Set phrase

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A set phrase or fixed phrase is a phrase whose parts are fixed in a certain order, even if the phrase could be changed without harming the literal meaning. This is because a set phrase is a culturally accepted phrase. A set phrase does not necessarily have any literal meaning in and of itself. Set phrases may function as idioms (e.g. red herring) or as words with a unique referent (e.g. Red Sea).[1] There is no clear dividing line between a commonly used phrase and a set phrase. It is also not easy to draw a clear distinction between set phrases and compound words.[1]

In theoretical linguistics, two-word set phrases are said to arise during the generative formation of English nouns.[citation needed]

A certain stricter notion of set phrases, more in line with the concept of a lexical item, provides an important underpinning for the formulation of Meaning-Text Theory.

Examples of set phrases

Some set phrases are used as either their own statement or as part of a longer statement:

  • I see - can be used both metaphorically and literally.
  • I don't know
  • Thank you
  • You're welcome - while 'You are welcome' would have the same literal meaning, it is very rarely used in the same way.

Others are almost always used with more detail added:

  • Don't look now... - used either literally or figuratively to warn someone about an imminent misfortune.
  • You know... - usually used rhetorically to make the audience think about the following topic.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 McArthur, Tom. (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.