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What Is Phraseology?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Phraseology is the study of fixed sets of words or “phrases.” Generally, efforts in phraseology are related to explaining the meanings and histories of these sets of words. Linguists use this kind of research to know more about how speakers of a given language communicate to each other through multi-word sets, often called “lexical sets” or “lexical units.”

Generally speaking, phraseology developed in the 20th-century. This discipline helps academics and others to get a more thorough grasp of how a certain language is used. Much of the focus of phraseology involves considering the many colloquial or idiomatic elements of a language.

Some of the items that phraseology experts often focus on include idioms and phrasal verbs. These two elements are much used in many languages, especially in the English language. Phrasal verbs are sets of words that function as a single verb. Many of these have direct synonyms that are individual verbs. The use of phrasal verbs allows speakers to express themselves distinctly, and in many cases, using the phrasal verb has become preferable to using the individual verb, mostly because the individual verbs have come to sound excessively technical to the common ear.

Phraseology researchers often also focus on idioms or idiomatic language. The category of idioms in a linguistic lexicon is a large one. Idioms include shorter phrases such as phrasal verbs, and longer phrases that speakers might identify as “sayings,” phrases that have become popular over time and that the general community has assigned a definite meaning to. Evaluating sayings any given language is a large part of advanced phrase study, and an interesting way to look at how anthropology or culture affects language and vice versa.

The study of phrases is to be distinguished from the study of semantics. The study of semantics involves looking at words or phrases as signifiers, and studying what these lexical units are associated with in the collective mind, whether they are single words or whole phrases. That means that phraseology can be involved in a general study of semantics, but also stands on its own as a specialized linguistic area of study.

While many efforts in phraseology are largely academic, others focus on disseminating the meaning of phrases to a wider audience. Some of these include the printing of small phrase books or lists of common phrases on the Internet. These can function as guides to non-native speakers, or clarify meanings among a native linguistic audience, especially in languages like English and Spanish, where multiple linguistic communities have developed widely varying idiomatic conventions in different parts of the world.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Jun 24, 2014

I would like to know the origin of some funny phrases like "break a leg," "cold turkey," and "tie the knot." I know what they mean but the phrases don't seem to have much to do with the meaning!

By fBoyle — On Jun 23, 2014

@ZipLine-- I study phraseology. I think that knowing phrases, their meaning and origin makes me a better English speaker or writer. We all know the importance of phrases in the English language. Phrases and idioms add color and imagination to language. They help us express our thoughts and emotions better.

Unfortunately, many great phrases are falling out of use and becoming uncommon because people are forgetting about them. Studying phraseology and keeping phrases alive is well worth the effort.

By ZipLine — On Jun 23, 2014

Phraseology sounds like a lot of fun, but is this kind of work even needed anymore? Unless a linguist is teaching or writing books, how can the study of phrases help?

I mean, it would be interesting to know where the phrase "to kick the bucket" comes from. But aside from sounding very cool and intelligent on a forum about linguistics, what good is it?

By Rotergirl — On Jun 21, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- And it's especially good to know a little about phraseology when you're an English professor or teacher. I've had students tell me with a straight face that their papers are completely original, when I've already googled several phrases, only to find them in papers for purchase online.

They always get defensive, and some have even tried to deny they found the paper online, even when I have the printed copy! I may be from the TRS-80 school of computers, but I'm not stupid, and I know what a high school or college kid wrote and what they didn't.

By Pippinwhite — On Jun 20, 2014

Phraseology is also the study of writing style. Nearly every writer has his or her own "voice" and certain phrases or idioms he or she is apt to use regularly. Some writers can write outside their voice, but it does take some effort.

After 21 years in the media, I can look at a letter to the editor and tell you with 99 percent accuracy whether it's an organic letter, or some boilerplate garbage that someone is sending to every media outlet in the country. Reading a lot of different writing styles is really helpful when you have to ferret out the difference between a press release and something someone actually wrote.

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