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Fixed Expressions

Have you ever used the phrase 'on the other hand'? You may have written an essay in which you needed to introduce another point of view; this phrase is a good way to show another side of an argument. But did you know that this is an example of a fixed expression? 

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Fixed Expressions

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Have you ever used the phrase 'on the other hand'? You may have written an essay in which you needed to introduce another point of view; this phrase is a good way to show another side of an argument. But did you know that this is an example of a fixed expression?

We will explore the meaning of fixed expressions, different types, and examples. We will also consider the differences between fixed expressions, idioms and collocations, as these are easy to get mixed up!

Fixed Expressions Meaning

Fixed expressions are groups of words used together to express a particular idea or concept that is more specific than the individual words. As the word 'fixed' suggests, the order and pattern of these words usually do not change. Fixed expressions often have literal meanings instead of figurative, so they express ideas in a standard way and are quite straightforward to understand.

It is important to note that fixed expressions are frequently used in English, and their meanings are familiar to native speakers of English. However, for non-native speakers of English, fixed expressions may initially be difficult to understand due to their specific meanings.

Types of Fixed Expressions

Expressions in English can be either fixed or semi-fixed.

With fixed expressions, the word order and pattern usually do not change.

Let's take the phrase 'all of a sudden'.

This simply means 'suddenly'. The pattern of these words should stay the same (otherwise, it will no longer make sense).

For example, you cannot change a word:

All of an instant.

Or add a word:

All of a very sudden. ✖

Or remove a word:

All of sudden. ✖

Semi-fixed expressions maintain the same word order, but some parts can be changed - depending on the context or situation - to portray a slightly different meaning.

Take the phrase 'I haven't seen you for ages.'

The word order must stay the same, but the noun 'ages' can be changed depending on the length of time that has passed. For example, you could say:

'I haven't seen you for days/weeks/months/years.'

These all refer to the fact that it has been a while since you have seen someone but are altered to reflect different time frames that are more specific to certain situations.

Fixed Expressions Image of a clock StudySmarterFig. 1 - Semi-fixed expressions can sometimes change depending on the time frame.

Fixed Expressions Examples

Below are some common examples of fixed expressions. How many of these do you recognise?

Fixed expressionMeaning
On the other handIntroducing a contrasting/opposing view
All of a suddenSuddenly
Long time no seeIt's been a while since you've seen someone
One size fits allA piece of clothing that fits everyone
Few and far betweenInfrequent
To whom it may concernAddressing someone whose name you don't know
As a matter of factActually/in reality
Happy New YearA wish said at the beginning of a new year
For the time beingFor now (at the present moment)
In the meantimeThe time while something else is occurring
Once upon a timeA time in the past (often used in children's stories)

Although the word patterns of fixed expressions usually do not change, there are exceptions!

For example, take the following expression:

'Last but not least.'

This is used to say that, although someone/something is mentioned last, they are no less important. However, there are different variations of this phrase. Another way to say this is:

'Last but certainly not least.'

Here, an adverb has been added, but the expression still makes sense and points to the same idea. You could also say:

'Last but by no means least.'

Again, words are added/changed, but this does not change the meaning. It is simply another way to refer to the same idea.

It is worth mentioning that fixed expressions can be confusing to non-native speakers as they can't always be deduced logically. It is also possible for fixed expressions to sound unnatural if non-native speakers use the wrong words or are unfamiliar with the meaning.

Semi-fixed Expressions Examples

Below are some examples of semi-fixed expressions:

  • I haven't seen you for [length of time].
  • Could you pass me the [object].
  • Take [something] into account.
  • Hold [someone] responsible.
  • For [someone's] own good.

Fixed Expressions and Idioms

Fixed expressions and idioms are often confused for one another, as they are both groups of words used together to convey a specific meaning. However, there are differences between the two. Let's look at the meaning of idioms:

Idioms are groups of words used together to express a complete idea that cannot be understood by looking at the words individually. Idioms tend to have figurative meanings, so they are not supposed to be taken literally. For this reason, they can be referred to as figures of speech. As a result, they are often not as easy to understand as fixed expressions.

A common idiom is 'it's raining cats and dogs.'

This does not literally mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky! Instead, it refers to heavy rain.

Fixed Expressions Image of an idiom StudySmarterFig. 2 - It's raining cats and dogs!

Idioms are different from fixed expressions as they have figurative instead of literal meanings.

Fixed Expressions and Collocations

Fixed expressions and collocations are also similar as they are both commonly used and retain a specific word order. However, there are differences between the two. Let's look at the meaning of collocations:

Collocations are groups of familiar words that are frequently used together in a certain order. The combination of these words sounds natural, especially to native speakers of English who use them habitually and are familiar with the particular word order.

We say 'how tall are you?' instead of 'how high are you?'

Here, 'tall' sounds more natural and is used frequently in this context.

Collocations are therefore different from fixed expressions as they focus on how words are used together and do not carry a more specific meaning than the individual words used.

Fixed Expressions - Key Takeaways

  • Fixed expressions are groups of words used together to express a particular idea or concept that is more specific than the individual words.
  • Fixed expressions usually have literal meanings.
  • Fixed expressions usually keep the same word pattern. Semi-fixed expressions keep the same word order, but some parts can change to portray a slightly different meaning.
  • Idioms are groups of words used together to express a complete idea that cannot be understood by looking at the words individually. Idioms tend to have figurative meanings.
  • Collocations are groups of familiar words that are frequently used together in a certain order. The combination of these words sounds natural, especially to native speakers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fixed Expressions

An example of a fixed expression is 'all of a sudden', meaning 'suddenly.'

Both fixed and semi-fixed expressions are groups of words used together to express a particular idea/concept. They both have literal meanings. With fixed expressions, the word order and pattern usually do not change. In semi-fixed expression, the word order stays the same, but some parts can be changed to portray a slightly different meaning.

A few examples of common fixed expressions are:

  • on the other hand
  • long time no see
  • one size fits all
  • as a matter of fact

Collocation concerns the way certain groups of words are frequently used together. Fixed expressions are groups of words used together to express a particular idea/concept that is more specific than the individual words.

Both idioms and fixed expressions consist of groups of words used together to express a certain idea/concept. Idioms usually have figurative meanings, so they should not be taken literally. However, fixed expressions usually have literal meanings, so they express things in a standard way and are easier to understand.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Do fixed expressions usually have figurative or literal meanings?

Which are easier to understand:Idioms or fixed expressions?

The order and pattern of words in fixed expressions usually do not change.True or false?

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