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RE: Definition of idiom

From: Christophe Strobbe <Christophe.Strobbe@esat.kuleuven.be>
Date: Sun, 05 Mar 2006 19:51:00 +0100
Message-Id: <>
To: w3c-wai-gl@w3.org

Last Friday, I wrote:
I find the definition from SIL, which I quoted in the survey, much more
precise that the OED:

a multiword construction that
   * is a semantic unit whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings
its constituents, and
   * has a non-productive syntactic structure
htm )

The Lexicon of Linguistics at the University of Utrecht also has a
and examples:

Fixed combination of elements with an idiosyncratic, not (completely)
compositional meaning, such as 'kick the bucket', 'spill the beans'.
are generally inaccessible for syntactic and/or semantic variation:
sentence (ii) cannot mean that some people died last week.

(i)    He kicked the bucket last week
(ii) * Some buckets were kicked last week

Nevertheless, elements of idioms may sometimes be moved (as in (iii)) or

modified (as in (iv)).
(iii)  advantage was taken of Bill
(iv)   he kicked the proverbial bucket

John responded:
I agree that both of these definitions are more precise (and probably
closer to what we want) than what I quoted from the OED. But I'm also
afraid that crucial parts of both definitions are unintelligible to

Can you suggest paraphrases for "non-productive syntactic structure" or
"compositional meaning"?

I take it that "non-productive syntactic structure" means something like
"the meaning of the phrase is not generated by the order of the words"?
And that "compositional meaning" means something like "the words have to
be put together in exactly this way in order to have this meaning"?

Also, one of the definitions you quoted uses the word "inaccessible" in
a way that would create massive confusion if it appeared within WCAG...

I agree that our definition should be intelligible to non-linguists and
that it should not contain the word "inacesssible".
"Non-productive syntactic structure" normally means that the syntax used
in the phrase is no longer productive, i.e. no longer in use.
"Compositional meaning" refers to the meaning of the compound, which, in
the case of idioms, cannot be deduced from the meaning of the individual
units in the compound.

So, how about the following definition of idiom:
a group of words whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meaning of the
individual words and which typically allows little or no
syntactic alteration

By 'little syntactic alteration', I mean changes such as adapting a
personal pronoun to the context in which the idiom is used; for example
'by the skin of one's teeth' can be 'by the skin of my/his/her/... teeth'.

Developers usually know what syntax means in the context of markup and
programming languages, so I assume that we don't need to explain


Christophe Strobbe

Christophe Strobbe
K.U.Leuven - Departement of Electrical Engineering - Research Group on 
Document Architectures
Kasteelpark Arenberg 10 - 3001 Leuven-Heverlee - BELGIUM
tel: +32 16 32 85 51
Received on Sunday, 5 March 2006 18:49:55 UTC

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