Friday, July 21, 2017

Idioms and Other Fixed Expressions in Ditransitives

Finally, a new post! This one is about a recent paper by Larson (2017), on fixed expressions in ditransitive constructions. Larson (2017) aims to be clearing up confusion on this topic, but in fact he adds to it. He also completely misses the point of the data.

Larson argues that we need to distinguish between idioms and other types of fixed expressions, especially collocations. He claims that idioms must be constituents, but collocations do not have to be. His evidence regarding collocations, however, is exactly the same evidence that has been used to show that idioms do not have to be constituents (e.g., O'Grady 1998). His one example to show that a literal collocation like rancid butter is not a constituent is his example (25), rancid yellow creamery butter, where modifiers can come in between parts of the collocation. But this type of modification was shown long ago to be common with idioms, too. For instance, a phrase that Larson treats as an uncontroversial idiom, the cat (is) out of the bag, can be modified in exactly the same way: The Feminist Cat is out of the Marxist Bag ( Idioms with open slots for possessors are also common, like get X's goat, but get and goat do not constitute a constituent. In fact, my own recent work (Bruening 2017) argues that idioms, collocations, and other types of fixed expressions all obey exactly the same constraints, and should be accounted for in exactly the same way. I am not the first to argue this; see Bruening 2017 for references.

The point of fixed expressions in ditransitive constructions made in Bruening (2010) is that they fall into certain patterns, excluding others. Specifically, there are expressions like give X the creeps, which include the verb and second object but not the first object; there are expressions like give rise to X, which include the verb, first object, and preposition, but not the object of the preposition; there are expressions like send X to the showers, which include the verb and prepositional phrase but not the first object. There is also an alternating class, read X the riot act, read the riot act to X. Most importantly, there are no expressions like throw the wolves X, which would include the verb and first object while excluding the second object. There are also no expressions that alternate with this frame (throw the wolves X, throw X to the wolves; throw X to the wolves exists but it does not alternate).

This is a striking pattern of data that requires an account. Whether you call any individual expression an "idiom" or a "collocation" is irrelevant. That is just a matter of terminology. As linguists, we are supposed to be concerned about patterns, and identifying them and accounting for them. Larson's paper completely misses the point, because all it does is argue about whether certain expressions should be called "idioms" or "collocations." It has nothing to say about the actual patterns that we see with idioms and collocations.

Larson also argues that many if not all expressions of the form V X to NP, like send X to the showers, should not be considered "datives." Again, this is an irrelevant matter of terminology. The patterns are what is important, not what we call them. Now, Larson could claim that expressions like send X to the showers could not alternate precisely because it is not a dative; that is, it has the wrong semantics. But this does not explain the patterns: Why are there no "dative" expressions (with a caused possession semantics)? Bruening (2010) proposed an explanation. Larson does not, and does not mention the explanation in Bruening (2010). All Larson does is complain about terminology.

Larson is also quite inconsistent and imprecise. At one point (p399) he defines collocations as "strings of words used together frequently and recognized as such by speakers." He goes on to claim that expressions like give... the creeps and give... the boot are collocations, not idioms, as discussed above. This is not possible, given his definition: they are not strings. Since he has no coherent notion of what a collocation is, his terminological argument is even more beside the point.

To sum up, the patterns of fixed expressions in ditransitives were identified and analyzed in Bruening (2010). Nothing in Larson's paper alters the empirical picture outlined in Bruening (2010) or detracts from the analysis of that picture presented there. As linguists, we need to be concerned about patterns in data and accounting for them. Debates about terminology are beside the point.


Bruening, Benjamin (2010). Ditransitive Asymmetries and a Theory of Idiom Formation. Linguistic Inquiry 41: 519-562.

Bruening, Benjamin (2017). Syntactic Constraints on Idioms (Do Not Include Locality). In Halpert, Claire, Hadas Kotek, and Coppe van Urk (eds.), A Pesky Set: Papers for David Pesetsky. Cambridge, MA: MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, chapter 8.

Larson, Richard. (2017). On "Dative Idioms" in English. Linguistic Inquiry 48: 389-426.

O'Grady, William (1998). The Syntax of Idioms. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 16: 279-312.