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Review of  Rethinking Idiomaticity

Reviewer: Phoebe M. S. Lin
Book Title: Rethinking Idiomaticity
Book Author: Stefanie Wulff
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.483

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AUTHOR: Wulff, Stefanie
TITLE: Rethinking Idiomaticity
SUBTITLE: A Usage-based Approach
SERIES: Corpus and Discourse
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2008

Phoebe Ming Sum Lin, School of English Studies, University of Nottingham, United


Wulff's 'Rethinking Idiomaticity: A Usage-based approach' presents a study which
aims to isolate factors underlying native speakers' intuitive idiomaticity
judgement. Adopting a corpus linguistic methodology, the study successfully
develops a model which identifies not only the factors underlying intuitive
idiomaticity judgement, but also the weightings of their contribution to the
judgement. The study is based on 39 V NP-constructions chosen from an idiom
dictionary and the British National Corpus (BNC). The constructions were first
presented to native speakers of British English to obtain their idiomaticity
ratings of these constructions. Then, a series of formulas were applied to
calculate compositionality and flexibility of V NP-constructions based on
frequency information from corpus data. In the study, flexibility is a
meta-concept comprising three specific sub-parameters, namely tree-syntactic,
lexico-syntactic and morphological flexibility. Therefore, the flexibility
formulas were applied once for each of the sub-parameters. Finally, multiple
regression analysis was carried out to relate various measures of
compositionality and flexibility to the intuitive idiomaticity judgement of
native speakers. The result is a statistical model that reflects the unconscious
factors native speakers assess when judging the idiomaticity of the 39 V

The book is divided into an introduction and 7 chapters. In the Introduction,
the author provides the background of the study. She observes that when
presented with idiomatic expressions, such as 'take the plunge', 'see a point'
and 'write a letter', native speakers can readily rank their idiomaticity. There
are a number of suggestions about the basis of this intuitive idiomaticity
judgement. As Wulff points out, early studies tend to equate idiomaticity with
semantic non-compositionality. The idea is that native speakers rely on the
criterion of whether the meaning of an idiomatic expression is the sum of the
meaning of its constituting words. Later studies, however, suggest that
non-compositionality is indeed scalar and it may not be the sole factor in
idiomaticity judgements. The extent to which an expression accepts adverbial or
adjectival modifications and passivization may also be part of native speakers'
unconscious assessment of its idiomaticity. However, there is a gap for
empirical research to investigate the interplay between these factors and the
extent to which each factor contributes to the intuitive idiomaticity judgements
of native speakers. The author argues that the quantitative corpus linguistic
approach, which is particularly suited to deal with multifactorial phenomena,
will shed new light on our understanding of idiomaticity.

Chapter 1, 'Theoretical issues', reviews different approaches to idioms and
idiomaticity, with the emphasis on the Constructionist approach which informs
the study in the book. After an overview of the approaches of discourse
analysis, phraseology and psycholinguistics, Wulff elaborates on how the
concepts of idioms and idiomaticity can be integrated into the approach of
Construction Grammar. She argues that idiomaticity is a property inherent in all
linguistic items regardless of their size and degree of schematization. This
argument is in line with Croft and Cruse's (2004) concept of 'schematic idioms'
which states that any construction, be it a core idiom like 'kick the bucket' or
a regular syntactic expression, can be conceived of as being idiomatic.

Chapter 2, 'Methodological issues', expounds the approach of quantitative corpus
linguistics (Stefanowitsch and Gries 2003, 2005; Gries and Stefanowitsch 2004)
and describes the processes involved in collecting intuitive idiomaticity
judgement data from native speakers of British English. 39 idiomatic V
NP-constructions were chosen based on their frequency in the BNC, i.e. 90 times
or above. These idiomatic V NP-constructions were embedded in carefully designed
sentences and presented to 39 native speaker first year undergraduate students
in English linguistics in a British university. Without being provided with an
explicit definition of idiomaticity in the instructions, the participants were
asked to give relative idiomaticity ratings to the 39 target constructions and
indicate how reasonable it was for each to be included in dictionaries or phrase
books. The results were presented in a graph in which the idioms were arranged
in order of their idiomaticity ratings. The author attempts to explain the
ranking of some of the idioms in the graph. She suggests that the fact that the
grouping of the idioms on the graph matches established idiom pattern typologies
is an indication that the participants were, according to plan, judging
idiomaticity. The reliability analysis shows a high correlation between the
idiomaticity judgements of the native speakers. Finally, the author explains the
decision to use non-linguist native speakers as judges in the study and not to
provide an explicit definition of idiomaticity in the instructions.

Chapter 3, 'Compositionality', begins by summarizing previous approaches to
idiom compositionality. While the earlier studies tend to associate idioms with
non-compositionality, the recent view, which is supported by much empirical
psycholinguistic evidence, suggests that even semantically opaque idioms like
'spill the beans' can be regarded as relatively compositional. Compositionality
of idioms, as Wulff argues along with other linguists, is a continuum and each
idiom can be placed along a scale of compositionality. Moving to the calculation
of compositionality, Wulff turns to the works on verb-particle constructions
(VPCs) for practical ideas. She reviews 5 approaches used in empirical
literature to calculate the compositionality of verb-particle constructions
(VPCs). Among them, she chose to adapt Berry-Rogghe's (1974) method. Formerly
applied to the study of VPCs, Berry-Rogghe's compositionality formula works by
dividing the number of collocates that the VPC and the particle share by the
total number of the VPC's collocates. The idea is that the more the particle
contributes to the semantics of the VPC, the more of its collocates will be
among the set of the VPC's collocates. A number of adaptations were made to
Berry-Rogghe's formula to suit the case of V NP-constructions. One of the
necessary adaptations is the need to generate an overall compositionality
measure which is a weighted average of the compositionality of the verb and the
noun. The precise weighting is determined 'exploratively' according to the data.
In other words, different combinations of weightings are calculated and the
settings that produce the best results are then chosen. The resulting new
compositionality formula was applied on the 39 V NP-constructions, and the
numerical results are presented graphically.

Chapter 4, 'Flexibility measures', has the same structure as the previous
chapter. It begins with a review of theories followed by the introduction of
formulas to calculate flexibility. From the review, the author identifies
general consensus in the literature on three aspects: 1) most idioms are
flexible at least to some extent; 2) flexibility tends to correlate with token
frequency; and 3) compositionality does not correlate with any kind of
flexibility to an extent that licenses the assumption of a causal relationship
between the two. After discussing the different kinds of flexibility (i.e.
tree-syntactic, lexico-syntactic, morphological and phonetic flexibilities), the
author moves to the ways of calculating idiom flexibility indicated in previous
empirical work. She borrowed Barkema's (1994) flexibility formula for noun
phrases and the method of calculating Entropy from physics and applied them on
the target V NP-constructions. Here, she makes a further distinction of
variables under the three kinds of flexibilities (phonetic flexibility is
excluded from the study). With reference to the 39 V NP-constructions, these
variables concern the various aspects in which each kind of flexibility varies.
For example, morphological flexibility (MF) can vary in person, tense, voice and
so on. Therefore, we have Person, Tense and Voice as variables under MF. For
tree-syntactic, lexico-syntactic and morphological flexibilities, a total of 27
variables are identified. The next step is a long report comparing the behaviour
of the 39 V NP-constructions across each of the variables based on the
aforementioned formulas.

Chapter 5, 'The idiomatic variation continuum', uses the Principle Component
Analysis (PCA) to explore the structure of the combined results of the
compositionality and flexibility measures from the two previous chapters. The
compositionality and flexibility measures and corpus frequency altogether make
up 20 parameters. The way PCA functions in this study is to explore if these 20
parameters can be put into groups of over-arching factors (or 'principle
components') so as to reduce the complexity of the data and reveal which
parameters are closely correlated. From the statistical perspective, the PCA
also captures the maximum variance within the compositionality and flexibility
data, and this is a window of opportunity to explore the idiomatic variation
displayed in the 39 constructions. After the PCA, the 20 original parameters are
compressed into 8 components, which account for 74 percent of the total variance
in the target constructions. The component which is mainly made up of
tree-syntactic flexibility and a morphological flexibility (i.e. Voice) combined
is found to explain the most variance and is therefore the most important. The
second most important component comprises two morphological flexibility
parameters (i.e. NumV and Mood). Contrary to the common belief in the
literature, the compositionality parameter has only limited power to explain
idiomatic variation. Combined with another parameter (i.e. corpus frequency), it
forms only the fourth most important component in the PCA.

Chapter 6, 'The idiomaticity continuum', is the centre of the book as all the
work in the previous chapters is brought together to address the key research
question: 'which factors do speakers rely upon when assessing the idiomaticity
of a construction?' Multiple regression analysis (MRA) was used to construct a
model of native speakers' intuitive idiomaticity judgement. In the MRA, the
aforementioned 20 parameters from chapters 3 and 4 were the independent
variables, and the idiomaticity judgement ratings from chapter 2 were the
dependent variable. Amongst other findings, the MRA indicates that the 20
parameters altogether account for nearly 80 percent of the variance in the
dependent variable (i.e. the idiomaticity judgement). The parameters that
contribute most to the variance are again the two morphological flexibility
parameters, NumV and Mood. This finding suggests that when native speakers judge
the idiomaticity of the 39 V NP-constructions, NumV and Mood are probably the
factors that are considered unconsciously. Echoing another finding of the PCA in
the previous chapter is the limited importance of the compositionality parameter
(i.e. the fifth in terms of ranking). As the author points out, the agreement in
the results in Chapters 5 and 6 strengthens the argument for this statistical
model of native speakers' intuitive idiomaticity judgements.

Chapter 7, 'Towards a new model of idiomaticity', concludes the book by
highlighting the significance of this study to research in the areas of idioms,
corpus linguistics and Construction Grammar. In the light of the findings of
this study, Wulff proposes an extended model of constructions to which an
idiomaticity dimension is added. In the model, constructions at or above complex
constructions in terms of structural complexity have to be considered also for
their position along the idiom-collocation continuum. This new idiomaticity
dimension is not a single-layered representation, but a multi-layered one.
Therefore, the profile of a complex construction can have as many as 20 layers
along the idiom-collocation continuum, with each layer representing one of the
aforementioned 20 parameters. This extended model of constructions can integrate
the findings about compositionality and flexibility in the study to the
framework of Construction Grammar.

Among the many recent publications in the area of idioms, phraseology and
formulaic language, this book impresses with its innovative approach to
idiomaticity. Despite the fact that introspection informed many of the earliest
investigations in the area, Wulff's study is one of the very few that
empirically examine the nature of native speakers' intuitive idiomaticity
judgements. The author also makes an original point and contribution by using
non-linguists as native speaker judges. She reasons 'it is plausible to assume
that language experts will have had considerable exposure to theoretical
approaches to idiomaticity, so their [idiomaticity] judgements will hardly be
unfiltered' (p. 32). As she says, if intuitive idiomaticity judgement is real,
it should not only exist in the linguists' heads. Non-linguist native speakers
should also be able to discern idiomaticity.

The aim of the book is to develop a statistical model of native speakers'
intuitive idiomaticity judgements using quantitative corpus linguistic
methodology. This aim is achieved as the study successfully isolates the factors
that native speakers may be assessing unconsciously as they judge the
idiomaticity of expressions, and points out the weightings of these factors.
These positive results encourage the use of quantitative corpus linguistic
methodology to address other linguistic problems. Furthermore, this study
provides important counter-evidence against the suggestion that intuitive
idiomaticity judgements are merely random. As the results of the MRA show,
native speakers unconsciously draw on their implicit knowledge of the
distributional characteristics of the idiomatic expressions when making
intuitive judgements. This suggestion seems to challenge previous views within
corpus linguistics that human intuitions are not good at recording facts about
frequency in language use (see Sinclair 1991). If Wulff's suggestion is correct,
as is evidenced by the results of her study, the nature, validity and
reliability of introspection warrant further investigation.

A debatable issue in the book is the 'explorative' approach to a few important
decisions in the process of developing the intuitive idiomaticity judgements
model. When a choice has to be made between a few viable options, the study's
approach is to try all the options and then select the one which produces
results closest to the author's expectation. This liberal and practical approach
to decision-making has its merits for being completely data-driven, but it may
also be challenged for its ambivalence. This approach may have elevated the
success rate of the outcome idiomaticity judgement model, but it may also have
compromised the generalizability and the applicability of the model developed in
this study to other datasets and studies.

To conclude, this book is a valuable addition to the field, for it offers many
innovative perspectives on issues in idiomaticity research. All in all, it is an
interesting and useful read and one that is highly recommended to researchers of
idiomaticity and formulaicity.


Barkema, H. (1994). Determining the syntactic flexibility of idioms. In U.
Fries, G. Tottie & P. Schneider (eds.), Creating and using English language
corpora (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Berry-Rogghe, G. L. M. (1974). Automatic identification of phrasal verbs. In J.
L. Mitchell (Ed.), Computers in the humanities (pp. 16-26). Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Croft, W., & Cruse, D. A. (2004). Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Gries, S. Th. &. Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). Extending collostructional analysis:
A corpus-based perspective on 'alternations'. International Journal of Corpus
Linguistics, 9 (1), 97-129.
Sinclair, J. M. (1991). Corpus, Concordance and Collocation. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Stefanowitsch, A. & Gries, S. Th. (2003). Collostructions: Investigating the
interaction of words and constructions. International Journal of Corpus
Linguistics, 8(2), 209-243.
Stefanowitsch, A., & Gries, S. Th. (2005). Covarying collexemes. Corpus
Linguistics and Linguistic Theory, 1(1), 1-43.

Phoebe M. S. Lin is a PhD student at the School of English Studies, University of Nottingham. She is currently working on her thesis, which explores the use of native speaker intuition as a method to identify formulaic sequences and the prosodic features of formulaic sequences. Her research interests include formulaic language, intonation, corpus linguistics and psycholinguistics.

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ISBN: 1847064205
ISBN-13: 9781847064202
Pages: 256
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