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Review of  Rethinking Idiomaticity

Reviewer: Benet Vincent
Book Title: Rethinking Idiomaticity
Book Author: Stefanie Wulff
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 22.4325

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

Benet Vincent, PhD Student, Department of English, University of Birmingham, UK


This monograph, developed from Wulff's PhD thesis, investigates idiomaticity in
an attempt to discover what information users of English draw on to decide that
a particular phrase is more or less idiomatic or idiom-like. Taking 39 examples
of the Verb Noun Phrase (V NP)-construction, Wulff combines judgment data and
corpus investigation, allied with statistical procedures, to study the variables
seen to influence our judgments of idiomaticity, namely compositionality and
flexibility. Innovative methodological approaches for investigating these
variables are introduced and described in detail and conclusions are drawn
regarding the results of the enquiry and the effectiveness of these methods
judged according to cognitive linguistic criteria. Wulff also suggests further
areas of research based on her findings using the methodology introduced.

The book starts by setting out Wulff's main question -- How it is that speakers
judge a phrase such as ''take the plunge'' to be more idiomatic than one like
''write a letter''. Idiomaticity is seen as a psychological characteristic that a
particular phrase or construction has, to a greater or lesser extent, which is
therefore open to judgment by speakers of a language. While Wulff stresses that
idiomaticity, as a psychological construct, cannot be directly observed in a
corpus, she points out that it may be possible to pin down this complex concept
through corpus-based research. This is because, according to the usage-based
grammar perspective adopted in this study, language users base their linguistic
behaviour on distributional information derived from their language environment.
Therefore, it is possible to use the distributions of constructions found in a
balanced corpus, such as the British National Corpus (BNC), to postulate which
factors are most salient when idiomaticity judgments are made by speakers of
British English. The usage-based approach also allows Wulff to conceive of two
continuums: the unobservable 'idiomaticity continuum', on which speakers place
each exemplar of a construction according to their perception of its
distributional characteristics; and the observable 'idiomaticity variation
continuum', on which each construction lies on by virtue of its actual behaviour.

Chapter 1 -- 'Theoretical Issues' -- establishes the main theoretical
underpinning of the work by reviewing previous research indicating that a
comprehensive view of idiomaticity needs to take into account factors beyond
mere non-compositionality, to include various types of flexibility as well.
Wulff shows how discourse analysis, phraseology and psycholinguistics have all
contributed to an understanding of idiomaticity as a scalar, multifactorial
concept. She also points out the importance of this view of idiomaticity in
cognitive linguistics, and more specifically, construction grammar (Goldberg,
2006). In common with other constructions, the storage and recognition of idioms
depends on interplay between compositionality, conventionality, schematicity and
frequency. However, their low degree of schematicity, that is, the fact that
they do not show a great deal of lexical variation, in contrast to many other
constructions, makes idioms good candidates for corpus study, since they are
easier to identify. This explains Wulff's decision to focus on 'fully lexically
specified V NP phrases like ''make a point'' or ''take the plunge''' (p. 18).

Chapter 2 is entitled 'Methodological Issues'. The first methodological issue
referred to is Wulff's advocacy of the methods of quantitative corpus
linguistics over 'traditional corpus linguistic methodology' (p. 21). The main
argument presented is that the methods of quantitative corpus linguistics offer
the best ways of investigating hypotheses, particularly those deriving from
cognitive linguistics, because of the close match between the methods and the
theories. This does not, however, prevent Wulff from following Gries (2008) in
pointing to similarities between the products of traditional corpus linguistics,
such as such as Pattern Grammar (Hunston & Francis, 1999), and those of
cognitive linguistics, such as Goldbergian construction grammar.

The next methodological issue relates to the data sample, a selection of 39 V
NP-constructions, 33 of which are the most frequently occurring V
NP-constructions listed in the Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Idioms (2002), and
6 further constructions selected at random from the most frequently occurring V
NP-constructions in the BNC.

The chapter ends with a description of the idiomaticity judgment experiment
which Wulff carried out, in which asked the informants -- first year English
linguistics undergraduates at the University of Sheffield -- to judge the
constructions in terms of relative idiomaticity by looking at the constructions
in sentences designed to reflect each construction's particular behaviour. Wulff
demonstrates how the results of this experiment rank the constructions as might
be expected from the literature: the constructions with the lowest rankings,
such as 'write X letter' and 'tell X story', are those not included in the
Dictionary of Idioms, and higher rankings tend to be given to less compositional
or literal and more metaphorical and opaque constructions, with groupings
approximately following those identified elsewhere (e.g. Cacciari and
Glucksberg, 1991). She also points out that the gradual increase in judgment
values, with none of the constructions being given extreme idiomaticity scores,
is consistent with the lack of truly 'non-decomposable constructions like ''chew
the fat''' (p.30, p.32), which are too rare to occur frequently in the BNC and so
are not included in the study. Finally, and significantly, the rankings given
across informants were found to be very consistent.

Chapter 3 -- 'Compositionality' -- moves on to a discussion of the concept of
compositionality and how a corpus might be used to measure it. The definition of
compositionality given (i.e. that 'compositionality is a function of the
semantic similarity of the constituent words and the phrasal expression' (Wulff
2009: 135)) underpins the method, that is, comparing the numbers of collocates a
construction has in common with its component words; an important innovation
being that both constituents of the V NP-phrase are taken into account. Wulff
presents two ways of measuring the compositionality of V NP-constructions:
'weight' compares the number of collocations each element has amongst the total
collocations of the construction; 'share' determines the number of construction
collocates as a proportion of collocates of the constituent verb and noun. This
second measurement is found to distinguish more effectively between intuitively
compositional and non-compositional items, with some provisos.

Chapter 4 -- 'Flexibility Measures' -- moves on to consider how flexibility can
be quantified and the relationship between such measures and idiomaticity.
Idioms are traditionally considered to be relatively fixed in their behaviour,
not undergoing certain syntactic, morphological and lexical changes, and Wulff
presents a systematic attempt to measure this fixedness. The chapter focuses on
three main types of flexibility: tree-syntactic flexibility, or the tendency of
a construction to occur in different types of syntactic patterns;
lexico-syntactic flexibility, the extent to which a phrase allows external or
internal modification; and morphological flexibility, relating to inflections as
well as variations in the determiner slot of a construction. Each of these types
of flexibility is further divided into an exhaustive list of 'flexibility
parameters' and 'parameter levels': to give an example, 'Tense' is a flexibility
parameter and it has the parameter levels 'Past/Present/Future/Nonfinite'.

Two different measures are introduced, both based on the flexibility seen in a
representative sample of V NP-constructions derived from the International
Corpus of English. One of these, based on Barkema (1994), measures flexibility
as a function of difference from the baseline measure seen in the sample, while
the other aims to give a relative flexibility figure, or 'entropy', for each
parameter compared to total flexibility, that is, all possibilities happening
equally often. This way of calculating entropy arguably does not give a reliable
measure for lexico-syntactic flexibility, which should be shown as higher when a
feature, such as an adjectival modifier, is often present, rather than when it
is as likely to be present as absent. Therefore, Wulff adapts the entropy
measure to indicate that a construction frequently occurs with extra lexical
material and renames it 'directional entropy'. Wulff concedes there is a small
problem here in that in some cases, such as 'break X ground', V NP constructions
are modified almost invariably -- in this case by 'new' -- which does not
indicate flexibility, but rather fixedness, and further suggests that 'break X
ground' is not really a V NP construction, but more likely a V ADJ NP

Detailed results are reported for these measures with the aid of graphs;
correlations between the various variation parameters and parameter levels and
measures of compositionality are also provided. This means that different
perspectives are brought to bear on the relative flexibility of each V-NP
construction in the study.

Chapter 5 -- 'The Idiomatic Variation Continuum' -- presents a Principal
Component Analysis (PCA) of the data, which indicates groups of variables that
are related to each other, taking into account the flexibility parameters as
well as corpus frequency and compositionality scores. This analysis reduces all
20 variables to a total of 8 components listed in order of importance: component
1 consists of tree-syntactic flexibility and Voice, with contributions from Det
(determiners), Person, and AttrNP (presence of a pre-modifying noun); component
2 consists of NumV (whether the verb is singular, plural or non-finite) and
Mood; component 3 contains Addition and NoAdv (presence of adverbials);
component 4 includes compositionality and corpus frequency; component 5 consists
of the parameter relating to Gerund formation; component 6 is that relating to
prepositional phrases, with contributions from Tense and NumNP (the number of
the noun phrase in the V-NP construction); component 7 consists of AttrAdj (the
presence/absence of attributive adjectives) with a contribution from Aspect;
component 8 contains the flexibility parameter Negative. The first 4 of these
components are found to account for more than half the variance in the data. Two
of these parameters, verb number and verbal mood, have escaped attention in the
past and hence represent new findings. Another interesting, though tentative
finding, regards the lower than expected importance of compositionality.

In Chapter 6 -- 'The Idiomaticity Continuum' -- Wulff moves on to discuss the
correspondence between the corpus-derived findings and the idiomaticity
judgments. The results of a Multiple Regression Analysis (MRA) show a high
overlap between those parameters that are found to be important and those which
the components analysis in Chapter 5 revealed as relevant. This strongly
suggests that there is a correlation between idiomaticity as a psychological
construct and a construction's location on the idiomaticity variation continuum.

The final chapter -- 'Towards a New Model of Idiomaticity' -- concludes by
reviewing the contributions made by the study and suggesting further
applications of the methodology, for example, to assess the degree of semantic
bleaching of verbs, that is, whether they are losing lexical meaning and
becoming more like function words. The results are also seen as providing
further support for a performance-based approach to language and one in which
grammatical categories emerge from the data. This leads into a discussion of how
the findings relating to idiomatic variation might be integrated into a model of
the constructicon, the hypothesized storage and retrieval facility for
constructions in the mind. Wulff proposes a new axis of idiomaticity which cuts
across the constructicon at the level of lexically specific complex
constructions and ranges between low and high idiomaticity. This axis allows for
the inclusion of information regarding the variables that may be important for
judging the idiomaticity of a particular construction as part of the
construction and is thus an important addition to the model.


'Rethinking Idiomaticity' is a rigorous investigation of the relationship
between idiomaticity and performance data which speakers may draw on in making
idiomaticity judgments. In focusing on a relatively small data set, which is
then extensively analysed, Wulff is able to obtain some interesting results. A
number of innovative methods for measuring variables such as compositionality,
are presented, which will no doubt inform future research. This work also makes
some persuasive arguments for factors that influence idiomaticity judgments
which might be tested on different data sets.

Naturally, for the curious and critical reader, some questions remain. Perhaps
the most important of these relate to the definition of 'construction', and its
relationship to 'idiom', as applied to individual V NP-constructions, and what
exactly the idiomaticity informants were being asked to judge. The fact that
several of the constructions included in this study, such as 'hold X breath',
'play X game' and 'draw X line' are polysemous is not really discussed, so it is
not clear whether Wulff distinguished between them or not. However, corpus
linguistic research such as Sinclair (1991), Hunston & Francis (1999) and Hoey
(2005) has consistently found that a change in meaning accompanies change in
grammatical behaviour, suggesting that a lack of distinction between different
meanings may well affect results. Moreover, to take the example of the
construction 'hold X breath', the example sentence provided to the informants,
'She held her breath', appears indeterminate between metaphorical and literal
interpretations. It seems likely that one's interpretation of this sentence will
influence one's idiomaticity judgment, having some effect on the results, but
this possibility is not mentioned. Thus, basing findings, as seems to have
happened, on idiom judgments derived from sentences which are either literal or
metaphorical, or ultimately ambiguous, without further asking informants how
they made their choices, seems to raise some questions about such findings.

A note should also be made regarding editorial control over this book. It is
disappointing to find numerous deficiencies, both in terms of editing and
proofreading, especially bearing in mind that books of this kind are invariably
expensive. On several occasions, for example, numbers stated in the text do not
match those presented in figures or tables, and a number of typographical
mistakes remain.

In terms of audience, this book, with its high emphasis on statistical
approaches and its basis in cognitive linguistics, will be of interest to
practitioners of quantitative corpus linguistics, particularly readers of the
Journal of Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. However, despite Wulff's
generally clear descriptions and rationales, the large number of descriptions of
statistical procedures may be off-putting for readers outside this area. Readers
not used to this field may also baulk at Wulff's almost exclusive focus on
abstractions at the expense of examples drawn from the corpus.


Barkema, Henk. 1994. Determining the syntactic flexibility of idioms. In Udo
Fries, Gunnel Tottie & Peter Schneider (eds), Creating and using English
language corpora, 39-52. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Cacciari, Cristina & Sam Glucksberg. 1991. Understanding idiomatic expressions:
the contributions of word meanings. In Greg B. Simpson (ed), Understanding word
and sentence, 217-40. The Hague: North Holland.

Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd edn. 2002. London: Harper Collins.

Goldberg, Adele. 2006. Constructions at work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gries, Stefan Th. 2008. Phraseology and linguistic theory: a brief survey. In
Sylviane Granger & Fanny Meunier (eds), Phraseology: An interdisciplinary
perspective, 3-25. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Hoey, Michael. 2005. Lexical priming. London: Routledge.

Hunston, Susan & Gill Francis. 1999. Pattern grammar. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.

Sinclair, John. 1991. Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Wulff, Stefanie. 2009. Converging evidence from corpus and experimental data to
capture idiomaticity. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 5(1). 131-159.

Benet Vincent is PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Birmingham. He is investigating the association between modal meaning and the V wh pattern using the BNC. He formerly worked for 15 years in the field of English language teaching, latterly at Sabanci University, in Istanbul. His research interests include phraseology, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, writing in a foreign language and language learning.

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