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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). 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.
In theoretical linguistics, two-word set phrases are said to arise during the generative formation of English nouns.
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.
- ^ a b McArthur, TomsamDam. (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.