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Idiomatic sentences

Syntactic idiomaticity is a universal feature of language development observed in most if not in all languages.

By idiomatic sentences we mean sentences with a purely idiomatic grammatical arrangement. The meaning of such sentences cannot be readily analysed into the several distinct components which would be expressed by the words making up an ordinary sentence.

Syntactic idioms merit special linguistic consideration as relevant to grammatical aspects of style and synonymy in grammar.

Accurate studies of syntactic idioms have not yet been made. Many questions about their grammatical status go unanswered and, indeed, unasked. Important treatments of the subject in the Russian language have been made by N. U. S h v e d о v a and D. H. Shmelyov1.

Interesting observations in this part of German syntax have been made by O. I. Moskalskaya2. Sentence-patterns with a purely idiomatic grammatical arrangement in present-day English have naturally their own traits of formation and conventional practices. But sometimes we find here close parallels to certain fixed types of syntactic idiomaticity observed in other languages which should not escape the notice of the student.

Syntactic idioms transcend the ordinary syntactic constructions and are, in fact, shaped and arranged according to special patterns. The words that make them up are variable, but their types seem to be fixed.

Syntactic idiomaticity is far too big a subject to be treated adequately in our short course, where reasons of space make it possible to mention only its essential features.

Syntactic idioms have rather a high frequency value in spoken and written English. They are stylistically marked units with subjective modal force and as such add much to the emotive value of the utterance. Most of them function as expedients to produce intensity or emphasis of meaning in expressive language. In idiomatic sentences we generally find special formative elements of their typification. In these terms, at least to a workable degree, we shall distinguish the following patterns:

1. Fixed stereotyped idiomatic sentences implying confirmation or negation. The necessary meaning is always signalled by the consituation, e. g.:

1 H. Ю. Шведова. Очерки по синтаксису русской разговорной речи. М., 1966; Д. Н. Шмелёв. О связанных синтаксических конструкциях в русском языке, «Вопросы языкознания», 1960, № 5.

2 О. I. Moskalskaya. Grammatik der deutschen Gegenwartssprache. M., 1971.


It was a swell party, and, how!

Cf. Еще бы!

Similarly in Ukrainian: Ще б пак! Аякже! In German: Und wie! Und ob!

Und was für einer! Well, I never!

Well, to be sure! Well, of all things! ' Well, of all things," replied her friend, "Wonders never cease, do they Aileen?" (Dreiser) Cf. Вот так так! Вот тебе на! Ukrainian: От так раз!

Related to these are expressive interjectional patterns implying confirmation or negation, such as:

Dear me! Oh, dear! By heaven!

2. Idiomatic sentence-patterns with implicit negation, e. g.:

  1. N(p) N(p) He a coward!

  2. N(p) and N(p) She and a failure!

  3. N(p) and Vinf An actor and refuse to help


  1. N(p) and A Michael and joyless!

  2. Np and pN She and in trouble!

  3. Np A He arrogant and cruel!

  4. NpVinf Me dance!

3. Idiomatic pseudo-subclauses:

a) patterns with the typifying not that, e. g.:

Soames shook his head. "Improve his health very likely. Has he ever been in prison"? "Not that I know of". (Galsworthy)

(Not that I know of — наскільки мені відомо).

"Your father in town?" "I believe so, sir". "Good!" Not that he felt relief. (Galsworthy)

(Not that he felt relief — він не відчув особливого полегшення).

But there, thinking's no good to anyone is it madam? Thinking won't help. Not that I do it often. (Mansfield)

(Not that I do it often — я роблю це не часто).

Not that he ever mentioned it one did not use such a word! (Galsworthy)

(Not that he ever mentioned it — він ніколи не висловлював цього вголос,— про це не говорять).

Cf. German: Nicht dass er wusste!

French: C'est ne pas qu'il soit content.

Idiomatic sentence-patterns of the given type seen to have their transformational origin in idiomatic structures with it is... that, it was... that, to which they are, no doubt, related as stylistic variants


b) exclamatory pseudo-subclauses, e. g.:

That he should have made such a mistake!

Cf. И надо же было ему сделать такую ошибку!

Ukrainian: И треба ж йому було зробити таку помилку!

Cf. German: Dass ihm das passieren musste!

French: Fallait-il qu'il soit venu!

c) patterns with pseudo-subclauses of condition intensifying the meaning of some quality as expressed in a given message, e. g.:

Freddie gashed: "You're a lucky devil, if ever I met' one. Such a nice thing". He grinned enviously. (Cronin)

I know your motives are always above reproach. However Johnnie Gallegher is a cold little bully, if ever I saw one. (Mitchell)

Cf. If ever there was dressiness, it was here. It was personification of the old term spick and span. (Dreiser)

If ever the girl looked like a leopardess, it was now; her strange, deep set eyes kept sliding from her 'cub' to him who threatened to deprive her of it. (Galsworthy)

Patterns of this type are syntactic idioms obviously distinct from units of the formula character like How do you do?; the latter is for all practical purposes one unchanged and unchangeable formula the meaning of which is really independent of that of the separate words into which it may be analysed. But patterns like If ever I met one are of a totally different order. The type is fixed but alterations can be made here, some words are variable, e. g.: if ever there was one; if ever there can be one; if ever there could be one, etc.

Similarly: Sit still, all you can. (All you can as still as you can).

I hurried all I could, mum, soon as I seen that cloud, the girl puffed with the air of one who is so seriously thankful to have escaped a great disaster. (Bennett)

It was hard to think about, but only made her more than ever determined to cling to him, whatever happened, and to help all she could. (Dreiser)

d) stereotyped interjectional phrase: there is a good fellow (boy, etc.). Cf. — Вот это хорошо, за это спасибо.

— От добре, за це дякую.

Intensification of the grammatical meaning is often expressed by such idiomatic patterns where emphasis is produced by the use of the so-called "emphatic would", e. g.:

There it goes. That would be. That would happen to me. I haven't got enough trouble. Here for the evening at the foul party where I don't know a soul. And now my garter has to go and break. (Parker)

Eh, I'd right miss you if you vent, I would and all.

He would come just when I wanted to go out! {-How annoying that he has come!)

You would and you wouldn't can be used to express indignation in situations like the following:

  • I'm afraid I don't know when the train leaves.

  • Oh, you wouldn't (— You never know anything!)

The relevance of context to the significance of such units must never be overlooked. Like in all other cases of syntactic ambivalence, the meaning of the sentence is made clear by contextual indicators.


Variants in their use producing subtle shades of subjective modal meaning and emotional value present rather a complicated subject which linguists have by no means fully worked out. The expressive elements cannot be studied outside of their relation to the distinctive objective elements of language which are emotionally neutral. And this leads us to synonymy in grammar which is the principal concern in discussing the stylistic aspects of syntax.

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