Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Variation in Multi-Word Units: The Absent Dimension

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Variation in Multi-Word Units: The Absent Dimension

Article excerpt


Despite the frequent claims most linguists make about the fixedness of multi-word units (henceforth MWU's) and the almost uniform representation they receive in dictionaries, the range of variation across categories as well as within the members of the same category is much greater than has hitherto been recognized. The complexity of variation patterns represents a serious challenge to the translator whose mother tongue is not English. This paper will, therefore, attempt to provide a thorough examination of the types of variation in MWU's in general and the potential variations that typically characterize each category. Explanations different linguists have suggested to account for variation are also reviewed and their value to translators and possible contribution to lexicography are assessed. The paper concludes by asserting that explanations are inadequate for purposes of MWU's acquisition and that modifications should be made to current lexicographical methodology in order to help translators identify the changes a given MWU may undergo.

1. Introduction: What are MWU's?

1.1. Definition and significance

MWU's are "... lexical phenomena ... which are conventionalized form/function composites that occur more frequently and have more idiomatically determined meaning than the language that is put together each time" (Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992: 1). According to Moon (1998), the most salient features of these units are:

i) institutionalization/conventionalization,

ii) lexicogrammatical fixedness, and

iii) semantic non-compositionality. MWU's have been studied under a plethora of designations: "lexical phrases, multi-word units, fixed phrases, formulaic phrases, chunks, preassembled chunks, prefabricated units, holophrases, and so on" (Willis 1997). They straddle both the lexical level and the syntactic level, ranging from a single phrase (pipe dream, green thumb) to compound sentences (look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves); from binomial fixed phrases (beck and call; knife and fork, pepper and salt) to "slot-and-filler frames" (as ... -er, ... -er, e.g. the more, the merrier), even proverbs (there is no smoke without fire) (Lavelle 2003). Furthermore, they interact with textuality and serve a multitude of pragmatic and social functions (Abu-Ssaydeh, forthcoming). MWU's are crucial for foreign language learning and communicative competence and they represent probably close to half the lexis of the English language (Fillmore 1979; Jackendoff 1997; Widdowson 1989; Fellbaum 1998; Sag et al. 2003; Lewis 1993).

1.2. Major categories

For the purposes of this study, we shall classify MWU's into the following six major categories:

a) Fixed phrases (Lewis's 1997 polywords)

Sag et al. (2003: 4) describes fixed phrases as "... fully lexicalized and undergo neither morphosyntactic variation ... nor internal modification". They are pre-assembled, extremely sta ble language chunks that cover a fairly heterogeneous group of MWU's including binomials which can be defined as "two or more words or phrases belonging to the same grammatical category, having some semantic relationship and joined by some syntactic device such as 'and' or 'or'", such as ladies and gentlemen, spick and span, day and night, pure and simple, here and now (Bhatia 1994: 143). They also include conventionalized discourse formulae (on the one hand, on the other hand, last but not least) and Latin and Greek borrowings such as ad hoc, ad infinitum, carpe diem etc. (Lennon 1998).

b) Institutionalized utterances

Unlike Lewis (1997), we restrict this designation to complete sentences or fragments thereof which have been lexicalized and serve as conversational routines or social formulae such as greetings, ending a telephone conversation, saying good-bye, etc: nice to meet you, so long, have a nice weekend, take care now, come off it, (well) what do you know. …

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