In association with Pilgrims Limited
*  Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? Join our free mailing list
Pilgrims 2005 Teacher Training Courses - Read More
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Means of mass memorization of multi-word expressions, part one: The power of sound patterns

Seth Lindstromberg (Hilderstone College, Broadstairs, Kent, England)
Frank Boers (Erasmus College of Brussels & University of Antwerp, Belgium)

Overview of Parts One a & b and Part Two

In this two-part paper, we propose two complementary strategies to help students remember standardised phrases (idioms, strong collocations, etc.). The language we focus on is English.
In Part One-focusing on alliteration-we explore the mnemonic potential of appealing sound patterns, and we suggest classroom activities that can help students notice and enjoy alliteration, which is so common in the English repertoire of fixed and semi-fixed expressions. Part 1a is background and explanation. Part 1b comprises the activities and a bank of alliterating expressions.
In Part Two, in a later issue of hltmag, we turn to mnemonic techniques by means of which students can be helped to associate idioms with mental images.

Preview of Part One: The power of sound patterns

Part 1a:

1. Do multi-word expressions merit special attention?
2. What, then, is "phrase learning"?
3. From "noticing" to "intake"
4. An example sound pattern: What is alliteration?
5. The catchiness of alliteration
6. Empirical evidence

Part 1b: Putting the approach into practice

7. Mnemonic activities for language learners
8. A bank of alliterative phrases and compounds
9. End notes
10. References


1. Do multi-word expressions merit special attention?

Multi-word expressions (aka 'chunks', 'multi-word units', 'formulaic sequences', 'standardised phrases', 'lexical phrases', etc.) deserve a special treatment in language teaching for various reasons including the following:

(1) In some cases there may be no alternative

Multi-word expressions are numerous and, as a class, widely common. Yet it seems clear that many of them, by their nature, fall outside the scope of two key strategies for language learning-(1) learn the grammar rules and (2) learn lots of words.

  • The "learn-rules" strategy can hardly help anyone to acquire expressions which, by today's rules, are grammatically anomalous-e.g., Waste not, want not; be that as it may; by and large; (Why didn't you) say so?; if need be; Lord only knows; many a time...
  • Many multi-word expressions cannot be mentally composed or understood on the basis of normal word meanings (e.g., put up with someone = 'tolerate' and take to someone = 'develop a liking for'). That is, such phrases are 'idiomatic' and knowing every word in the English language won't help since idioms cannot be understood simply by adding together the dictionary meanings of the words that make them up.

Thus, students who over-rely on the learn-rules and the learn-lots-of-words strategies are likely to fall short in the "naturalness" dimension of language. That is, although they may eventually be able to understand and produce grammatical, meaning-rich English, they are likely to have (a) relatively poor repertoires of common multi-word expressions and (b) little feel for which those which sound native-like and which do not.

(2) In learning multi-word expressions, the "don't-learn-rules" strategy may actually be most advantageous regardless of whether the expressions are grammatically anomalous or idiomatic or not

From a teacher's point of view, the learn-a-language-by-learning-its-rules strategy rests on the belief that rule learning makes language learning more efficient. The idea is:

Learn a few score rules; learn a few thousand words; and presto!... You have mastered the language in the easiest way possible."

But research in recent decades suggests that knowledge of rules is of help almost exclusively when...

  • learners have time to prepare their thoughts before they communicate (e.g., before they make a presentation)
  • or when they have time to self-monitor (e.g., when writing an essay at home).

In contrast, when they engage in more spontaneous language production, language learners seldom seem to resort to their explicit knowledge of formal grammar. The reason for this is that it is extremely hard to focus on meaning and grammatical form at the same time. So, in real-time language production, learners' attention to formal accuracy tends to be sacrificed to their immediate need to convey meaning.
So how is it that native-speakers can, in general, speak both fluently and accurately? The answer appears to be that spontaneous language production relies heavily on an ability to string together prefabricated, memorised multi-word expressions-that is, whole phrases which are stored in memory, and retrieved from it, as unbroken-up chunks. If people-even native-speakers-are in situations where they have little time to prepare their thoughts and if they try to speak completely originally with no use of memorised stock phrases, their fluency diminishes. Again, this is because the process of word by word mental assembly of wholly original grammatical discourse takes up too much of a person's limited capacity to concentrate simultaneously on speaking grammatically and on making sense.
Interestingly, a large memorised repertoire of multi-word expressions also facilitates planned language production (e.g., making a presentation and writing an essay).

Learners of English as a second or foreign language, almost by definition, are unlikely to have had the same massive exposure to English phraseology that native-speakers experience from babyhood on. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of researchers and teachers are coming to believe that the route to fluency we have just been discussing-committing multi-word expressions to memory-is very likely to be open also to learners in ESL and EFL settings.

The following (admittedly simplistic) diagram sums up the argument in favour of giving a place to "phrase-learning" in the language classroom:

knowledge of 'rules' 'planned' language knowledge of 'phrases' 'spontaneous' language

2. What, then, is "phrase learning"?

Phrase learning resembles the learning of individual multi-syllabic words. That is, each target phrase is remembered as a chunk, albeit a chunk with parts, much as if it were a single but relatively long word with a prefix and a suffix. (By analogy, most people at a relatively early age form a holistic concept of a telephone which, while perfectly adequate to everyday life, includes little or no information about the nature or function of a telephone's interior components.)

But because multi-word expressions tend to be longer than single words (e.g., in terms of syllables) an average multi-word expression is likely to be harder to remember than an average word, all else being equal. Given this extra challenge to memory how can enough of them be learned and not forgotten?

3. From "noticing" to "intake"

The objective of helping students build a sufficiently large repertoire of prefabricated phrases has perhaps been popularised most successfully by Michael Lewis. In his "Lexical Approach", learners are encouraged to notice and focus on recurring 'chunks' (collocations, idioms, formulae, etc.), especially as they occur in authentic texts.1 For example, a learner might benefit from noticing (and, one might hope, from borrowing) the underlined chunks in the following newspaper article:

Shoppers buy value, not values

Fair trade chocolate and coffee may be a familiar sight on supermarket shelves. But a new study has found the British do not practise what they preach when it comes to 'green' groceries. The most in-depth research ever undertaken into ethical consumerism has found that, while most people claim to take environmental and social issues into consideration when filling their shopping basket, their actual purchasing behaviour shows little evidence of this. The study also found that, far from being regarded as a positive or fashionable description, the label of 'ethical consumers' is even disliked by younger people. "Overall, this survey has shown that the vast majority of consumers believe their choice could make a difference to companies' ethical policies," said Williams. "But the survey has also shown that they are still failing to act on their beliefs."

Lewis has undoubtedly made a contribution to teachers' appreciation of the importance of phrase-learning. However, it is not at all obvious how students are supposed to be able to independently recognise often-recurring expressions unless they have already had a lot of exposure to the target language. That is, without such exposure, how are they supposed to distinguish between expressions which occur again and again and which do not? An obvious answer is that students may sometimes need guidance about this.
Even so, this challenge remains: How can we help students turn mere noticing into robust "intake"? How can we help learners effectively add multi-word expressions to their L2 repertoires for later recall and use?
This question is all the more crucial in view of the vast numbers of standardised multi-word expressions that are available in natural language (which a quick glance at any idiom or collocations dictionary will demonstrate).

One might therefore doubt that it is feasible for learners to amass sufficiently large repertoires of lexical chunks since the burden on memory must be huge even if what is selected for learning is only a modest fraction of all existing phrases-ones in the highest frequency bands, for example.
Further, students (and teachers!) may find the challenge too daunting if they accept Lewis' claim that the lexical make-up of conventionalized multi-word expressions is completely arbitrary (Lewis, 1997: 17-19) as this claim is equivalent to saying there is no possibility of learning phrases in any insightful way and that, instead, learners must persevere through a long and painstaking process of blind memorisation.
Fortunately, it turns out that many multi-word expressions are far less arbitrary than has often been assumed. In fact, the lexical composition of many multi-word expressions can quite easily be explained eithe...

  • y reference to sound patterning, including various types and combinations of alliteration and assonance (e.g., Time will tell; Lo and behold!; drunk as a skunk),
  • or…
  • by reference to imagery, including types arising from metaphor and metonymy (e.g., Take something on board and [goods] under the hammer).

Our own entry-by-entry hand counts in idiom dictionaries lead us to estimate that over 50% of English idioms can be presented in ways likely to help students make some kind of sense of them. Again, the key here is to refer either to catchy sound patterns or to figurative imagery.2 Admittedly, doing this cannot provide full coverage of English phraseology, but it may nevertheless offer welcome encouragement to students facing the enormous task of phrase learning, and to teachers whose job it is to help them.

The non-arbitrary nature of many multi-word expressions paves the way for the mnemonic strategies that we shall be exploring later (in Part 2) of our contribution. Here in this first part we will propose exercises to harness the power of sounds and in the second part we shall propose activities to exploit the power of imagery.

4. An example sound pattern: What is alliteration?

Classic" (front-front) alliteration
Alliteration is generally considered to be the bunching up of words that begin with the same consonant sound. In classical rhetoric it was sometimes stipulated that fully fledged alliteration involves at least three points of repetition, as in Give as good as you get, with the best will in the orld, where there's a will there's a ay, and It takes two to tango. But for most people, just two such points suffice, e.g., tip-toe, tea time, tea for two, time will tell, and a tell-tale sign.3 Sticklers for detail consider alliteration (= repetition of a first consonant) to be a type of "consonance" (= repetition of a consonant anywhere in a word, e.g., roll cal). But we will make no use of the term consonance here.

Related sound patterns
Alliteration falls within a continuum of amounts of oral/aural repetition (i.e. REPETITION OF MANY ELEMENTS <- -> REPETITION OF FEW ELEMENTS) more or less as follows:

Multi-word repetition
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Word repetition
Again and again; by and by; over and over; out and out; through and through; on and on; up and up; by the by; boy oh boy!; end over end; see eye to eye; There's no fool like an old fool; sit knee to knee; That's a no-no; running neck and neck; stand shoulder to shoulder / side by side (etc.); buy one, get one free; ack ack; bling bling...

Brain drain; a make or break situation; deep sleep; Losers weepers, finders keepers; Fleet Street; high and dry; sky high; night light; Liar, liar, pants on fire!; hot to trot; odds and sods; Use it or lose it...
[Rhyme can be seen (1) as repetition of everything but the front of a word or (2), in a more detailed view, as assonance (= repetition of vowel/s) plus "back-end" alliteration.]

Both front & back alliteration
Knick-knack; bric-a-brac; tick-tock; tit for tat..

Front or interior alliteration plus assonance
One stop shopping; lo and behold; scantly clad; All roads lead to Rome...

Front alliteration
turn tail [For more, see Section 7, below.]

Front assonance4
odds on favourite; against all odd...

Front & interior alliteration
Poor sport; above and beyond; bleeding heart liberal; a late bloomer; Swiss watch; truck stop; while away the hours; You're pulling my leg!...

Non-front repetition
Interior assonance:
bi-double: A new broom sweeps clean
triple: stone cold sober; The squeaky wheel gets the grease
double: Fat chance!; rat race; jam-packed; flat pack; If need be; ten a penny; high minded; a sign of the times; a toe hold; to boldly go (where…), free and easy; an eager beaver; a stone's throw away; stop the rot; wishful thinking; the worm has turned; Read 'em and weep; line of sight...(There are myriads of these.)
Interior & end alliteration: blind alley; all clear; as is

Near alliteration (i.e., sounds are similar in place/manner of articulation
a ball park figure; boy wonder; cow/cover/college girl; family values; purpose built;

Stress pattern repetition
peace 'n' quiet [0o0o] (There are zillions of these too.)

5. The catchiness of alliteration

The power of alliteration to grab attention and stick in memory has long been taken for granted by, for instance, propagandists, marketeers, and writers; witness the teeming abundance of alliterative slogans (Drive your dream), brand names (Coca Cola), book and film titles (Pride and Prejudice, Mad Max), and neologisms (pet passport). Indeed, everyday English abounds with alliteration.5
This ubiquity of alliteration in colloquial English is illustrated by our entry-by-entry hand counts through standard English idiom dictionaries. These counts reveal that about 13% of the idioms listed alliterate. This figure, though, results from counting cases of front-front alliteration only. If we were to include other types of alliteration and cases of assonance (= vowel repetition), an estimated 20% of English idioms could be presented to students as being relatively easy to remember on account of sound repetition. Again, it is not just idiomatic multi-word expressions which alliterate in everyday English. There is also a sizeable (but unknown) number of non-idiomatic expressions such as mother's milk and life-long learning; (see also the far from exhaustive list in Section 8 below).
The commonness of alliterative phrases suggests that during the process whereby certain word combinations became standardised (i.e., turned into idioms or strong collocations), the Anglophone community must have given preference to those that sounded catchy over those that did not. Why else do we say "Time will tell" rather than "Time will show" and "It takes two to tango" rather than "It takes two to waltz"?

Famously, alliteration is a feature of high-toned language too. Here it's propensity to be either a virtue or a vice seems quite marked. Shakespeare, for instance, excelled at using alliteration to sublime effect:

"Full fathoms five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made" (The Tempest)

And at using it for fun:

"Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade, / He bravely broach'd his boiling bloody breast", A Midsummer Night's Dream).

But it is all too easy to use it ineptly, though few have gone as far in this direction as Warren Harding (29th president of the USA):

"Progression is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not of personal pronouns nor perennial pronouncement. It is not the perturbation of a people passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed..." (cited in Baker 2004, p. 14.6)

Simply put, a measure of alliteration can be rhetorically potent. Too much, however, can be stylistically fatal (particularly if the vocabulary is Latinate as in the Harding quote) for alliteration is so able to capture hearers' attention that it may distract from the intended message.

We could add much more quote-based evidence that alliteration and other euphonious sound patterns such as rhyme have long been assumed to be orally and aurally salient and therefore a potent means of enhancing the memorability of phrases, and even whole passages. But what scientific evidence is there? In particular, is there any evidence that might be of interest to language teachers?

6. Empirical evidence

Evidence of the mnemonic effect of alliteration comes from a series of empirical experiments that we conducted with the participation of intermediate and advanced students of English at a college in Belgium. These experiments are reported in detail elsewhere (Boers and Lindstromberg, forthcoming in System) and we shall only sum up the overall results here:

  1. We found that students were consistently more likely to remember expressions that happen to alliterate than ones which don't. Moreover, this mnemonic effect occurred without our taking any deliberate steps to draw the students' attention to the alliteration.
  2. We found that the mnemonic advantage of alliteration was significantly enhanced simply by occasionally raising students' awareness of particular alliterative phrases in authentic texts.

In short, helping students notice alliteration seems likely to facilitate retention of a considerable segment of English phraseology. In this article, however, we propose exercises which go beyond mere noticing. To follow, therefore, is a series of exercises the aim of which is to harness the mnemonic potential of alliteration in a markedly active fashion.


7. Mnemonic activities for language learners

Preliminary notes for teachers

  1. One thing that most of the following activities have in common, is a chanting phase. This is because alliteration, which is foremostly an oral-aural phenomenon, is easy to overlook on the printed page.
  2. Some of these activities have been designed also to encourage the formation of conceptual links to images and to other lexis, but for much more on this see the forthcoming Part Two of this paper.
  3. Below, we suggest targeting relatively high numbers of phrases at one time. Of course you will need to use your own judgement about whether these numbers are too high for your students or not. One factor to bear in mind here is whether you aim to review target expressions or teach them for the first time. Other important factors are: what proportion of the expressions contain unfamiliar words, whether any show unfamiliar grammatical patterns, whether the phrases tend to be long or short, and whether some phrases might be difficult for students to understand on account of cultural loading.
  4. In higher level classes, it becomes increasingly feasible to work with high numbers of previously untaught expressions since every student is likely to know some of the expressions already.
  5. For similar and additional activities see Rinvolucri & Morgan (2004).

Activity 1: Alphabetical alliteration

Intermediate - Advanced
Roughly 25 minutes for the basic procedure

Although this activity has a lot of steps, it is not actually very complex. Once you and your students learn its basic elements, you are bound to think of interesting variations.

  1. In alphabetical order down the left side of a sheet of paper, list most of the consonants (but not, for instance, 'v', 'x', y' and 'z'). Make the spacing fairly wide.
  2. Look through texts that your students have recently worked with and find one alliterative expression for as many of the consonants as you can. For unused consonants, supply any useful alliterative expressions that you can think of.
  3. Write the phrases on your sheet as shown below. (The examples are a mix of idioms and of fairly transparent phrases of several sorts; the 'q' sound is of course the same as the 'k' sound.)
  4. Turn the sheet over, and write your partial alphabet as before down the left side.
  5. Now, after each letter write a hint word or make a hinting sketch corresponding to the target expression on side 1. For example, (see also the example sheet below)-
    • for 'B', bend over backwards to help someone (which is on the other side of the paper), draw a stick figure of someone bending over backwards.
    • for naughty but nice, write the hint rich chocolate cake.
  6. Conspicuously label the first side '1' and the second side (i.e., the 'hints side') '2' and make a class set of double-sided photocopies.
  1. Distribute your photocopies and ask everyone to look at side 1.
  2. For each expression elicit/give explanations of meaning and examples of use.
  3. Ask students to fold the right 1/3 of their paper towards the left and make a vertical crease. This should enable them to see both the target phrases on side 1 and the hints on side 2.
  4. Elicit/Explain the semantic links between the target expressions and the hints.
  5. Ask students to flatten their papers so that they can see only side 1.
  6. Ask a student to read out the target expressions one by one and see if anyone can remember the hint for each one. (Tell the reader not to call on particular students.)
  7. Ask everyone to re-fold their paper and have another look at the hints. Also, ask your students to confirm that they understand all the target vocabulary and the sense of all the hints.
  8. Form pairs and ask students to take turns testing each other as in Step 6.
  9. Ask everyone to turn their papers so that they can only see side 2. Ask a student to call out each hint (e.g., "Someone bending backwards!") and see if anyone else can remember the target expression. (Again, tell the reader not to call on particular students.)
  10. Ask students to re-form their pairs and take turns testing each other as in Step 9.

Reviewing later in the same lesson or on another day
Form pairs or threesomes and ask students first to test each other orally as in Steps 6/8 and after that as in Steps 9/10.

Example of side one: B bend over backwards to help C carry the can for the cock-up D the devil is in the details F fall flat on your face G gas guzzling 4 x 4's H looking hale and hearty, J jump for joy L long lost brother M mild-mannered man N naughty but nice P a policy of penny pinching Q a quick quiz R the road to wrack and ruin S the beginning of the slippery slope T two-tone Toyota W a one hit wonder

  • Use the hints as test items. Students have to recall the corresponding alliterating expression.
  • Variations
  • Give students only side 1. They think of and write/draw the hints on side 2. Then, each partner explains the sense of his/her hints to the other. Student A then tests Student B with B's hints and B tests A with A's hints.
  • Mix in other kinds of phrases-e.g., ones which rhyme or rhythmic repetition or even ones which show no sound patterning at all.
  • Rationale
  • We suggest spreading alliterations over the alphabet since phrases that are too similar phonetically are liable to get mixed up and confused in students' memories.
  • There is strong evidence that ability to remember new vocabulary is enhanced by mentally linking each target word or phrase with an association. This technique is especially effective if hints are vividly imagistic in character and, also, if they are unusual…perhaps even bizarre.

This activity incorporates variations of an activity described in Lindstromberg (2003). Of course, all the basic techniques that make up this activity have a very long pedigrees.

Activity 2: Remember the ends, basic version

Intermediate - Advanced
5-10 minutes (not counting time needed to clarify meanings)

  1. Make a list of 15 to 30 alliterative phrases and:
    a) incorporate each phrase into a sentence or mini-text which hints at its meaning. (In the examples in sub-Step 'c', what isn't underlined is the context which is added to hint at the meaning of the underlined target phrase.)
    b) put each sentence/text on a separate line
    c) with slashes, mark splits before the last alliterating word in each line, like this:
    Quick, quick, don't beat around the // bush.
    Poor guy; he's a marked // man.

    (See also the example list further below.)
  2. Make a class set of photocopies.

  1. Hand out copies of the list.
  2. Elicit/explain the sense of each line
  3. Tell everyone they are going to test each other on their memories of the ends of the lines and tell them they have a couple of minutes to rehearse by repeating the lines to themselves either subvocally (i.e., inwardly and silently) or in whispers.
  4. Ask students to pair up.
  5. In each pair, Student A should read out the sentences to Student B (whose sheet is turned face down). Student A pauses at the // marks. Each time A pauses, B tries to say the end of the sentence from memory.
  6. They swap roles.
Following on
  • To review the phrases, simply repeat the exercise in later lessons.
  • Use the split sentences as test items by leaving off the end of each sentence. Students have to write completions that preserve the original alliteration.

3. Mini-tales

Intermediate & up
40-50 minutes.

  1. Display a number of multi-word expressions, including some which alliterate and/or rhyme and make sure everyone knows what each of them means.
  2. On the board, write the words princess, pirate, parrot.
  3. Tell your class that everyone should now write a complete story which...
    • has a maximum of six sentences
    • includes, as protagonists, at least two of the three characters you've listed on the board.
    • has a beginning, middle and ending.
    • includes at least one of the expressions presented earlier (in Step 1).
      If you have a few students likely to suffer from writer's block, add that there are two main options-writing an interesting story or one that is completely boring and predictable.
  4. As students finish, ask them to stand together in one or more groups (e.g., in opposite corners of the classroom) and read their stories out to each other.
  • Students write their stories for homework.
  • Give other prompt words - camel, archeologist, desert sheikh; nurse, doctor, hypochondriac; criminal, lawyer, judge, etc.

At the end of the lesson, ask students in pairs or threes not to look at their notes and to (1) list all the target expressions they remember, (2) trade lists with another pair/threesome, and (3) add onto the new list any missing expressions. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 at least once. Then, (4) ask every one to retrieve their original list and see what the other students added onto it. (5) Elicit the complete original list of expressions from the class as a whole.

6. How would you remember them?

Intermediate & up
Parts of two lessons

  1. Make a list of 10-15 multi-word expressions, most of which feature some kind of striking sound pattern.
  2. Make photocopies of the list, put it on an OHP transparency, or plan to dictate it in class.
  1. Present the expressions and clarify meaning and usage.
  2. Tell your students that in the next class there will be a test on these expressions, but a test of a new kind.
  3. Put students in groups of four or five. Their job? To brainstorm ways of memorizing the expressions.
  4. Bring the class together and find out what all the ways, or strategies, are.
  5. Everyone must now, individually, choose one of these strategies.
  6. Ask people who chose the same mnemonic strategy to stand together so that people with different strategies are in different parts of the room. (Allow students to choose to use strategies in combination. Basically, it doesn't matter how many groups you have.)
  7. Ask each group to give itself a name.
  8. Make note of the strategies and group names.
  9. Say that the aim of the test will be to find out which strategies get the highest and lowest scores.
  10. In the next lesson, give the test and then see how the different strategies fared. Don't forget to ask students whether they think they gave their strategy a fair chance.

8. A bank of alliterative phrases and compounds

Preliminary notes
  1. The reason 'ch' phrases are grouped separately from 'c' phrases is, of course, that two different sounds are involved.
  2. The same is true of 'sh' phrases and 's' phrases.
  3. In contrast, the 'c' phrases and the 'k' phrases involve the same /k/ sound but have not been combined lest learners get confused about spelling. This separation seemed especially proper because when the first point of alliteration is a 'c', the second point almost always is too.
  4. On the other hand, the /w/ category includes words beginning with 'o' and 'w'. This is because sorting seemed less practical in view of relatively frequent mixing of 'o' and the 'w' spellings (as in one way street).
Examples of basic ('classic') front and front alliteration
  • B: [someone's] bread & butter; know which side your bread is buttered on; ban the bomb; (as) blind as a bat; bed & board; bed & breakfast; a body blow (to); bear the brunt of; beer belly; (as) busy as a bee; black & blue; bird-brained; breeze block; big name band; boy band; busybody; brickbat; busboy; browbeat; big-boned; baby boom; bottle bank; blood brother; bad blood between; bay for blood; a blood bath; That makes my blood boil; bamboozle; more bang for your buck; the big bang; back blast; little miss bossy boots; bright & breezy; a bouncing baby boy; bite the bullet; bring someone to book; burn your bridges behind you; (hit someone) below the belt; bounce back; beyond belief; a bolt /out of/from the blue; get too big for your (their…) boots/britches; have a bee in your (their…) bonnet; Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; What in blue blazes do you think you're doing?; born & bred; bits & bobs; big & bold; the bubble burst; Bullshit baffles brains; bug bear; billboard; building block; [it] beggars belief [that]…; beg, steal, or borrow; (scrape) the bottom of the barrel; bovver boy; beast of burden; We're back in business; blind man's buff; (so and so) could bore for Britain...
  • C: cash & carry; cupcake; (as) cool as a cucumber; catcall; color co-ordinated; calling card; cold caller; Curiosity killed the cat; casting couch; cut corners; be cruel to be kind; a crash course; all comfy-cosy; café culture; catty-corner; copy cat; crisscross; a close call; too close to call; a curtain call; by common consent; common cause; cloud cover; camera crew; That's the way the cookie crumbles; a cam-corder; (It's time to) come clean about…; crisscross; clean cut; clear cut; creepie-crawlies; (as) cool as a cucumber; come clean about; cut the crap; cut costs; ice-cream cone; cloud cover...
  • CH: chip & charge; cheap & cheerful; chocolate chip; as different as chalk & cheese; chop & change; choke chain...
  • D: dog days; dandruff; ding dong; down the drain; in dribs & drabs; do or die; be at daggers drawn (with someone); dead as a doornail/doorknob/dodo; Drop dead!: from dawn till dusk; dry as dust; damned if you do, damned if you don't; till my dying day; a dime a dozen; done & dusted; delve / dig deeper; the difference between life & death; between the Devil and the deep blue sea; a day late & a dollar short; dead drunk; my good deed for the day...
  • F: Forgive & forget; (as) fit as a fiddle; in fine fettle; far fetched; footloose & fancy free; finger food; firefighter; friend or foe; friendly fire; foul fiend; fast & furious; a feeding frenzy; fall foul of…; a free for all; fall for…; fully fitted (kitchen); keep the flag flying; fur flew; fellow feeling; a flash flood; Feet, don't fail me now; firefly; face & figure; form & function; fair weather friend; have fatter fish to fry; in full flight; a fond farewell; feast or famine; flip flop; force feed; fully fledged birds of a feather flock together...
  • G: Good God!; (as) good as gold; a girl guide; Going…going…gone; What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; from the get-go; a go-getter; go get'em; get up & go; get going; Give as good as you get; go against the grain; get someone's goat; the great & the good; (as) green as grass; (kill) the golden goose; go out in a blaze of glory; a green grocer; golden glow; There but for the grace of God go I...
  • H: hearth & home; (as) hot as hell; high hopes; half-hearted; whole-heaarted; hale & hearty; do something with a heavy heart; have a high-handed manner; I can say-hand on heart-that…; a heavy hitter; It hit [him] hard; have high hopes; the hub of the house (e.g., the kitchen); head over heels; high heels; live high off the hog; go whole hog; hit the hay; Hold your horses!; hale & hearty; not see hide nor hair of..; hold hands; helping hand; hardhat; heave ho; hillbilly heaven; a house husband; Hang on to your hat!; Heave, ho!; stink to high heaven...
  • J: jut jawed; (be) judge & jury...
  • K: kill or cure; kith & kin; a kangaroo court; for king / queen and country...
  • L: lose house & home; Look before you leap; lily-livered liberals; the law of the land; lose life & limb; like it or lump it; love it or leave it; life lessons; love letters; Little League; land-locked; landlord; look & learn; lady luck; leading lady; one of the leading lights of…; lounge lizard; a lovelorn look; low-life; get a new lease on life; Live & learn; Look & learn; live a life of luxury; learn…late in life; loss of life; landlubber; in the limelight; the love-light (in her eyes); lie low; life-long learning; lie of the land...
  • M: madman; more & more; the more the merrier; make merry; mix & match; There's a method to my madness; motor mouth; mind/mend your manners; Eenie, meenie, minie, mo…; man-made; make a mountain out of a molehill; make a meal of …; make a mockery of; mark my words; a man of means; match maker; make mention of…; move mountains; If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed will come to the mountain; have more money than sense; put your money where your mouth is; many moons ago; mixed messages; mixed metaphors; make a mint; man of the match; man in the moon...
  • N: You never know; now or never; no news is good news...
  • P: pick-pocket; (as) pretty as a picture; paint a pretty picture of; picture perfect; The proof of the pudding is in the eating; pill popper; plaster of Paris; pen pusher; paper pusher; penny wise, pound foolish; earn a pretty penny; part & parcel of; pride of place; press pack; to pin-point; a pin prick; pip someone at the post; play pen; not worth the paper it's printed on; the pita- pat of tiny feet; buy a pig in a poke; (as) proud as a peacock; pay the price; printed paper; a pin prick; pleased as punch; put yourself in my place,…; pleased as punch; planning permission; a period piece; piss poor; prime the pump; put x into practice; peer pressure...
  • R: (as) right as rain; rock & roll; rough & ready; robin redbreast; road rage; a rug rat; rule the roost; rant & rave; to go from rags to riches; a ram-raider; a ram rod; a ring road; the rat race; rules & regulations; read the runes; all roads lead to Rome; raise the roof / rafters; rip roaring; a red rag to a bull...
  • S: silver screen; star of stage & screen; saddle sore; ship shape; swim suit; so & so; starship; slipshod; scum sucker; scatter shot; spic & span; a sob sister; sweet & sour; a sailor suit; signed, sealed & delivered; a short, sharp shock; just to be on the safe side…; settle a score; sink or swim; so to speak; soul searching; scrimp & save; a sound sleep; (as) smooth as silk; silky smooth; silent scream; swan song… snow/sand storm; sense of smell; It's safe to say that…; stand s'one in good stead; the silly season; safe or sunk; a sight for sore eyes; a sadder sight I never saw; see the sights; slipper slope; strip search; same sex marriage; start from scratch; sing for your supper...
  • SH: shilly-shally; (get/give) short shrift; a short sharp shock; ship-shape...
  • T: a two-timer; Trick or treat!; tell tale signs; tried & tested; tip top; tree top; tank top; tick tock; time travel; time table; tip toe; (only) time will tell; take a toll (on); turn the tables on; The tide (has) turned; talk turkey; turn tail; To tell the truth,…; tea time; twinkle toes; time is tight; tongue-tied; a twist in the tale; tit for tat; take to task; trials and tribulations; toss and turn...
  • TH [voiced]: this & that; then & there; [unvoiced] as thick as thieves; in the thick of things...
  • V: Vim & vigo(u)or, be a virtue or a vice...
  • W: weasel words; wolf whistle; woodwind; whirlwind; watch word; wind & weather; wet & windy; Waste not want not; turn off the waterworks; Where there's a will there's a way; I can't just wave my magic wand &…; wend (my) way; be waiting in the wings; a word to the wise,…; well-wishers; wicked witch (of the west); one-way (ticket/street); a one woman man; a one man woman; have a way with words; worry wart; warm welcome; work wonders with; wonder worker/woman; in the (whole) wide world; white-wedding; woodwork...
  • Z: zig zag...
End notes
  1. Roughly, what Lewis claims is that phrases should be taught and learnt more or less in the same way as individual words, or items of lexis-hence his use of the adjective Lexical. "The Whole Phrase Approach" might be a more transparent term for what he advocates.
  2. There are at least two other intrinsic features of multi-word expressions which are likely to promote recall. One is word play; the other is conceptual symmetry. Both of these features are exemplified in, Spring forward, fall back. Where spring and fall can refer both to actions and to seasons, and one overall meaning is, "In the spring, put your clock forward an hour; in the fall, put it back an hour."
  3. Another term for two-point repetition of a word-initial consonant is chime. Incidentally, writers on alliteration seem commonly to assume that unstressed 'grammar words' (e.g., to) are too perceptionally faint to be counted. So, in this view, It takes two to tango has 3, not 4, points of repetition.
  4. As it happens, neither front or end assonance is common in English. The situation is very different in some other languages.
  5. See for an interesting overview of "the rhetorical operation of repetition in magazine advertisements"
  6. Baker adds: "[Harding] could keep an alliteration in the air until plain folks whooped with joy and intellectuals begged for mercy."


Boers, F. and Lindstromberg, S. (forthcoming). 'Feasible phrase-learning by the sound of it: the memorability of alliteration. 'System. [Provisional title.]
Baker, Russell. 2004. 'Back to normalcy: review of Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean.' New York Review of Books, vol. 61/2: 12-16.
Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing The Lexical Approach. Putting theory into practice. Hove: LTP.
Lindstromberg, S. 2003. 'Collocations and associations: Examples of teaching vocabulary at phrase level. Humanising Language Teaching, 5/3, May 2003.
Rinvolucri, M. and J. Morgan. 2004. Vocabulary. (Oxford University Press).

Back Back to the top More

    © HLT Magazine and Pilgrims