Universal Word for Idiom
as part of UNL2005 - E2006

M. ZHU, H. UCHIDA

as of 30 August 2006

This document defines the way to deal with "idioms" in UNL. That is, how the concepts conveyed by idioms should be expressed and how the UWs for idioms should be. An idiom, for example "search into", is composed by a group of words, "search" and "into" in this case. It is impossible to separate these words otherwise the meaning of the idiom won't be expressed exactly. Sometimes there is a simple word of synonym of an idiom, for example "investigate" may be considered as one of "search into". Can we use "investigate" to express the meaning of "search into"?  The answer to this question will depend on if and only if that "investigate" can exactly and completely express the meaning that "search into" expresses. Then, should we always try to find a simple word of synonym for expressing the meaning of an idiom? Does such a simple word always exist for every idiom? No doubt the third question can be easily denied. And the decision whether a word is a synonym of another or not can be very arbitrary. Our conclusion is that an UW of an idiom must be defined. However, whether to use an UW made of an idiom or to use an UW of a synonym for expressing the meaning of an idiom will be up to each UNL developer.

Note, a concept of an idiom is different from a compound concept. A compound concept is composed or constructed by several concepts. Whereas an idiom expresses a single concept by several words as pieces that composing the expression (surface) of the idiom.

This document consists of the following three parts:

  1. what cases should be considered idiomatic concepts
  2. how the UW for a idiomatic concept should be
  3. how to deal with variations of idioms

In this document, texts in italics show examples, texts in bold show the focused parts. "one's", "something" and "somebody" in bold should be considered to be replaced with corresponding texts in actual texts.

 

1. what cases should be considered idiomatic concepts

This section is aimed to answer the following two questions: How to judge whether a phrase is an idiom or not? Why an idiom should be treated specially?

What is an idiom? In Oxford dictionary "idiom" is described as "A form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., peculiar to a language; a peculiarity of phraseology approved by the usage of a language, and often having a signification other than its grammatical or logical one". In case of English, for example, should we consider "give something to somebody" an idiom or not, what about "give rise to something"? A very clear and concrete criteria and guideline for idioms is necessary.

The following guidelines are given according to the composition of a phrase of a idiom or seems to be an idiom.

  1. verb + preposition

There are many idioms composed of a verb and a preposition. For example "deal with" and "rely on" are these sorts of idioms. In case of "deal with", it can be used to express: to solve a problem, to carry out a task, to do business with a person or an organization, or to be about something, etc. None of these meanings can be expressed by the single verb "deal" itself only. In case of "rely on", the verb "rely" is always construed with "on" or "upon". The combinations of the verbs and the prepositions of these idioms have peculiar significations and the prepositions in these idioms are considered to have the following characteristics: 1) the prepositions are indispensable to idioms; and 2) the combinations with the prepositions have made the idioms having completely different meanings from the original single verbs.

On the other hand, verbs that take prepositions for introducing roles (relations), for example "provide with", should not be treated as idioms. In case of the verb "provide", it can be used in two ways "to provide something for somebody" or "to provide somebody with something" for the same meaning "to give somebody something". something is the object ('obj') and somebody is the receiver ('gol') of "provide" in both uses. "for" in the first use introduces the receiver ('gol'), whereas "with" in the second use introduces the object ('obj'). These uses of such "for" and "with" do not affect the meaning that the verb "provide" itself holds.

In addition, verbs like "rely" always being construed with prepositions like "on" or "upon" as "rely on" or "rely upon" should be handled by idioms only. And as "on" and "upon" make no difference in the meanings between "rely on" and  "rely upon", an UW is made using "rely on" as the headword and the concept of "rely upon" is recommended using the same UW headed by "rely on" to express. This unification of UWs is not compulsory and, however, whether to make another UW using "upon" or not will finally depend on the preference of UNL developer.

  1. verb + adverb

A verb can also be construed with an adverb to make up an idiom. For example "cut down" and "take away" are these sorts of idioms. These sorts of idioms are different from others in that the adverbs in the idioms play the roles to supplement or strengthen  the meanings that the original verbs have. For example, in case of "cut down", the original verb "cut" itself has the meaning "to reduce something" as in "to cut prices". "cut down" can be used for the same meaning with clearer sense. UWs standing for such idioms like "cut down" are considered being able to reflect such nuances. However, whether to use an UW standing for a single verb only or an idiom will depend on the preference of each UNL developer. When an UW of a single verb is used with an UW of the adverb to be connected (modified) by relation 'man' in UNL, this UNL expression should be considered to have the same efficacy as when the UW of the idiom composed of the verb and the adverb is used. In the table below, on the left the UW of "cut down" is shown and on the right the equivalent UNL expression is shown.

UW of idiom "cut down"

equivalent UNL expression

cut down(agt>thing,obj>thing)

man(cut(icl>reduce(agt>thing,obj>thing)), down(icl>how))

  1. verb + peculiar expression

In many cases, a verb has to be construed with a peculiar noun or prepositional phrase for a particular meaning. This verb and the peculiar expression compose an idiom. These sorts of idioms have various forms or grammatical constructions.

For example, "give rise to something" is composed of a verb ("give"),  a noun ("rise") and a preposition ("to"). The whole expression of "give rise to something" means "to cause something happen". In this sort of idiom, the object ('obj'), the concept to be expressed by the texts corresponding to something, of the idiom follows. Idioms that have similar grammatical construction are "make use of something", "take account into something", etc.

In case of "take something into consideration" or "take something into account", they are composed of a verb and a prepositional phrase. The whole expression of "take something into consideration" or "take something into account" means "to consider something". In this sort of idiom, the object ('obj'), the concept to be expressed by the texts corresponding to something, of the idiom is located following the verb immediately before the prepositional phrase.

UWs for these sorts of idioms must be defined. How the headword of the UW should be is described in next section (see 2. how the UW for an idiomatic concept should be).

  1. adjective + preposition

A specific preposition is required by an adjective when introducing something that is related to. For example, "relevant" and "convinced" as used in the way of "relevant to something" or "convinced of something" are those sorts of adjectives. Something is the related thing (normally the object) of "relevant" or "convinced" introduced by "to" or "of" in each case. And, these prepositional phrase are not always necessary for these adjectives in the same sense as in "a relevant question" or "he does not look convinced". For such an adjective, it is not necessary to include the preposition in the headword of UW. UWs defined for "relevant" and "convinced" for the current meanings are the following:

MD meaning example of use
relevant(aoj>thing,obj>thing) closely connected with a relevant question, relevant to something
convinced({icl>sure(}aoj>thing,obj>thing{)}) completely sure about something I'm convinced of his innocence
I'm convinced that he is innocent
 he does not look convinced

Note, in case of "convinced", there is another UW as "convinced(mod<thing)" for the meaning of "believing strongly". For "relevant", there is another UW as "revelant(aoj<thing)" for the meaning of "valuable and useful".

  1. noun + preposition

Nouns often require a specific preposition to introduce something that have a special relation with the noun (mainly the object). For example, "access", "respect" and "concern" as used in the way of "access to something", "respect for somebody" and "concern about/for/over something/somebody" are these sorts of nouns. Preposition "to", "for", or "about" (or "for" or "over") in each of these cases introduces the object ('obj'). For example, as in "his concern about safety", "safety" is the object ('obj') of "concern". At the same time, for the same meaning "concern" can also be used without such a prepositional phrase as "it is a matter of concern". This grammatical behavior of "concern" (can be used both with and without the special prepositional phrase) is common to "access" and "respect". For such a noun, it is not necessary to include the preposition in the headword of UW. UWs defined for "access", "respect" and "concern" for the current meanings are as follows:

 

MD

 example of use
access(icl>action{>process}) access to something, no access
concern(icl>worry{>feeling}) concern about something, a matter of concern
respect(icl>feeling{>sense}) respect for somebody, a mark of respect

 

2. How the UW for an idiomatic concept should be

This section is meant to provide a standard for the headword of UW of an idiom. As mentioned above, an idiom is a construction of several words. And part of the construction (especially articles "a" (or "an") and "the") can often be omitted. Should we use the full expression of an idiom for an UW? Should we make the UW for an idiom with the omissible part or without or both? We need to set a standard for the expression of headword of UW of an idiom. Otherwise there will be variations of UWs even for the same meaning of an idiom.

  1. should not include an omissible part in the headword of UW (for economical reason)

In case part of an idiom can be omitted without changing its meaning, UWs for such idioms should be made without the omissible part. For example, "a" as in "take (a) pride in" and "the" as in "catch (the) flu" are omissible articles. This means that "take a pride in" and "take pride in", or "catch the flu" and "catch flu" are both correct and express the same meaning. In these cases, for economical reason, UWs based on the shorter expression, the expression without omissible part, should be adopted. Such UWs can be used for both cases in actual texts: with and without the omissible part.

MD example
take pride in(agt.thing,obj>thing) take (a) pride in ...
catch flu(obj>thing) catch (the) flu
  1. "one's" should not be kept in an UW

For idioms that take the form of verb + one's + noun like "take one's choice" or "put one's faith in ...", and one's is a possessive pronoun like "my" or "his" as in "I put my faith in ..." and "the boy took his choice" in actual texts and always mean the same person(s) of agent of the action or can be replaced with "the" as in "lose the way" for "lose one's way" for the same meaning, UWs of such idioms should be made without one's (or any corresponding text) in the headword but the meaningful parts only. Following are the examples of UW definitions:

MD

example

take choice({icl>choose(}agt>thing,src>thing{)})

take one's choice

put faith in({icl>believe(}agt>thing,obj>thing{)})

put one's faith in ...

lose way({icl>occur(}obj>thing{)})

lose one's way, lose the way

  1. "somebody" should not be kept in an UW

In idioms that take the form of verb + somebody + post-part (a preposition, etc.) like "put somebody onto ...", somebody is either the receiver ('gol') of an action or the object ('obj'). In this case, the concept of the text corresponding to somebody should be linked with the UW of the idiom in UNL expression, and the text corresponding to somebody should not be included in the headword of UW of the idiom. For example, "put somebody onto..." has two meanings: "to inform somebody about ..." and "to introduce somebody to ...". In the first meaning somebody is the 'gol', and in the second case somebody is the 'obj'. UWs for these two meanings are defined as follows:

MD

example

put onto({icl>inform(}agt>thing,gol>person,obj>thing{)})

put somebody onto ...

put onto({icl>introduce(}agt>thing,gol>thing,obj>person{)})

put somebody onto ...

  1. "something" should not be included in an UW

In idioms like "take something into consideration", the concept of texts corresponding to something is the object ('obj'). In this case, the concept of the texts corresponding to something should be linked with the UW of the idiom in UNL expression, and the texts corresponding to something should not be included in the headword of UW of the idiom. For example, UWs for "take something into consideration" and "take something into account" are defined as follows:

MD example
take into consideration({icl>consider(}agt>thing,obj>thing{)}) take something into consideration
take into account({icl>consider(}agt>thing,obj>thing{)}) take something into account
  1. a UW can include in-between modifier

Idioms like "have (an) interest in something" can have more specific expressions as "have (a) great interest in something" and "have little interest in something". "great" or "little" is a modifier of "interest" in terms of grammatical construction of the idiom but plays the role of increasing or reducing the degree of strength how much "to have interest in something". In these cases, UWs for the specific senses of the expressions are allowed, and they should be considered equivalent to the UNL expression of the original UW modified by a corresponded adverb through 'man'. In the following table, definitions of UWs that are allowed for "have great interest in something" and "have little interest in something" are shown in the left, their equivalent UNL expressions are shown in the right.

MD equivalent UNL expression
have great interest in({icl>have interest in(}aoj>thing,obj>thing})}) man(have interest in(aoj>thing,obj>thing), greatly)
have little interest in({icl>have interest in(}aoj>thing,obj>thing{)}) man(have interest in(aoj>thing,obj>thing), little(icl>how))

For something in more detail see next section (3. how to deal with variations of idioms).

3. how to deal with variations of idioms

As an idiom is constructed of a group of words, it is quite often that part of the idiom is modified by another word. For example, based on "have interest in something", "have (a) great interest in something" or "have little interest in something" can be said also. The later two cases are variations of the first one. It is quite obvious that "have interest in something" should be treated as an basic and idiomatic concept, and a UW 'have interest in(aoj>thing,obj>thing)' is defined to express the concept. What about the variations? How to express them?

As mentioned above, an idiom should not be separated into different pieces of words as they come together to express a specific meaning. In-between modifiers included in an idiom are difficult to be considered independently. All variations should be considered as different concepts.

meaningful variation and meaningless variation

"have (a) great interest in something" and "have little interest in something" are considered meaningful variations of "have interest in something". As they make differences in meaning.

On the other hand, an article ("a", "an" or "the") can often be omitted from an idiom. For example "have a great interest in something" can be also said "have great interest in something". This means that with or without an article makes no difference in their meaning. In this case, it is recommended to unify the UW without an omissible article for economical reason. For example "have great interest in something" is recommended to use in this case. "have a great interest in something" is a meaningless variation and it is not necessary to define a different UW. In UNL document, the same UW, defined using "have great interest in something" for example, should be used for both idioms in actual texts.