Figures of speech, expressions, phraseology, etc.

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Idiomaticity, idioms

In linguistics, idiomaticity, idiomaticness or just idiom, can refer to the sense of "among all the possible realizations, this is the one the language uses / uses most", the least marked way of expressing a thing.

A lot of such idiomaticity is relatively specific to a language.

Also relevant to language learning, because you have probably to think about this harder in everything you are not native in.

For example, consider that

not "I am plumber", which is how various other languages would do it

Sometimes these are single correct ways, sometimes fixed sequences, but of at least equal interest is studying the limited flexibility of these patterns.

Outside of linguistics, idioms are usually understood as figures of speech and other such figurative language.

You could see this as one of of the most everyday cases of the wider concept of idiomaticity.


Phraseology usually refers to a part of linguistics that studies and describes the context in which a word is used, and a mainly descriptive approach.


This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

Collocations are statistically idiosyncratic sequences: series of words that occur together more often than just chance would suggest

For example, sequences of words "pretend to", "as a matter of fact", "leaves all parties", "downright amazed", "good news".

Some are about idiomaticity - of the possible sequence we could be using to express a thing, the one (or few) sequences we prefer to express that thing. (all of which are often readily understood, and primarily compositional - you can understand the meaning without knowing specific figurative use).

For a simple, local example: when you VERB a decision, you probably say you make it. Other verbs like 'take' would be understood, but make would be preferred.

Some collocations turn up because they have more figurative than compositional meaning, and that figurative use is often idiosyncratic use of the words -- these words appear together because they are a relatively fixed phrase (that we have learned the meaning of).

Figurative fragments come in different types and variations of how figurative/compositional and how fixed or malleable they are -- it's not just weird symbolic things your grandpa always said and you repeat.

So we might call these sayings, figures of speech, MWEs, or other things. When studying them you care about more specific aspects - e.g. some are fixed, others are not, etc.

Also, people in practical positions have reasons to focus on just some of all that

  • computational linguists often start by throwing statistics at it and seeing what rolls out
which often includes a lot of fragments of various kinds of phrases (jargon, figurative) (and depending on the method, some edges of them may have fallen off; conceptually, 'rock and' may appear more often as a pair due to 'rock and roll', but appears less than those three words, so there are questions remaining)
...or is already made to focus on just things of very specific interest (e.g. the 'which verbs appear most next to this noun')
...or is a tool more specialized to different questions
  • ...e.g. linguistics may e.g. study specific idiomatic preferences - say, in "VERB a decision", you would probably prefer 'make' over 'take' or most other verbs. Similarly,
adjective-noun, often or preferred adjective used to make a noun stronger or more specific, e.g. maiden voyage, excruciating pain, bright idea, spare time, broad daylight, stiff breeze, strong tea. Alternative adjectives would typically be understood but be considered some amount of unusual
adverb-adjective, e.g. downright amazed, fully aware
verb-adverb, e.g. prepare feverishly, wave frantically
verb-preposition pairs, e.g. agree with, care about
verbs-noun, e.g. we make rather than take a decision, we make rather than tidy a bed
noun combinations: a surge of anger, a bar of soap, a ceasefire agreement

  • In language teaching/learning, collocations may
    • point at some grammatical idiosyncrasies, such as which prepositions tend to pair with which verbs, and which verbs tend to be how you do specific nouns (see examples below), as this can matter to the correctness of sentences (related to idiomaticity)
    • point out that a lot of collocations are not compositional, so when some adjective-noun combination doesn't seem to make direct sense (e.g. bright idea), you can assume it's some sort of expression you should look up
    • overlap strongly with technical terms and jargon - things that carry strong meaning but are not compositional.
    • collocations in this context are often much more curated than e.g. what computational linguists will see
    • ...see e.g. for examples

  • it might bring up other patterns useful to natural language parsing - e.g. we agree with someone, we agree on something
  • Collocations matter to translation.
figurative collocations make translation harder in that word-for-word translation will be wrong (not being compositional)
since collocation analysis points out a sequence is idiosyncratic, it can makes it easier to detect that, which helps focus on learning what it might correspond to
  • similarly, natural language generation would like to learn these preferred combinations (depending on the method they may anyway)

  • we might also be able to suggest that certain words are more likely to appear than others, helping
spelling/grammar correction
OCR correction, etc.
  • some uses use reveals cultural attitudes, e.g. which adjectives we use for behaviour of specific groups

Collocation analysis

Collocation's reference probabilities

Filters and assumptions in collocation analysis

Choices in collocation math - dealing with sparsity and with an explosion of data



Sayings with figurative meaning

Most languages have established phrases with figurative meaning, or otherwise syntactically and/or semantically idiosyncratic.

They also have to be learned, because unseen they create confusion - not just intentional contradiction.

A phraseme is often understood as an utterance in which at least some parts cannot be freely chosen, related to idiomaticity in the sense of "among all the possible realizations, this is the one the language uses".

As such, terms like

  • set phrase
  • fixed expression
  • idiomatic phrase
  • multiword expression
  • idiom

...suggest phrases that should be reproduced exactly.

And if "you know what they say" is true, that makes sense, in that at least some of those sayings are assumed to be references to previously-decided wisdom (but maybe let's leave the epistomology to the philiosophers).

So while figurative language in general allow some amount of creativity, the just-mentioned concepts generally resist it.

Figures of speech

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A figure of speech is any use of a word/phrase where the intended meaning deviates from the literal meaning -- anything that is more figurative than purely literal.

This is a fairly open-ended idea, and can lean e.g. on the choice of words, playing with the meaning of words (tropes), changing the structure of sentences (schemes), and more.

It's not much of a stretch to go beyond word choice and include non-literal meaning as used in arguments (a bunch of rhetorical devices), in literature, in cinema, in politics, and in other kinds of storytelling.

Arguably, where e.g. phrasemes includes everything from set phrases to the concept of the creative freedom that lets us communicate with non-literal, figures of speech could be seen as the exercise of that creativity, and not only the most established ones (...arguable. The definitions vary and are fuzzy).

In some sense, figures of speech seem constrained only by creativity and other people's ability to understand the result, and since we do this a lot, there's a large amount of other concepts that fit this description, and it's something we would want to split up to discuss better.

So we have a bunch more words in the area. Some overlapping with each other. And some from semantics and pragmatics that happen to be quite relevant. Such lists reveal that this is for a large part related to our habit of rhetoric.

For example:


  • allusion - casual/brief reference (explicit or implicit) to another person, place, event, etc.


  • meiosis - intentional understatement [1]
e.g. 'the pond' to refer to the Atlantic Ocean, 'the troubles' for the northern irish conflict


  • litotes - understatement that uses a negation to express a positive, e.g. using "not bad" to mean pretty good.
actual meaning can depend on context
e.g. 'not bad' could have any literal meaning from 'not entirely horrible as such' to 'excellent'.


  • oxymoron - conjunction of words with intentionally contradictory meaning (see also contradiction in terms, paradox)
e.g. act naturally, old news, minor crisis, oxymoron (roughly means sharp dull)
sometimes less intentional, e.g. original copy
civil war would apply except you can both argue that's a calque (loan translation) just pointing out it's between civilians, and/or that it's equivocating civil in the sense of polite, and in the sense of groups within the same state.


  • irony - intentional implication of the opposite of the standard meaning (verify)


  • metaphor - implied comparative description that implies some sort of similarity
usually by equating things with no direct relation.
Often used to economically imply certain properties.
Similar but different from simile, which is an explicit comparison


  • allegory - sustained metaphor, usually tying in various metaphors related to an initial one[2]


  • parable - anecdotal extended metaphor intending to make a (often didactic or moral) point [3]


  • catachresis - a mix of more than one metaphor (by design or not) (verify) [4]


A trope is a less-literal reference, something often understood as a replacement, e.g. in rhetoric, storytelling.

When approached as "what we do in storytelling", a lot of the others in this list apply to some degree, particularly the ones that play on meaning, twist meaning, lead to contrasted interpretations.

More of a device in literature and rhetoric (than in linguistics directly), tropes are rhetorical figures of speech understood specifically as a replacement with a less-literal meaning.

Many also rely on a play, twist, or approximation of words or meaning, and contasts, so includes things like

Which makes them most associated with rhetoric, storytelling and cinema, where there is specific focus on how concepts are conveyed.

In particular, we often imply concepts them from patterns we recognize, without having to spell them out, and often use layers of contextual meaning.

For example, in writing and speaking, tropes are often employed for the more colorful result that is more interesting to read or listen to, and is often explained as a part of rhetoric.

In particular visual storytelling has its own conventions, as it can both add visual metaphor, and more easily hide details, as well as rely on consistently doing symbolism, no matter whether it makes sense or not. [5][6])}}



  • hyperbole - exaggeration meant to be used as stress
    • auxesis - hyperbole relying on word choice, e.g. 'tome' for a book, 'laceration' for a scratch
    • adynaton - extreme hyperbole, suggesting impossibility [7]


This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

Circumlocution refers to using unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea in a roundabout way.

It frequently turns up as indirect and/or long-winded descriptions where more succinct ones exist, less-direct figures of speech where clearer ones exist, or such.

Circumlocution may be done

to avoid revealing information,
to be intentionally vague (e.g. with equivocation),
in language aquisition, teaching meaning via description
to work around not knowing a term in another language and getting there via description
to work around aphasia
avoid saying specific words (euphemism, cledonism),
to construct euphemisms in the innuendo sense
to construct equivocations
and (other) varied rhetoric
creatively, to set set up similes

It can also refer to avoiding complex words, and/or inflected/derived terms (see e.g. Periphrasis), and usefully so.

Dictionaries are often intentionally somewhat circumlocutory, to avoid a lot of entries depending on other entries others you would have to look up.

Metonymy, synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche (meaning something like 'change of name') is figurative language using one name/entity for another thing - reference to proximate object, often metaphorical.

Metonyms are cases that relates part and whole (see also meronym/holonym), often specifically when a specific part gets used as a representative of the whole, often to catch a more complex concept with a brief term in an associative way.

For example:

  • "The Crown" to refer to the British monarchy. Similarly, Washington sometimes to refer to the United States government
  • "Nixon bombed Hanoi" ('Nixon' referring to the armed forces controlled by Nixon)
  • "A dish" referring to a part of a meal
  • "The car rear-ended me" ('me' referring to the car that the speaker was driving)
  • "Bread and circuses" to superficial appeasement
  • "The pen is mightier than the sword" (the pen mostly referring to publication of ideas, 'the sword' referring to a show of force).
  • "Lend me your ears", meaning listen to me, give me your attention
  • "the law" to refer to the police
  • "hired hands"
  • "bricks and mortar" [8]
  • "bread" for food in general

The reference frequently does not carry any directly shared properties. The British monarchy is not crown-shaped, food isn't like the dish it's on, appeasement does not need to take the form of food and distracting entertainment, a driver doesn't resemble their car, publication isn't done with a pen, Nixon and the bombers only shared as much as being in the same chain of command.

A number are likely to be culturally embedded, and somewhat local.

Contrasted with

  • metaphor in that they intentionally compare across domains
  • analogy, which works by similarity, often explicit comparison, and is usually used to communicate a shared quality/property. In contrast, metonymy works by contiguity/proximity and is used to suggest associations.

Synechdoche is a specific kind of metonymy that deals with the part-and-while relationship

  • referring to a whole by a part (perhaps the most common variant)
    • Example: 'hands' to refer to workers, 'suits' for businessmen, 'your wheels' to refer to your car, hungry mouths to feed, 'Downing Street' or 'Number 10' for the office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Sometimes only in specific expressions, e.g. boots refers to soldiers only in a few expressions like 'boots on the ground'
  • referring to a part by the whole
    • Example: "The city put up a sign", "The world treated him badly", the police, the company
  • referring to a wider class by example
    • Example: bug (for various insects, spiders, and such), give us our daily bread (food), using brand names like kleenex, xeroxing, googling
  • referring to an example by a wider class
    • Example: milk (usually meaning cow's milk, but recently less so),
  • referring to an object made from a material by that material
    • Example: threads (clothing), silver (for cutlery),
  • referring to contents by its container (also relying on context)
    • Example: keg (of beer),

Some examples are more complex, such as

  • "silver" (material used for a relatively uncommon realization of cutlery),
  • "the press" (a printing device referring to the news media, but also commonly to a team doing everything else)
  • "The White House said..." could refer to the president, their staff, the press secretry/(ies), or even that day's speaker (but probably not because they only read out what was written by someone else).
also meaning the distinction between metonymy and synechdoche is not always clear.

Synechdoche is also a way to commit some fallacies, including fallacy of division, hasty generalization, and more.

...and more

More on tropes

This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.


This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

When we have figures of speech that are non-literal, refers to a self-contained message, that we recognize as such (typcally because they have become lexicalized enough to be recognized, and reproduced fairly fairfully), we tend to call that a saying (or idiom), or something more specific.

Can be comments, references, observations, reactions, and aphorisms and the like.

We have dozens of variants of that, including:

  • Aphorism – a saying that contains a general, observational truth; "a pithy expression of wisdom or truth".
adages or proverbs refer to those that are widely known, and/or in long-term use
  • Cliché or bromide – a saying that is overused and probably unoriginal
which are platitudes when not very applicable, useful, or meaningful

  • Idiom – a phrase that means more than the sum of its parts
often mainly (or only) has non-literal interpretation.
More than compositional, perhaps not at all, and hearing it for the first time may gives no meaning
(There are other meanings for idiom, related to expression, but they are rarer and usually mentioned by their meaning)

  • Epithet – a byname - a saying or word used as a nickname, already having been widely associated with the person, idea, or thing being referred to.
including those added to a name, e.g. Richard the Lion-Heart
but more often adjectival characterization, e.g. Star-crossed lovers (when referring to Romeo and Juliet)

  • Maxim - An instructional saying about a principle, or rule for behavior.
Which occasionally makes it an aphorism as well
  • Motto – a saying used to concisely state outlook or intentions.
  • Mantra – a repeated saying, e.g. in meditation, religion, mysticism,

  • Epigram – a (written) saying or poem commenting on a particular person, idea, or thing.
Often clever and/or poetic, otherwise they tend to be witticisms.
Often making a specific point. Often short. Can be cliche or platitude.
  • Witticism – a saying that is concise and, preferably, also clever and/or amusing.
Also quips - which are often more in-the-moment.

Also related:

This can apply to idioms and the like , can be informal names where a formal one also exists,


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Substituted phrases and/or double-meaninged phrases

🛈 Note that some of this moves well out of phraseology, into 'meanings and words are complex, okay' territory

Substituted phrases

('Substituted phrases' is not a term from linguistics, but seems a useful one to group euphemism and some related concepts)

Euphemism replaces a words/phrases with others, while preserving most meaning.

Typically the replacement is a form that is less direct - more figurative, possibly metaphor, or another reason to pick an nearby meaning.

The intent is often to say saying something without saying it directly, for reasons like:

  • softening emotional blows (e.g. passed away instead of died),
  • tact to avoid potential offense (student is not working to their full potential, developing countries)
  • understatement, e.g. 'more than a few' for 'a lot'
  • avoiding rude sounding words (pretty much any other word used for toilet, including toilet itself originally, is a fairly polite reference for the place where we poop)
  • but probably the most fun and thereby the most common is hinting at sexiness. To the point where any unknown phrase, particular in the form <verb>ing the <adjective>d <noun>, potentially makes us giggle.
compare with innuendo, double entendre
  • not mentioning implications, often doubletalk, e.g. downsizing the department (firing a bunch of people), collateral damage (we murdered some civilians we didn't mean to), special interrogation (torture).
  • powerful sounding business bullshit[9]

(not the best example because these tend to creatively obfuscate meaning in ways that are much less generally known than doubletalk)

A dysphemism and cacophemism replaces a word/phrase with a more offensive one, say, Manson-Nixon line for Mason–Dixon line.

Cacoponism refers to the more blatant and intentionally offensive variation.

Multiple meanings

Polysemy refers to a word referring to multiple distinct possible meanings (or, if you're going to get semiotic, any sign/symbol that does).

Usually multiple related meanings, and this can have useful generalizing value. In fact, in many languages, many words have a small amount of this.

Aside from words in dictionaries, though, we also have phrasing that plays with meanings.

A double entendre is a phrase/sentence that can in be interpreted in different ways - and mostly cases where at least one is dirty.

The extra meaning is intentionally there, but the fact they they can be masked by the more direct (and clean) read gives some deniability, though depending on how you say it, not much.

The words themselves don't necessarily hint at the second meaning. The understanding may come from context and both parties thinking the same thing - a complicitness.

If you go looking, you can find a lot of unintentional ones, like anything you can "that's what she said" to.

A single entendre isn't really a thing, though is used to point out when people didn't quite manage to make their entendre double, and mainly manage a single vaguely vulgar meaning.

Innuendo uses language to allude to additional meaning, yet with a wording that leaves some plausible deniability (without that deniability it would be clear insinuation).

Innuenndo can be fun and good natured (and is the n much closer to double entendre, which also only works when both parties understand the suggested meaning) but innuendo is more often specifically used to imply (often clearly imply, but only imply), and to specifically imply something negative - to disparage, to hint at foul play, plant seeds of doubt about someone, their reputation, or such (see e.g. the early stages of many american presidential runs).

Innuendo, like euphemisms, does not have to be sexual, though this perhaps is as common as it is assumed.

Double entendre does not have to be intentional, innuendo (and single entendre) is.

Puns use either multiple meanings of a word, or similar-sounding words, for humour or rhetorical effect. We mostly know them for the really bad ones.

See also: