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Cognition, 20 (1985) 243-259

Syntactic frozenness

in processing and remembering


idioms*

RAYMOND W. GIBBS, Jr.


GAYLE P. GONZALES

Universityof California,Santa Cruz

Abstract
Three experiments examined the effect of syntactic fro.zenness on understanding
and memory for idiomatic expressions. In Experiment 1 we established a frozenness continuum by asking subjects to judge whether idioms in different
syntactic forms maintained their idiomatic meanings. The results of Experiment
2 indicated that subjects processed idiomatic expressions more quickly than
they did nonidiomatic, control strings. Moreover, subjects are faster at processing frozen idioms than they are at understanding flexible ones. The final
experiment found that the degree of syntactic frozenness has an effect on memory for idioms in that f7exible idioms were recalled more often than were frozen
ones. These data overall support the idea that idioms are part of the normal
lexicon, but are accessed differentially according to their degree of syntactic
f rozenness.
Introduction
Idiomatic expressions differ in the extent to which they can be syntactically
transformed
and still retain their idiomatic meanings. Thus, John kicked the
bucket can be interpreted
as John died, but its passive form, The bucket
was kicked by John, is usually not seen as having an idiomatic meaning.
Other idioms, such as John threw in the towel (meaning John gave up) can
be passivized, as in The towel was thrown in by John, and still be thought of
as idiomatic. Fraser (1970) has suggested that idioms do not form a homogeneous class with respect to the transformations
they may undergo. He propo-

*This research was supported by a Faculty Research Grant from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
We wish to thank Keith Brittany, Elizabeth Fekkes, and Wayne Iba for their assistance in running subjects
and Rachel Mueller for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Reprint requests may be sent to:
Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Program in Experimental
Psychology, Clark Kerr Hall, University of California,
Santa Cruz, CA 95064, U.S.A.

OOlO-0277/85/$5.60

0 Elsevier Sequoia/Printed in The Netherlands

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R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

sed that idioms could be organized into a frozenness hierarchy ranging


from expressions which undergo nearly all traditional transformations
without
losing their idiomatic meanings (e.g., throw in the towel) to those expressions which will not undergo even the most simple transformations
and still
retain their idiomatic interpretations
(e.g., face the music).
The purpose of the present paper is to show that people are indeed sensitive to the syntactic frozenness of idioms and that this affects processing and
memory for these expressions. Previous research on this issue failed to find
any effect of syntactic frozenness on the speed with which idioms are processed. Swinney and Cutler (1979) examined the time it took subjects to verify
idioms, which differed in their frozenness level, as being meaningful English
phrases. Their results showed no significant differences in processing times
among different levels of Frasers (1970) hierarchy. Swinney and Cutler suggested that these data support the idea that idioms are to some extent unified
with respect to access, retrieval, and representation
in the lexicon (p. 532).
Although Swinney and Cutlers data appear convincing, there is reason to
doubt their conclusion. In particular, the organization of Frasers (1970) frozenness hierarchy may not necessarily be representative
of most English speakers mental lexicons. This seems especially likely since the hierarchy was
based solely upon Frasers own intuitions. We attempted in Experiment
1 to
empirically establish a frozenness continuum by asking subjects to judge whether idioms in various syntactic forms maintained their idiomatic interpretations. Following this, we went on in Experiments 2 and 3 to examine whether
there are any behavioral differences in processing and memory for idioms
depending on their degree of syntactic frozenness.

Experiment 1
Method
Subjects
Thirty-four
undergraduates
from the University of California, Santa Cruz
participated as subjects to fulfill a course requirement.
All the subjects were
native speakers of English.
Stimuli and design
Thirty-two verb particle idioms were chosen from Boatner, Gates and Makkai
(1975). These expressions were rated by 34 subjects as being equally familiar.

Syntax and idioms

Table 1.

245

Example of different transformations and their corresponding paraphrases


in Experiment 1
Gerund Nominalization
Her fathers laying down the law prevented her from going to the dance.
Her fathers giving strict orders prevented her from going to the dance.
Adverb Insertion
The boss will quickly lay down the law if anyone shows up late.
The boss will quickly give strict orders if anyone shows up late.
Particle Movement
They will lay the law down if the party gets too wild.
They will give strict orders if the party gets too wild.
Passive
The law will be laid down when Janes boyfriend finds out where shes been.
Strict orders will be given when Janes boyfriend finds out where shes been.
Action Nominalization
The supervisors laying down the law was just what the staff needed.
The supervisors giving of strict orders was just what the staff needed.

All the idioms were syntactically manipulated according to the transformations in levels 1 through 5 (with 1 being most frozen) of Frasers (1970)
frozenness hierarchy: (1) gerund nominalization, (2) adverb insertion, (3)
particle movement, (4) passive, and (5) action nominalization. Verb particle
idioms were chosen in particular so that all five transformation operations
could be performed on each idiomatic expression. Each transformed idiom
was then presented in an appropriate sentential context and was paired with
a sentence that paraphrased its idiomatic meaning. The paraphrase for each
idiom was obtained from Boatner et al. (1975) to ensure both consistency and
conventionality of meaning. Table 1 presents an example of one idiom in
each of its five syntactic forms and the corresponding paraphrases. In total,
subjects saw 160 idiom-paraphrase pairs.
Procedure

Subjects were presented with a booklet containing a written set of instructions


and all the experimental material, which was randomly ordered. They were
The use of these syntactic transformations
theory.

does not imply anything

about their current status in linguistic

246

R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

instructed to read each idiom-paraphrase


pair and judge the degree to which
the first sentence was similar in meaning to the second. Subjects were asked
to make this judgment on a seven-point scale where 1 indicated that the two
sentences were not at all similar in meaning and 7 indicated that the sentences
were highly similar in meaning. The instructions emphasized that subjects
should not make the judgments according to what the first sentence might
mean if it were presented in a different form, but that all judgments should
be made according to the way the first sentence was actually presented.

Results and discussion


Subjects ratings of the idiom-paraphrase
pairs reflect their intuitions about
the degree to which an idiom can be syntactically transformed and still retain
its idiomatic interpretation.
High numerical ratings indicate that subjects viewed a particular syntactic form as maintaining the idiomatic meaning, while
low ratings indicate that an idiom in some transformed
state did not retain
its idiomatic meaning.
Two different analyses of subjects ratings were performed. The first analysis looked at subjects mean ratings for the different syntactic forms collapsing across all the individual idiomatic expressions.
The mean frozenness
ratings for the five transformations
are presented in Table 2.
An analysis of variance on these data revealed a significant main effect of
transformation
type, F(4, 124) = 11.04, p < 0.0001. Further examination of
the individual means showed that subjects generally viewed idioms that have
undergone the Action Nominalization
transformation
(5 33) as more idiomatic than any other syntactic operation (p < 0.001) for all comparisons).
Fraser
(1970) also saw idioms which could undergo Action Nominalization
as being
the most flexible. Nonetheless,
subjects ratings of the other syntactic forms
do not correspond in any regular way with Frasers frozenness hierarchy.
Table 2.

Frozemess

razings for different syntactic forms

Syntactic operation

Rating

Gerund
Adverb
Particle
Passive
Action

4.75
4.22
4.46
4.44
5.58

Nominalization
Insertion
Movement
Nominalization

Nole: Standard

errors are shown in parentheses.

(k 0.13)
(+ 0.20)
(-+ 0.26)
(k 0.15)
(+ 0.13)

Syntax and idioms

247

The second, and perhaps most important, analysis concerns subjects ratings for each individual idiom. Subjects ratings for each idiom in its five
syntactic forms were averaged and these means are presented in Table 3.
As can be seen, the idioms vary in the extent to which they can undergo
different syntactic operations and still maintain their idiomatic meanings,
F(31, 1023) = 15.48, p < 0.0001. Some expressions, such as take under your
wing, are seen as being very frozen in their syntactic form, while others, such
as make up your mind, are viewed as being more flexible in the kinds of
syntactic operations they may undergo,
Table 3.

Idioms and their rated frozenness


Idiom

Rating

take under ones wing


turn back the clock
cut down to size
put on some weight
sitting on pins and needles
wait on hand and foot
go against the grain
jump down ones throat
breathe down ones neck
pull up stakes
cry over spilled milk
let down ones hair
throw up ones hands
put on a good face
skating on thin ice
stew in ones own juice
bark up the wrong tree
come apart at the seams
bring down the house
get away with murder
dance up a storm
bite off more than one can chew
throw in the sponge
beat around the bush
blow off some steam
put down ones foot
wear out ones welcome
keep up ones end
lay down the law
roll out the red carpet
turn over a new leaf
make up ones mind

3.60
3.75
3.80
3.84
4.05
4.08
4.10
4.14
4.21
4.22
4.23
4.38
4.48
4.49
4.56
4.68
4.74
4.76
4.83
4.87
4.92
4.95
5.00
5.09
5.17
5.21
5.42
5.66
5.70
5.72
5.59
6.u)

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R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

One interesting idea, suggested by Cutler (1982), is that idioms which have
been in the language longer may be more frozen in their syntactic form. To
test this we computed a Pearson product-moment
correlation coefficient between the frozenness ratings and the earliest date an idiom is cited in the
Oxford English Dictionary (1933, and supplement).
We were able to find
citations for 30 of the expressions used in Experiment
1 and found that r =
0.27,~ < 0.10 for exact citations, but a r = 0.38,~ < 0.025 when some variation
was allowed (e.g., dance on thin ice for skating on thin ice). This correlation suggests that idioms which are least susceptible to syntactic transformations (i.e., more frozen) are also those which have existed longer in the
language.
Generally the results of Experiment
1 indicate that people are indeed
sensitive to the syntactic frozenness of idioms. The question remains as to
whether the degree of syntactic frozenness affects how people access and
process idiomatic expressions. This issue is addressed in Experiment 2.
Subjects in Experiment
2 were presented with phrases that either had
idiomatic meaning, like sitting on pins and needles, or nonidiomatic,
literal
phrases, like sewing with pins and needles. The subjects task was to read
each visually presented word string and decide if it formed a meaningful
phrase in English. Half of the meaningful idiomatic phrases were expressions
that were rated in Experiment 1 as being more or less frozen in their syntactic
form, and the other half were idioms that were more or less flexible in their
syntactic form. We hypothesized
that idioms are not represented
with equal
status in the lexicon and that frozen idioms should be more lexicalized than
flexible idiomatic expressions. Consequently,
our prediction was that subjects
should be much faster at making the phrase classification responses for frozen
idioms than they would be for idioms that are more flexible in their syntactic
form. In addition, we also expected to replicate the Swinney and Cutler
(1979) finding that idiomatic expressions can be processed faster than nonidiomatic control strings. This result would confirm the hypothesis that people
need not analyze the literal meanings of idioms before determining
their
nonliteral, idiomatic interpretations
(see Gibbs, 1980, 1985).
Experiment 2
Method
Subjects

Forty-two undergraduates
from the University of California, Santa Cruz participated in the experiment in order to fulfill a course requirement.

Syntax and idioms

249

Materials
The

experimental materials consisted of twenty idiomatic words strings. Ten


of the idiomatic word strings were the most frozen expressions from Experiment 1, and the remainder were the ten most flexible idioms as determined
by subjects ratings in Experiment 1. These were matched with twenty nonidiomatic, control strings. The control strings were constructed by replacing
the first two words in each idiomatic string with words of relatively equal
length (in both letters and syllables). Each control string formed a literal,
grammatically acceptable English phrase. Overall, the frozen idioms were on
average 21.7 characters in length, while the control strings for these frozen
idioms were 19.7 characters. The flexible idioms were 20.4 characters long
and the controls for the flexible idioms were 19.6 characters in length. These
means did not differ significantly from each other as determined by an analysis of variance. Therefore, differences in response times to the experimental
stimuli could not be attributed to the length of the word strings.
In addition, 20 word strings that did not form an acceptable English phrase
(i.e., no sleep it floor out; wish out the table to) were created. These
unacceptable word strings were roughly equivalent to the acceptable phrase
strings in number of words and characters. Subjects were expected to respond
No (Not meaningful) to these targets, The data for these word strings
were not included in the data analysis.
Design

Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups, each of which was
the complement of the other. If a given idiomatic phrase was presented to
one group, the corresponding nonidiomatic, control string was shown to the
other group. Each group of targets contained 6 practice phrases, 20 filler
phrases, and 20 experimental targets. Half of the experimental targets were
idiomatic phrases and half were nonidiomatic word strings. In each group, 5
of the idiomatic phrases were frozen and 5 were flexible in their syntactic
form, as determined by the ratings in Experiment 1.
Procedure

Subjects were tested individually. The 40 word strings were randomly presented in lower-case letters on a CRT display screen under the control of an
IBM personal computer, which recorded all response latencies. Subjects were
instructed to read each word string and decide, as quickly as possible, whether
or not each of these formed a meaningful phrase in English. All subjects were
instructed to indicate their decision by pressing one of two buttons on a

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keyboard which was in front of them. Once the response to the target had
been made, there was a 2-second delay and the next word string appeared
on the screen. Six practice phrases were then given followed by the 40 experimental stimuli. Response latencies were measured from the onset of the
word string to when the subject pressed one of the two buttons,

Results and discussion


Response times longer than 5 seconds (less than 1% of all responses) were
counted as errors and eliminated from the analysis. These outliers represented cases in which experimental
instructions could not have been followed,
as when subjects attention wandered from the task. The response times to
make the phrase classification judgments and the proportion
of errors are
presented in Table 4. Only responses in which subjects made a correct response were included in the analysis. Error rates were also tallied for each subject
in the experiment.
The overall rates were nearly identical for the four experimental conditions (6.75%), and consequently will not be discussed further.
A two-way analysis of variance was performed with Frozenness (frozen vs.
flexible) and Sentence Type (idiom vs. control) as within-subject
factors.
Each of the analyses were performed twice: once treating subjects as a random factor while collapsing over material (FI), and once treating materials
as the random factor while collapsing over subjects (F2). Min F statistics are
also reported as suggested by Clark (1973).
These analyses revealed a significant effect of Sentence Type (idioms vs.
control strings), [FI(l, 41) = 17.17, p < 0.001; K?(l, 19) = 9.45, p < 0.001;
min F(1, 62) = 6.09, p < 0.0251, and a significant interaction between Frozenness (frozen vs. flexible) and Sentence Type [FI(l, 41) = 7.59, p < 0.01;
F2(1, 19) = 4.21, p < 0.05; min F(1, 61) = 2.72, p < 0.101. Further analysis
on the individual means indicated that subjects were much faster at respond-

Table 4.

Mean latencies (milliseconds) to idioms and control strings


Sentence type
Frozenness level
Frozen
Flexible
Note: standard

Idioms

Control strings

1115 (k 46)
1240 (+ 49)

1333 (+ 73)
1291(+- 55)

errors are shown in parentheses.

Syntax and idioms

251

ing to the frozen idioms (1115 ms) than to the matched control strings (1333
ms), t(82) = 2.54, p < 0.01. Moreover, subjects were also faster at responding
to the frozen idioms (1115 ms) than to the flexible ones (1239 ms), t(82) =
1.86, p < 0.05. All other differences were not statistically reliable.
The finding that subjects were faster in responding to the idiomatic expressions than to the control strings replicates Swinney and Cutlers (1979) results
and is consistent with Gibbss (1980, 1985) data that idioms are comprehended
faster than literal uses of the same expressions.
As such these
results confirm the hypothesis that people need not analyze the literal meanings of idiomatic expressions before deriving their nonliteral, idiomatic interpretations.2
It appears unlikely, then, that idioms are represented
in a
special, separate idiom dictionary (see BobTow and Bell, 1973; Weinreich,
1969), which is consulted after a literal analysis of the expression was found
to be defective.
One could argue, however, that the idiom-control
string differences are
due to subjects being in a special idiom processing mode since they were
presented with many idioms in the experiment.
To check for this, we randomly matched subjects from the two experimental
groups and analyzed the
response times for the first occurrence
of an idiom in one group, with its
matched control in the other group. This analysis showed that subjects were
faster overall in responding to the first idiom (1105 ms) than they were in
responding to the matched control strings (1273 ms), $41) = 1.96, p < 0.05.
Thus, even before subjects could be put into an idiom mode of processing
there was a reaction time advantage for the idiom phrases over the control
strings. A similar finding is reported by Swinney and Cutler (1979).
One other possible interpretation
of the results merits consideration.
The
advantage shown by frozen idioms in this experiment may be simply due to
there being a higher likelihood of occurrence for the sequence of lexical items
forming these expressions than for those items forming the flexible idioms.
In some sense, this notion of transitional
probability fits in well with our
hypothesis that idioms which are restricted in the kinds of syntactic operations
they may undergo are more predictable than are idioms which are syntactically flexible. However, it seems necessary to further examine the idea that
predictability
alone might account for the faster processing of frozen idioms,
as well as the general advantage of idioms over the nonidiomatic controls.
To test this idea, we ran a control study similar to one suggested by Swinney and Cutler (1979, see experiment
1). Sixteen undergraduates
from the
University of California, Santa Cruz were presented with a typed list of all
*See Gibbs (1985) for the results of two studies which suggest that people do not always analyze the literal
meanings of idioms in parallel to determining their nonliteral, idiomatic interpretations.

252

R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

the idioms and nonidiomatic phrases, each with its final two words omitted.
These materials were randomly intermixed
with 80 filler nonidiomatic
phrases, which were roughly similar in length to the experimental
materials.
The purpose of these filler items was to decrease the possibility of subjects
noticing that all of the experimental materials could be idioms. Subjects were
asked to write down the first word or words that came to mind to complete
each phrase. The number of completion
responses that were identical to
either the different idioms or the control materials were tabulated. These
data showed that subjects were not any better at completing frozen idioms
(38%) than they were at completing flexible idioms (43%), F(1, 15) = 0.043,
p < 0.10. This suggests that the transitional probability per se for the frozen
idioms was not making subjects respond faster to these expressions than to
the flexible idioms. An analysis of the idiom/control
pairs revealed that the
number of completion responses was higher for the idioms than for the control phrases in 15 out of the 20 total pairs. For one pair there were equal
number of completion responses to the idiom and its control phrase, and 4
control phrases were completed more often than their corresponding
idioms.
For purposes of comparison,
the data were divided in two unequal groups.
One group comprised the 15 idiom/control pairs which had the idiom completion advantage over their respective controls. The other group comprised the
1 idiom/control
pair that had equal number of completion responses to the
idiom and its control phrase, and the 4 control phrases that were completed
more often than their corresponding
idioms. The main reaction time data for
each of these conditions can be seen in Table 5.
An analysis of variance was performed
on the reaction-time
data with
Phrase Type and Response Completion Category as the independent
variables. The main effect of Phrase Type was not significant, F(1, 18) = 0.03,
Table 5.

Mean latencies (milliseconds) to idiom and control phrases as a functionOf


response completion category
Response completion
Control advantage*
over idiom + no idiom/
control difference

Idiom advantage**
over control

1208
1271

1182
1309

Phrase type
Idiom
Control
*@I = 5).
**+I = 15).

category

Syntax and idioms

253

p > 0.10; while the effect of Response Completion Category was highly
reliable, F(1,18) = 21.93, p < 0.001. Nonetheless, the crucial interaction
between these two factors was not significant, F(1, 18) = 1.42, p > 0.10. As

such, these data demonstrate that transitional probability does not play a
significant role in the effects reported in the present study.
The most important result of Experiment 2 is that subjects process frozen
idioms faster than they do flexible ones. This suggests that idioms are not
unified with respect to access, retrieval, and representation in the lexicon.
People appear to be sensitive to the linguistic frozenness of an idiomatic
expression and this affects the speed with which they are understood. In
Experiment 3 we examined whether linguistic frozenness had any effect on
memory for idioms.
Subjects listened to a tape recording of a series of stories, some of which
ended in idiomatic expressions. If an idioms syntactic productivity influences
the speed with which it is processed, then idioms that take longer to understand should be more memorable than those that were comprehended
quickly. This additional processing time reflects the difficulty subjects have
in accessing flexible expressions, which should make these idioms more distinctive in memory and consequently should be recalled more often.
Experiment 3
Method
Subjects

Thirty-six undergraduates from the University of California,


served as subjects in order to fulfill a course requirement.

Santa Cruz

Materials and design


The experiment

employed a cued-recall paradigm. For the acquisition part


of the experiment, subjects listened to a tape recording ,of 40 stories, 20 of
which ended in idiomatic expressions and 20 of which ended in nonidiomatic
utterances. Half of the idiom stories ended in frozen idioms and half in
flexible ones. These expressions were identical to those used in the previous
study. Table 6 presents examples of stories ending irra frozen idiom, a flexible
idiom, and a nonidiomatic utterance.
A rating study was performed to ensure that the last lines of these stories
were interpreted as they were intended to be. Twelve subjects participated
in the study. Subjects read each story and made a judgment as to whether

254

R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

Table 6.

Examples of stories used in Experiment 3


Frozen idiom

Jerry loved to ski. He was pretty good so he entered a big skiing contest one day. When it was
his turn, he tried to go too fast and fell down and lost the race. Jerry later moaned to a friend,
I wish I could turn back the clock.
Flexible idiom

Ericas father did not like the idea of his 15-year old daughter dating. One month Erica actually
went out every weekend with a different boy. Finally, Ericas father had had enough. He said
to her, Im going to put down my foot.
No idiom
Mike had just bought himself a new car. His parents and friends warned him to drive carefully,
but Mike just ignored them. One day, he had an accident and destroyed the car. He cried to
a friend, Now what am I going to do?

each final sentence was idiomatic or literal in its context. They also rated, on
a six point scale, how well the final sentence of each story fit into the context.
Results showed that subjects rated the frozen idioms as being idiomatic 98%
of the time, and the flexible idioms as being idiomatic 96% of the time. The
nonidiomatic targets were rated as being literal 100% of the time. An analysis
of the ratings indicated that there was no significant difference between the
overall effectiveness of frozen idiom, flexible idiom, and nonidiomatic stories
in inducing the meanings of their last lines. These results suggest that there
are no differences in the story contexts that would bias either understanding
or memory for the target sentences.
In the acquisition part of the study, subjects heard the 40 stories presented
in a random order. In addition to these contexts, there was one filler story
at the beginning of the tape and one at the end. These were included to
prevent primacy and recency effects from occurring in the subsequent recall
test. For the recall phase of the experiment,
subjects were given a list of 20
cues, each of which was related to the setting of a story ending with an
idiomatic expression. For the 2 idiom stories presented in Table 6, for example, subjects were given the cue skiing for the frozen context, and dating for
the flexible story. Since memory for the nonidiomatic utterances was not of
interest, there were no recall cues for these stories.
Procedure

Subjects were run in groups of six. They were instructed to pay close attention
to the materials presented because they would be asked some questions about

Syntax and idioms

255

them afterwards. The tape containing the stories was then played to the
subjects. Following this, subjects read some unrelated stories for approximately 15 minutes. Immediately afterwards, subjects were given an answer
sheet containing the 20 recall cues. They were asked to look at the cues and
write down the final sentence of the story that corresponded with the cue.
They were given 15 minutes to complete the memory task.
Results and discussion

A sentence was scored as being correct if it contained all the important


content words and had the same syntactic structure as the target sentence.
Subjects recalled more instances of flexible idioms (46%, se = 0.03) than
they did frozen idioms (32%, se = 0.03) [FI(l, 35) = 23.06, p < 0.0001;
F2(1, 19) = 4.83, p < 0.05; min F(1, 49) = 4.51, p < 0.051. These results
support the hypothesis that flexible idioms are more memorable than frozen
expressions because of the difficulty subjects have in retrieving flexible idioms
from the mental lexicon. This additional processing makes these expressions
more distinctive and consequently people remember them better.
One could argue that the memory superiority for the flexible idioms is due
to their being more closely related in meaning to their nonidiomatic, literal
interpretations. Thus, subjects process both the literal and idiomatic meanings of flexible idioms, but not so for frozen ones, which results in these
expressions being more distinctive and memorable. This hypothesis seems
unlikely given the results of Experiment 2 where subjects took less time,
although not significantly so, to process flexible idioms than their nonidiomatic control strings. This indicates that people are not processing the literal
meanings of these expressions before going on to determine their idiomatic
meanings. Moreover, the results of Gibbs (1985) suggest that people do not
necessarily process the literal meanings of idioms at any point during comprehension. These findings cast doubt on any explanation of the present
results that the memory superiority for flexible idioms is due to their idiomatic
and nonidiomatic meanings being interpreted. Rather, the data appear to be
due to the difficulty subjects have in accessing flexible idioms from the mental
lexicon.
General discussion

Much of the interest in idiomatic expressions derives from the fact that they
are not amenable to traditional compositional analysis and because idioms

256

R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

differ widely in terms of their syntactic productivity.


Linguists have been
particularly concerned with idioms since one argument for the existence of
transformations
presumes that certain idioms can appear in more than one
syntactic form (cf. Culicover, 1982; Perlmutter and Soames, 1979), although
more recent proposals have tried to argue for the direct generation of surface
structures (see Bresnan, 1982). Despite this interest on the part of linguists,
little work in psychology has been devoted to the role of syntactic frozenness
in peoples intuitions about different idioms and how these idioms are processed and remembered.
The results of the present studies indicate that the degree of syntactic
frozenness of an idiom does indeed affect peoples behavior in understanding
and remembering
these expressions. In Experiment
1 we found that people
view some idioms as retaining their idiomatic interpretations
regardless of
their syntactic forms, while other idioms appear to be quite restricted in the
forms they can take. Experiment 2 demonstrated
that people process frozen
idioms faster than they do flexible ones. Moreover,
idiomatic expressions
were processed more quickly than nonidiomatic,
control strings. As Experiment 3 showed, the differential speed with which idioms are processed subsequently affects their memorability.
Idioms that are more flexible and take
longer to process are generally recalled more often than are frozen expressions. This is so because it is more difficult for subjects to process flexible
idioms, which makes these expressions more distinctive and memorable.
These findings support the idea that idioms are part of the normal lexicon,
but are represented
differentially
depending on their degree of syntactic frozenness. Frozen idioms appear to be more lexicalized than flexible ones and
consequently
can be accessed faster from the mental lexicon. This makes
good sense since the representation
of expressions, such as kick the bucket,
does not need to take into account other possible syntactic forms. Other
phrases, like lay down the law, can be viewed as idiomatic in a variety of
forms, and are not as strong in their lexical status as more frozen expressions.
This conclusion poses a question as to how idioms are represented
in the
lexicon. Specifically, what would a model of the lexicon look like that incorporated different degrees of representation
for idioms which vary in their
syntactic frozenness? One possibility is that idioms have respresentations
for
each of their permissible syntactic forms. Whereas frozen idioms, such as turn
back the clock, have a limited number of entries, flexible idioms, such as lay
down the law, have multiple entries corresponding
to each of their syntactic
constructions.
Although frozen and flexible idioms examined in the present
studies were viewed as equally familiar to subjects; it is likely that the processing-time advantage for frozen idioms is a. result of peoples familiarity
with these expressions particular syntactic forms. For example, people may

Syntax and idioms

257

be just as familiar with a frozen expression, like turn back the clock as they
are with flexible idioms, such as lay down the law when these phrases are
seen in all of there different permissible forms. However, because frozen
idioms are seen in fewer syntactic forms, each individual construction will be
viewed as more familiar. Consequently, subjects may be more familiar with
the specific syntactic construction turn back the clock than they are with the
particular construction lay down the law. This may be so despite the findings
in Experiment 2 that subjects were equally good at completing the endings
of frozen and flexible idioms. After all, the lack of a significant difference in
the number of successful completions for the two types of idioms does not
mean that there are no differences in the speed with which people retrieve
these different kinds of idioms from the mental lexicon.
One way of incorporating these different representations for idioms is to
assume that the internal lexicon can be characterized as a threshold model.
This model suggests that idioms can be viewed as different logogens (cf.
Morton, 1969, 1979), each with different threshold levels depending on the
frequency of their specific syntactic constructions. Frozen idioms would have
lower resting thresholds than flexible idioms and less information would be
required from the input stimulus to bring the logogen for a frozen idiom to
its threshold level. Consequently, people will process these expressions faster
as shown in Experiment 2.
Another way of incorporating different degrees of representation for
idioms is to assume a search model (cf. Becker, 1979; Forster, 1979). In this
model, lexical access is a process by which an input stimulus is matched to
the representation of a word or phrase in the lexicon. Partial analysis of a
stimulus results in the generation of a set of candidates, which is then searched
serially until a match with the stimulus is found. The set of candidates
is typically held to be searched in order of frequency of occurrence of the
item represented (cf. Forster, 1979). If idioms have multiple entries, it would
be expected that the entries for the most frequent syntactic forms would be
found first from the search. In this way, idioms with restricted syntactic forms,
which are most frequent, would be recognized faster than idioms that could
be seen in a variety of syntactic forms.
This discussion is based on the reasonable assumption that retrieving
idioms from the lexicon operates in a similar manner to normal lexical access
processes. The application of both the threshold and search models to the
representation of idioms in the mental lexicon is somewhat speculative. Both
models, however, appear equally capable of accounting for the processingtime differences found between frozen and flexible idioms. One other possibility is that people do not have multiple representations for each of the permissible syntactic forms an idiom can take. Instead, people may have abstract

258

R. W. Gibbs and G. P. Gonzales

knowledge about the possible syntactic operations that can be applied to any
particular idiom. This idea has some intuitive appeal given that most idioms
are derived from novel, metaphorical expressions which presumably are not
represented as phrasal units in the mental lexicon. When the process of idiomatizution
(cf. Chafe, 1970) occurs and an expression becomes more lexicalized, there must be some constraints on what possible syntactic forms the
idiom can take.
This brings us to an important question left unanswered. What it is about
idioms that makes some of them syntactically frozen and others flexible?
Although many formal syntactic devices have been offered to account for the
syntactic deficiencies of idioms (see Dong, 1971; Fraser, 1970; Katz, 1973;
Newmeyer, 1974; Weinrich, 1969), there is good reason to believe that the
limited productivity of idioms must be due to the relation between syntax,
semantics, and pragmatics (Nunberg, 1978; Strassler, 1982). Some recent
proposals have even suggested that idioms should be treated as analyzable
strings with the meanings of individual lexical items contributing both to their
overall idiomatic meanings and their syntactic limitations (Nunberg, 1978;
Wasow, Sag and Nunberg, 1982). Psycholinguistic studies have shown that
people do not ordinarily compute the complete literal meaning of an idiom
during comprehension. Nonetheless, people may still have some knowledge
of the internal semantics of idioms which constrains the possible syntactic
forms these expressions may take. This could be accomplished by the momentary examination of an idioms individual lexical items (Estill and Kemper,
1981; Swinney, 1981). Exactly how an idiom is represented in the mental
lexicon will depend on further investigations of the semantic relationships
among its parts and how peoples acceptance and understanding of idioms is
affected by their internal structures.
References
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Bobrow, S., and Bell, S. (1973) On catching on to idiomatic expressions. Mem. Cog., 1, 343-346.
Bresnan, J. (ed.) (1982) The Mental Represenration ofGramma&l Relations. Cambridge, MA.: M.I.T. Press.
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On examine, au tours de trois experiences, leffet du gel syntaxique sur la comprehension et la m6morisation
des expressions idiomatiques.
Dans lexp6rience 1) on Btabli un continuum de gel en demandant aux sujets
de juger si les expressions idiomatiques maintiennent
leurs sens idiomatique dans des formes syntaxiques
differentes. Les resultats de la seconde experience indiquent que les sujets traitent les expressions idiomatiques
plus rapidement que des suites controles non idiomatiques. En outre les sujets sont plus rapides pour calculer
ies expressions idiomatiques, gelCes quils ne Ie sont pour comprendre Ies expressions idiomatiques flexibles.
La demihre experience montre que le degre de gel syntaxique a un effet sur Ia memorisation des expressions
idiomatiques. On se souvient plus des expressions idiomatiques flexibles que de celles qui sont geldes. Ces
donn6es appuient IidCe que les expressions idiomatiques font partie du lexique normal mais quon acci?de de
fa9on diff&ente selon leur degre de gel syntaxique.