:

(4) Q. What did Dave tell him?
A. They just talked, shook hands, and just shot the breeze.
Q. What’s
the breeze that was shot?
A. Dave asked if he had anybody to meet him.

  • 2 The enTenTen13 corpus offers evidence of passive forms of some other idioms classified as nondecomp (...)

4In this example, as in the case of a number was done on someone (1), the passive construction allows the speaker not to mention the person who performed the action.2 Previous studies primarily focus on which idioms can undergo grammatical alterations and which cannot, as well as on the semantic constraints governing the syntactic flexibility of idioms. However, the studies do not address the question of the grammatical constraints that limit idioms’ forms, especially when it comes to the non-conventional use of idioms, i.e. modifications.

5Even though it has been established that modifications are dependent on and constrained by a number of factors, by virtue of the fact that they cannot be predicted, it is often claimed they are non-systematic. However, as examples (1-4) show, deliberate changes of an idiom’s grammatical structure are regular to a certain extent. Following Langacker’s claim that “grammar itself has a substantial and systematic role in determining the meanings of composite expressions” (Langacker [2008: 245]), it can be assumed that the ways in which speakers manipulate the structure of idioms in non-conventional use is dictated by specific restrictions pertaining to grammar.

6The aim of this paper is to show that structural modifications of idioms exhibit systematicity in how conceptual content is expressed grammatically. More specifically, we will show that the restrictions governing deliberate changes of the grammatical structure of idioms are similar to those which apply to conventionalized variations. As the speaker has a limited number of grammatical constructions available to construe an event expressed by an idiom in a novel way, this points to a certain degree of regularity in the seemingly non-systematic creative use of idioms. In order to determine the constraints on structural modifications, we performed a study of 160 idioms in the enTenTen13 corpus.

7The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 gives a brief overview of the theory, viz. of idiom variation and idiomatic creativity in cognitive linguistics. Sections 3 and 4 present the methods and results of a corpus study of verb phrase idioms in the enTenTen13 corpus. Section 5 is a discussion, interpreting the results. The final section is the conclusion.

2. Theoretical background

8Studies of English idioms conducted in electronic corpora show that their forms are relatively variable (Moon [1998]; Cignoni et al. [1999]). Changes which idioms undergo include lexical substitution, addition, ellipsis, pluralization, passivization, nominalization, etc. A substantial number of idioms have one or more variant forms. For instance, in her database comprising 6,776 fixed expressions and idioms, Moon [1998: 120] found that around 40% of units have lexical variations or what she terms institutional transformations (the latter include negation, passivization and nominalization). Here are several examples of variations which have become conventionalized:

(5) burn your bridges/boats

(6) like a (hot) knife through butter

(7) let the cat out of the bag and the cat is out of the bag

(8) turn the tables and the tables are turned

(9) stab someone in the back, a stab in the back and back-stabbing

9Corpus evidence suggests that verb phrase (VP) idioms are especially prone to variation (Moon [1998]). Research done in the cognitive linguistic vein shows that variations of VP idioms reflect different construals of the same event and are characterized by regularity. Those are what Langlotz [2006: 275] terms “perspectival variants”: a VP idiom systematically changes its lexicogrammatical structure so that the same event is described from different perspectives. For instance, put the ball in someone’s court profiles the entire process, while the ball is in someone’s court denotes the result. In some cases, one variation designates the motion of a single entity (come down from your pedestal) and another variation mentions the energy source which causes another participant to move (knock someone off their pedestal). Furthermore, corpus data show that nominalization of VP idioms is very common and the resulting forms follow established patterns. For example, fence-sitting and a fence-sitter are derived from sit on the fence by reification, which is a conceptual shift from a relation to a thing (Radden & Dirven [2007: 78]). Reification enables the conceptualizer to construe an event expressed by a VP idiom in terms of a thing, just like in the case of non-idiomatic constructions, e.g. clean windows > window cleaning, window cleaner.

10Studies of the lexical and grammatical flexibility of idioms show that the changes which they undergo are constrained semantically – by the meanings of their constituents, idiomatic meaning and the underlying cognitive mechanisms which idioms reflect (cf. e.g. Cacciari & Glucksberg [1991]; Glucksberg [1993]; Nunberg et al. [1994]; Croft & Cruse [2004]). Grammar also plays an important role in how the lexicogrammatical structure of idioms is varied. For example, idiomatic expressions which contain the preposition in(to) reflect conceptualization of events and states as containers (Rudzka-Ostyn [2003]). More specifically, being in a difficult situation is construed as being inside a container, as in the idiom be in a hole. Some VP idioms that reflect the container image schema have a static and a dynamic variant which designate location and motion, respectively: be in hot water and get someone in hot water, be in a corner and back someone into a corner, be in a tight spot and put someone in a tight spot. The two construals are expressed by specific grammatical constructions: the copulative construction indicates an entity’s location, while the transitive construction designates motion. This proves that idiom variation is constrained jointly by semantic and grammatical factors.

11Variations are forms that have become conventionalized through frequent use, as evidenced by corpus data. On the other hand, idioms are often used in ways which differ considerably from conventional use. Such deliberate manipulations (i.e. modifications) are created ad hoc for a particular communicative purpose. They are both lexical and structural. Let us consider the following modifications from enTenTen13 (the expression given in brackets is the most frequent form in which the given idiom occurs in the corpus):

(10) They sound like a bad Queen cover band. They are not, nor will they ever be, Queen. Freddie Mercury must be pirouetting in his grave.
(turn in your grave)

(11) I’m a few appointments closer to a healthy smile, which will include my wisdom teeth being yanked. All four, which will leave yours truly under the weather with puffy cheeks.
(be under the weather)

(12) “After 35 years of cooking, I’ve kind of learned to take my heart off my sleeve,” said Mendoza.
(wear your heart on your sleeve)

(13) With the pandemically faltering Arsenal within spitting distance of the FA Cup […] surely no one is more surprised than manager (and blind eye turner extraordinaire) Arsène Wenger.
(turn a blind eye)

  • 3 Note that structural modifications are defined as any alterations of idioms’ grammatical structure. (...)

12Examples (10-13) show that the speaker may intentionally create a novel form to communicate a modification of an idiom’s conventional meaning. Thus, the expression pirouette in your grave (10) implies that someone who is dead would be very upset about something that is happening now (in a manner that is much more intense than is the case with turn in your grave). In (11) and (12) the grammatical structure of the idioms has been changed to render the forms leave someone under the weather (‘cause someone to be ill’) and take your heart off your sleeve (‘stop showing your feelings openly’). The nominal expression a blind eye turner in (13) profiles a participant in the event expressed by the VP idiom turn a blind eye and it may be interpreted as ‘a person who ignores something that they know is wrong’.3

13In the research of idiomatic creativity, examples of lexical substitution such as pirouette in your grave have garnered considerably more attention than grammatical changes. One of the reasons may be that lexical modification is prevalent and substitution is the most frequent type of change in non-conventional use of idioms (Omazić [2015: 46]). Moreover, modifications are often created to produce stylistic effects, especially in journalism and advertising, and this can be effectively achieved by manipulating the lexis of idioms. Most cognitive linguistic studies of idiom modifications focus on semantic constraints (cf. Langlotz [2004]; Omazić & Delibegović Džanić [2009]; Omazić & Čačija [2020]), whereas the issue of grammatical constraints has been somewhat neglected. In addition, given that idiom modifications are unpredictable and context-specific, it is often claimed that they are non-systematic. While this may be true of lexical substitution, deliberate changes to idioms’ grammatical structure seem to display regularity, as exemplified by modifications in (11-13). For instance, a VP idiom such as be under the weather describes an event with a specific conceptual configuration, which is a theme’s location. The speaker can construe this event in a novel, non-conventional way, but the structural choices available are limited: in (11) it is construed as a motion event involving an energy source, a theme and a location and this configuration of participant roles is expressed as a transitive construction with the subject, object and adverbial. This reflects a view of grammar as an inventory of symbolic assemblies, in line with the Cognitive Grammar framework (Langacker [1991a]; Radden & Dirven [2007]). This means that grammar is conceptual in nature, with any grammatical pattern reflecting a meaningful conceptual arrangement. Some of these arrangements may be thought of in terms of the viewing metaphor (Langacker [2008]), i.e. as taking different perspectives on the same event. For example, conceptual reification (turn a blind eye > blind eye turner) is one such conceptual arrangement. When it comes to modifications of idioms, given that grammar plays an important role in determining the meanings of constructions (Langacker [1987], [1991b], [2008]), it can be assumed that the ways in which idioms’ grammatical structure is manipulated in non-conventional use are governed by constructional factors.

3. Research

14In order to determine the constraints governing structural modifications, we conducted a study of verb phrase (VP) idioms in the enTenTen13 corpus (19.6 billion words) using the Sketch Engine. This type of idiomatic expressions was chosen because corpus evidence shows that verbal idioms are more frequently varied than adjectival, nominal or prepositional idioms (Moon [1998: 121]). The study was performed in three steps. First, we extracted the 300 most frequent verbs in the corpus and identified their most characteristic noun collocates in constructions which have figurative meanings. In this way we obtained 160 idiom types, e.g. do a number on someone, go down the drain, burn the midnight oil, add salt to the wound. Next, we conducted corpus searches of the 160 idioms so as to find different lexicogrammatical forms in which they occur. Finally, for each idiom we determined which of their forms are institutionalized variations and which are modifications, i.e. instances of non-conventional use. We focused on manipulations of idioms’ grammatical structure, with or without lexical changes. Modifications were identified by frequency of occurrence, with the cutoff threshold set at 5 occurrences in the corpus (in line with Evert 2005). In this way, we obtained 165 examples of structural modifications of VP idioms in enTenTen13 and performed a qualitative analysis of corpus data. The findings are presented in the following section.

4. Structural modifications of VP idioms

15The results show that structural modifications of the 160 VP idioms in the corpus are limited to the following types: active and passive voice, transitive and intransitive constructions designating motion events, directional opposites and nominalization. The modification types are parallel to those usually mentioned for variations (see Section 2).

16In all the examples below, modifications have been defined as forms which occur fewer than 5 times in the corpus. Given such a small number (which results from the very definition), it is impossible to do any quantitative analyses. However, it should be noted that the conventional forms of all the idioms are several times more frequent than modifications. For instance, do a number on someone usually occurs in the active voice (2,804 tokens) and there are only 2 tokens of the passive form a number was done on someone. There are 1,975 tokens of the verbal construction walk on eggshells and 1 token of the nominal form eggshell walker. The same is true of all the examples below, where the conventionalized form greatly outnumbers the modification. In the following subsections we will look at each type of modification in turn.

4.1. Active and passive voice

17The corpus data show that idioms which usually occur in the active voice may be passivized in non-conventional use. In such cases, the theme is the focused participant, as is evident from the following examples (the conventionalized form is given in brackets):

(14) So naturally, when I posed the question to Wines of Brazil “where should I visit while in Livramento, Brazil”, a blank was drawn and they sent me to a wine shop.
(draw a blank)

(15) And this again points to the impression that the process was proceeding as it should have, with Finkelstein headed toward tenure and promotion, when a number was done on him.
(do a number on someone)

(16) But it’s too late, your nights are scarred for years to come. And salt is added to the wound when you realize there’s a Hemingway family connection.
(add salt to the wound)

The passive forms in (14-16) leave the agent unspecified. This shows that the passive voice has the same function in idioms as in non-idiomatic constructions, which is agent defocusing (Shibatani [1985]). Thus, in (14) it is unknown who was unable to answer the question asked, (15) does not specify who cheated the participant out of a promotion and (16) does not indicate who or what made things worse.

18Conversely, idioms which are usually passive may occur in the active voice in non-conventional use. The expression be cut from the same cloth is a case in point:

(17) Actually, all of the Foxman children are hard to stomach at times. Tropper has most definitely cut them all from the same cloth.
(be cut from the same cloth)

Active forms give prominence to an otherwise unspecified agentive participant, as exemplified by (17). By using the active voice, the speaker indicates that novelist Jonathan Tropper made all the characters very similar.

19Overall, corpus data suggest that even for idioms which are strongly active or passive, the other form is available in non-conventional use. For example, 3 out of the 3,695 tokens of draw a blank are passive, which shows that in this idiom focal prominence is usually given to the agent. On the other hand, the passive voice enables the conceptualizer to select the theme as the focal participant, which gives rise to the construction a blank was drawn. Therefore, when an idiom is usually associated with the active or passive voice, the availability of the other form is in line with its use in non-idiomatic constructions: active and passive forms select the agent and the theme respectively as the focal participant, as in draw a knife and a knife was drawn.

4.2. Transitive and intransitive constructions

  • 4 For a cognitive linguistic account of motion events in English and their expressions in grammatical (...)

20This type of modification includes changes to VP idioms that describe motion events – those in which an object or a person moves along a path from one place to another.4 The corpus data show that there are two types of patterns according to which the grammatical structure of such idioms is manipulated.

21The first of these is found where an idiom designates object motion or an agent’s own motion, which is expressed as an intransitive construction, e.g. go in one ear and out the other, fly off the handle, fall off the wagon. In non-conventional use such an event is construed as a situation involving two participants, in which one brings about the motion of the other, i.e. as caused motion. This is expressed as a transitive construction in which the moving entity is the direct object, as in (18-20):

(18) Qui-Gon only nodded, letting the advice in one ear and out the other.
(go in one ear and out the other)

(19) Ever since I learned the true story of the end of the Man to the Moon program, anything I perceive as a threat to what is left of the space program sends me off the handle.
(fly off the handle)

(20) His family is all dead, save his idiotic alcoholic brother, and his best friend (my uncle Jeff) died two years back. Mickey had been sober for about three years when Jeff died, but that put him off the wagon.
(fall off the wagon)

These modifications may be interpreted as follows: in (18) a person hears but chooses to ignore advice. In the transitive construction let the advice in one ear and out the other, the theme is not conceptualized as moving by itself (as in the conventional form go in one ear and out the other), but its motion is brought about by an energy source (a human agent in this case). Similar analyses work for the other two examples: in (19) something perceived as a threat causes a person to lose their temper, while in (20) the death of a friend makes a person start drinking alcohol again.

22The second type of pattern is found in idioms which designate caused motion. Transitive constructions such as throw down the gauntlet and bring home the bacon describe events in which a human agent causes a thing to move along a path to a location. When such an idiom is creatively manipulated, the event which it describes is conceived as motion of a single entity along a path toward a goal. This is expressed as an intransitive construction with the moving entity as the grammatical subject, as in (21) and (22):

(21) How was I going to pay for food? For rent? How was I going to admit this situation to my boyfriend, reassuring him that everything would be fine? Not telling him my hustle wasn’t covering it? The bacon was not coming home ladies and gents... not fast enough anyways.
(bring home the bacon)

(22) Service delivery models will be architected while being engineered. The gauntlet has dropped. Transformational priorities have been thrust upon the community.
(throw down the gauntlet)

The expression the bacon was not coming home suggests that a person may not have earned enough money to live on, and the gauntlet has dropped indicates that a challenge has been made. Both modifications are intransitive constructions in which the number of participants has been reduced to one, and they designate object motion. This is in contrast to the conventionalized expressions bring home the bacon and throw down the gauntlet, which are caused-motion constructions with two participants, an agent and a theme. More generally, examples (18-22) show that in the non-conventional use of motion idioms there is a similar change in the configuration of participant roles: from caused motion to object motion or self-motion and vice versa.

23Our findings show that deliberate alterations to the lexicogrammatical structure of motion idioms are limited to general sentence patterns which are used in non-idiomatic language. This is due to the fact that motion idioms reflect the same configuration of participant roles as non-idiomatic constructions which describe motion events, e.g. theme–goal in go down the stairs and go down the drain (‘be totally wasted’), agent–theme–goal in bring home the medal and bring home the bacon (‘work and earn enough money for the family to live on’). When the conceptualizer exploits a motion idiom in order to present a different view of a given scene, they can only choose from the set of options which are conventionally used for this type of events.

4.3. Directional opposites

24Spatial relations expressed by VP idioms may be construed in different ways by means of directional opposites. The conventionalized form of an idiom describes motion to a location, whereas in non-conventional use the same event is conceived as motion from a location:

(23) I am in no way ready to jump back on the bandwagon I jumped off fifteen years ago.
(jump on the bandwagon)

(24) Many at the conference suggested that our movement needs to […] go out in search of conversation, learning and allies from “outside,” while also taking our own light out from under the bushel.
(hide your light under the bushel)

By virtue of the fact that they are directional opposites, the modified forms in (23) and (24) are antonyms of the idioms jump on the bandwagon and hide your light under the bushel, respectively. Thus, jump off the bandwagon may be interpreted as ‘stop being involved in an activity’ and take your light out from under the bushel as ‘not be modest about your skills anymore and let people know about them’.

25Overall, modifications of VP idioms describing motion events show systematicity in the ways the grammatical structure is manipulated. The speaker may construe the same event from a different perspective by changing the number of participants (e.g. as object motion or caused motion) and the direction of a moving entity (i.e. as motion to or from a location). In addition to being systematic, such modifications are constrained because the number of grammatical constructions which express spatial relations is limited.

4.4. Nominalization

26The corpus data show that when VP idioms are nominalized in non-conventional use, the resulting expressions are derived by two patterns of nominalization. In one, the head of the phrase is a noun derived by suffixation or conversion:

(25) When I see them, my instinctive response is scepticism, not bland acceptance of anything in the story as gospel.
(accept something as gospel)

(26) Having anger and resentment towards anyone or anything has negative consequences that is concentrated more on the bearer of the grudge than the object of the anger.
(bear a grudge)

(27) Miami headed for a 7-1 circle of death, with the BCS standings determining who (likely Miami) would represent the division in the conference championship game. However, the rise from the dead of the Virginia Cavaliers could put that concept on hold.
(rise from the dead)

27The other pattern of nominalization in non-conventional use is compounding. The derived expressions are N + N compounds with the nominalizers -ing and -er in the right-hand element, as in the following examples:

(28) American fashion editors, especially at Vogue, have a lot to answer for. This back turning on America’s best designers is unspeakably ignorant.
(turn your back on someone)

(29) For her part, actress Juliet Landau brilliantly dances the thin line between codependent eggshell walker and fierce woman with absolutely nothing left to lose.
(walk on eggshells)

28When it comes to the meanings of nominals derived from VP idioms, they construe processes as things via reification (see Section 2). The corpus data show that nominalized idioms profile events and people. In the following examples, each nominal expression represents a conceptual reification of the verbal process:

(30) It’s a funny episode in its own right, but particularly because it echoes one of my personal pet peeves: thunder stealing. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all got a mate who simply MUST go one better in all circumstances.
(steal someone’s thunder)

(31) Some have gone so far as to believe he was a fiction, a mere urban legend, and his total disappearance off the face of the earth certainly makes this an attractive theory.
(disappear off the face of the earth)

(32) Original lyrics to familiar tunes supply the structure for a satirical take on life in the Law School. No one is immune from parody, and no one leaves without a roll in the aisles.
(roll in the aisles)

The expression in (30) refers to a general activity of taking praise from someone else. The reified events in (31) and (32) consist of one instance of the process profiled by the verb and the derived expressions may be interpreted as ‘sudden disappearance’ and ‘uncontrollable laughter’, respectively.

29In some cases, a derived nominal form profiles a participant in the verbal process:

(33) I am a mediator, writer, folk poet, librarian, occasional scientist and researcher, father of two little dakinis and a steady burner of candles at both ends.
(burn the candle at both ends)

(34) I’m a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I’m no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won’t hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.
(turn the other cheek)

The nominal expressions in (33) and (34) profile people. A burner of candles at both ends refers to someone who regularly goes to bed late and gets up early to work, and a cheek turner is a person that will not do anything to hurt someone who has hurt them.

30Corpus evidence shows that nominal expressions derived from VP idioms follow the same patterns of nominalization found in non-idiomatic constructions, such as suffixation and compounding. Furthermore, a nominalized idiom construes the verbal process as a thing. This may be a conceptual reification of the process itself (which renders nominal forms that designate abstract things, e.g. thunder stealing, a roll in the aisles, the acceptance of something as gospel) or a participant in that process (e.g. a bearer of grudges, an eggshell walker). Those are two basic ways in which nouns are derived from verbs by shifting the profile to a thing (Langacker [2008: 120]).

5. Discussion

31The results of the study of VP idioms in the enTenTen13 corpus show that structural changes which they undergo in non-conventional use display systematicity. One such case is voice. Passive forms such as a blank was drawn (‘a question was unanswered’) omit reference to the agent and the theme is the focused participant, just like in non-idiomatic constructions (e.g. a knife was drawn). On the other hand, idioms which are strongly associated with the passive voice may occur as active constructions, thus putting focal prominence on the agent (as in cut someone from the same cloth, ‘make two or more people very similar’). Furthermore, corpus frequencies provide insight into associations between individual VP idioms and voice. There are idioms used in this study in which passive forms are as common as active forms: turn the tables and the tables are turned (‘gain an advantage over someone who is in a stronger position’), cut corners and corners are cut (‘save time and money by doing things quickly’), keep someone in the loop and be kept in the loop (‘keep someone informed about important decisions which pertain to a specific group of people’). Some idioms usually occur in the passive voice, e.g. be caught red-handed, ‘be caught while doing something illegal’ and bitten by the bug, ‘become enthusiastic about an activity’. The corpus data thus show how an event in which an agent deliberately acts upon a theme is typically construed. The speaker may present a different view of such an event using a limited set of grammatical constructions (i.e. active and passive voice).

32The results also show that modifications of idioms which describe motion events follow regular patterns. The same event in which an entity moves along a path from one place to another can be construed as caused motion and object motion (e.g. throw down the gauntlet, ‘issue a challenge’ and the gauntlet has dropped, ‘a challenge has been made’) or as motion to and from a location (e.g. jump on the bandwagon, ‘become involved in an activity’ and jump off the bandwagon, ‘stop being involved in an activity’). Ad hoc forms are constrained by the conceptual configuration of motion events: the mover is the core element, while the other elements – a source, a path, a goal and an energy source which brings about motion – can be added or removed depending on how the given event is construed. Changes to the grammatical structure of idioms describing motion may become conventionalized and there is evidence for it in enTenTen13. Some examples include bring something to light (‘make something publicly known’) and come to light (‘become known’), go through the wringer (‘have a very difficult experience’) and put someone through the wringer (‘make someone suffer a difficult experience’), get on your high horse (‘adopt a superior attitude’) and get off your high horse (‘stop acting in a superior way’).

33Our data show that in non-conventional use nominal expressions are derived from VP idioms by regular word formation processes, and they denote events and people. For instance, thunder stealing (‘taking praise from someone else’) and a cheek turner (‘a person who will not do anything to hurt someone who has hurt them’) follow the same patterns of nominalization as verb-based compounds (Bauer [2017]) such as price-fixing and fire-fighter, respectively. The enTenTen13 corpus offers evidence of nominalized forms which have become conventionalized. Some examples include buck-passing, ‘the shifting of responsibility to someone else’, hair-splitting, ‘arguing about unimportant details’, finger-pointing, ‘assigning blame to others’, a change of tune, ‘a complete change of opinion’, a stab in the back, ‘betrayal’, a bridge-builder, ‘a person who connects opposing parties’, a hands-down winner, ‘a thing or person which is clearly the best’.

34Overall, the results of this study show that structural modifications of VP idioms exhibit conventionality in how conceptual content is expressed grammatically. This can be attributed to the fact that grammar is symbolic in nature (Langacker [2008: 5]). Thus, when the speaker changes the grammatical structure of an idiom, they present a particular view of the given situation. When the speaker uses a nominalized form of an idiom, they construe a relation as a thing. Importantly, the options that the speaker can choose from in order to manipulate an idiom’s grammatical structure are the same structural choices which are available for non-idiomatic language, e.g. the passive voice to give focal prominence to the theme, the copulative construction with the verb be to designate a theme’s location, a N + N compound with the nominalizer -er to profile a participant in an event. This proves that grammar plays a crucial role in constraining structural changes that VP idioms undergo when they are creatively exploited. Therefore, despite their ephemeral and unpredictable nature, modifications are systematic to a certain extent and may become institutionalized if used frequently (some examples include every silver lining has a cloud, ‘every good situation has an aspect which is bad’ and a sheep in wolf’s clothing, ‘a person who seems dangerous is really harmless’; Moon [1998: 171]). The systematicity of modifications is particularly evident in the case of alterations of idioms’ grammatical structure: grammar provides the speaker with a set of options to use an idiom creatively, but those options allow for creativity within certain boundaries.

6. Conclusion

35The findings of this study reveal that structural modifications of verb phrase idioms are systematic in that they follow established grammatical patterns. This proves that the constraints governing deliberate changes of idioms’ grammatical structure are similar to those which apply to conventionalized variations. In line with Cognitive Grammar, this is due to the fact that idioms are constructions and constructions reflect conceptual configurations, i.e. events which comprise a relation and participants. By using an idiom to describe an event, the speaker may opt for its conventionalized form(s) or deliberately change its structure in order to give a different view of the same event. Variations and modifications thus form a continuum in which the same mechanisms are at work and the difference is in the degree of conventionality.

36Previous studies of modifications focus on semantic constraints, claiming that all changes of an idiom’s grammatical structure must be compatible with its figurative meaning (which is why it is argued that some idioms lose their figurative interpretations when syntactically altered). However, this seems to underplay what is going on in deliberate changes of idioms’ grammatical structure. If a meaning-based view is taken on grammar, this means that in the non-conventional use of idioms semantic and grammatical constraints work hand in hand. The speaker can manipulate an idiom to adapt it to any communicative situation, but the ways in which it can be done are limited. Arguably, any idiom can undergo deliberate modifications of its grammatical structure. As is postulated by Cognitive Grammar, grammatical forms (just like lexical items) have meanings. Therefore, grammar enables the language user to express their thoughts by using idioms in different forms.

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1 Some other terms used in the literature for deliberate changes of idioms’ lexis and structure are artistic deformations (Melʼčuk [1995]), creative modifications (Gläser [1998]) and exploitations (Moon [1998]).

2 The enTenTen13 corpus offers evidence of passive forms of some other idioms classified as nondecomposable and they all have figurative meanings, e.g. until the bucket was finally kicked (‘until the person died’), the fat was being chewed (‘people engaged in friendly conversation’).

3 Note that structural modifications are defined as any alterations of idioms’ grammatical structure. As illustrated by examples (11-13), structural modifications sometimes involve changes in the lexical make-up of idioms. For instance, in a blind eye turner (13) there is a change from the verb turn to the noun turner (which is a lexical alteration, strictly speaking), but this also involves deriving a nominal construction from a VP idiom. In contrast, purely lexical modifications such as pirouette in your grave (10) allow the speaker to replace an idiomatic component with another word, but that does not alter the grammatical structure of a given idiom.

4 For a cognitive linguistic account of motion events in English and their expressions in grammatical constructions see Radden & Dirven [2007: 278-279, 291-294].

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Electronic reference

Jelena Parizoska, Idiom modifications: What grammar reveals about conceptual structureLexis [Online], 19 | 2022, Online since 26 March 2022, connection on 24 May 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jelena Parizoska

University of Zagreb, Croatia

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