carefully for some time to someone whos truly fluent
in English and youll be able to notice one thing:
Theres something interesting about the way they speak:
They dont produce most of what they say word by word,
that is, by stringing individual words together. No, they
dont. Instead, they produce most of what they say by
stringing word-clusters together. Yes, clusters
of words a small group of words occurring close together
and not individual words.
Each word-cluster they use is a multi-word unit a vocabulary
unit made up of two or more words. And a sizeable proportion
of these multi-word units is made up of what well call
fluency phrases. (Other multi-word units that fluent
speakers depend heavily on are collocations, formulaic expressions,
By the label fluency phrase what I mean is this: A
sequence of words that contains an idea and forms a separate
unit of meaning. Sequences like these occur in speech and
writing either on their own or as part of a clause. Many such
phrases are fixed sequences like at lunch, by car, on TV,
etc. And the remaining phrases are semi-fixed sequences like
a drop in sales, an expression of surprise, shiver with
These fixed and semi-fixed phrases are of immense use to you
mainly for two reasons:
First, they make it easier for you (than individual words)
to compose what you want to say and to say it at the
same time. They do this by functioning as ready-to-assemble
You see, a large part of whatever a truly articulate native
speaker (of any language) says spontaneously every day is
made up of word groups that occur again and again in various
situations irrespective of the topic either with no
variation or with only a slight variation. (This is true of
whatever they dictate or write spontaneously, too). These
are word groups of general service, because they can act as
whole speech units on their own or combine
easily with individual words into other speech units, and
express most of your thoughts, ideas and feelings with reasonable
clarity. In fact, many of them can help you express yourself
with absolute clarity. So these word groups of general service
are also word groups of frequent utility.
If you have a good mastery of these common-factor word groups,
you wont have to compose them anew on the spot every
time you speak or write. They would occur to you readily as
wholes readily composed, structured and
ordered. And so a large part of whatever you want to say (or
dictate or write) can be produced through these ready-to-assemble
chunks quickly, easily and effortlessly.
In this way, ready-to assemble word groups like fluency phrases
save you a lot of speech-planning time and speech composition
time. And the time so saved is extremely valuable to you.
This is because when youre speaking (or dictating or
writing) spontaneously, youre speaking (or dictating
or writing) against the pressure of time. And you can use
the time so saved to plan what to say next and to formulate
the difficult parts of what you want to say next parts
that need to be put together by joining individual words,
for the first time and for the occasion, into groups of words.
Theres a second reason that makes the fixed and semi-fixed
phrases were speaking about extremely useful to you:
They make your English sound natural to native speakers of
English. In other words, these phrases make your English idiomatic.
Here let me clarify a point.
The word idiomatic can give a wrong impression
to many people. This word can make them think that the term
idiomatic English means English stuffed full of opaque idioms
like fill sbs shoes, give sb the raspberry, kick
the bucket, a fine kettle of fish, etc. Actually, that
is not what the term idiomatic English
means. Idiomatic English simply means English that contains
expressions that are natural to native speakers of that language.
Thats all. And the expressions that are natural to native
speakers of English are not only idioms, but also quasi-idioms,
collocations, fixed and semi-fixed phrases, formulaic expressions,
phrasal verbs, etc.
All these expressions are natural to native speakers of English
for two reasons: First, theyre word groups that occur
naturally and readily to native speakers whenever they speak
or write. Second, these expressions sound natural to them
whenever anybody (who theyre listening to) uses them.
In fact, whenever anybody speaks or writes about something
in English without using expressions like these, but by using
their literal paraphrases put together on the spot by stringing
individual words, the English so produced sounds un-English
and unnatural to native speakers though that kind of
English is grammatically correct.
As you know, an idiom is a word group with a particular meaning.
And this meaning is the meaning of the word group as a
whole, and is something entirely different from the meanings
of the individual words. For example, if you say that a candidate
for a job fills the bill, you mean that theyre
suitable for it. If you say that when something happened someone
hit the ceiling, you mean that they lost their temper
suddenly and violently.
An interesting feature of idioms like these is this: Its
impossible to work out the meaning of such an idiom from the
meaning of any, or more than one, of the constituent words.
Idioms like these are opaque idioms.
This book does not cover opaque idioms.
This book does not cover quasi-idioms, either. By quasi-idioms
what I mean is idioms that are only partly opaque (and so,
for the same reason, are only partly transparent). Here are
some examples of these semi-opaque/semi-transparent idioms:
every trick in the book, make or break something, on the
spur of the moment, etc.
Then what kinds of word groups does this book cover?
The word groups this book covers are those whose meanings
are, in general, transparent in any case, more transparent
than even quasi-idioms. As I said earlier, there are several
kinds of expressions that make the language you use idiomatic.
If you range them all on a gradient, with those whose meanings
are quite transparent at one end and those whose meanings
are opaque at the other end, you can see that theres
a scale of idiomaticity running from those at one end to those
at the other. The phrases covered by this book are those that
occur nearer to the transparent end of the gradient than to
the opaque end. And, there, over the transparent end, they
occur nearer to the more transparent area than
to the less transparent area.
Another way of describing the kind of phrases covered by this
book is this: They belong to a category of expressions falling
between collocations and traditional idioms. But you should
understand that theres no clear-cut boundary between
expressions that are called collocations and expressions that
are called idioms. Theres an area of overlap between
these two types of expressions, and this area is quite fuzzy
vague and impossible to define clearly. The phrases
covered by this book are multi-word units falling within this
fuzzy area. Mind you, within this fuzzy area, its impossible
to say where collocations end and where idioms begin.
Traditional grammar and linguistics dont have a separate
name for multi-word units within this fuzzy area. And so,
first of all, nobody can say youre wrong if you call
these word groups collocations because theyre
combinations of words that habitually occur together. Within
most of these word groups, the bond between at least two of
the constituent words is extremely strong, and the order of
their occurrence is fixed and so most of these word
groups can be said to belong to the category of strong
collocations (that is, collocations in which the bond
between two consecutive member words is quite strong). Secondly,
theyre phrases in the sense that they
function as a single syntactic unit and form a single unit
of meaning. Thirdly, many of them can also be called idioms
in the sense that the single unit of meaning that they
express is generally more than, or slightly different from,
the sum of the meanings of the member words. At the same time,
they also differ from conventional idioms, because this single
unit of meaning is not totally divorced from the meanings
of the individual words, but has a lot to do with those individual
So perhaps the term collocational phrases suits
the word groups covered by this book better than the terms
idioms or quasi-idioms.
This book gives you collections of phrases of the kind described
above under various headwords. And the headwords are, in almost
all the listings, the first word in the phrase (except, for
example, when the first word is an article or a word given
Youll find that the meanings of most of the phrases
you get in this book are obvious enough. Meanings of most
others can easily be worked out from the meaning of one or
more of the individual words. Of course, some of the phrases
have metaphoric meanings because an individual (constituent)
word has been used in a metaphoric sense. If you have any
doubt about the metaphoric meaning of an individual word,
a conventional learners dictionary can help you.
If youre trying to be as natural and as articulate as
a native speaker of English, you must achieve a good command
of these phrases. Your skill in expressing your ideas, thoughts
and feelings easily and well would depend, to a great extent,
on the degree of this command. So Ive called these phrases