Binomial Expressions – Does Frequency Matter?

Janice Golenbock

Patterns of English Usage

Spring 2000



            In this paper, I will take a close look at binomial expressions, namely of the form noun+and+noun, verb+and+verb, and adjective+and+adjective.  Some research has already been done on binomial expressions, specifically on what determines the order of the terms in the expression.  There have been multiple hypotheses about what governs this order.  One of these theories, for example, is that length of the two words in the expression determines which word comes first.  I am not attempting to prove that theory incorrect, however I would like to posit another explanation.  I believe that the frequency of the two words in spoken English determines which word comes first when spoken (in particular, the more frequent word comes first in the expression). 

To test this theory, I began by developing a list of binomial expressions.  First, I entered the query “NOUN+and+NOUN” into the Cobuild Corpus and made a list of the relevant expressions.  I then decided to test my theory on verbs (and later adjectives) as well, to see if they follow the same pattern, so I mirrored the query for those parts of speech.  After I had a decent sized list of expressions, I entered both words from each expression into the corpus to get data on how often the words occurred in the spoken corpus and in all corpora combined.  In general, this gave me the information I was expecting/hoping for.  Two thirds of the noun expressions followed my theory and 60% of the verb expressions followed as well.  Surprisingly, all of the expressions with adjectives had the higher frequency word first in the expression. However, there were still many noun and verb expressions that did not follow the pattern I predicted.  This paper is not only dedicated to showing that there is in fact a pattern of more frequently occurring words appearing first in binomial expressions, but I will also use it to examine why certain expressions do not follow this pattern.

To hypothesize why certain expressions do not follow the higher frequency first rule, I first used the corpus to see how many of these expressions are indeed fixed in the order I had assumer was their fixed order.  For example, if the expression was “sticks and stones” I would enter “sticks+and+stones” and “stones+and+sticks” to see which occurred more frequently, or if both even occurred at all.  Expressions that do not occur at all in what I will refer to as their “reverse form”, are considered fixed expressions because they cannot, or do not, occur in this reverse form.  A table of the binomial expressions that may not be fixed expressions are shown in the appendix at the end of this paper.  We can see that the reverse form does not occur nearly as frequently in all cases and very often it does not occur at all in the spoken corpus.

Another hypothesis as to why an expression would not follow these “rules” is because of cultural hierarchy.  For instance, the expressions “Men and women” and “cowboys and Indians” do not have the more frequent word in the first position.  This could be simply because the more “important” word is put first.  This could be an artifact of the time the expression was developed.  If the expression started long enough, political correctness would have not been considered yet.  This would be why “Men” come first.  However, it does not explain why “black” comes first in the expression “black and white”.

Another idea, for verbs, is that the words occur in the order in which they occur.  For instance, expressions like “stop and shop” and “come and go” do not follow the pattern, but that could be because we have to stop before we shop and come before we go.  The order of the action governs which comes first here (this follows for “hit and run” and “eat and run”).  We could simply have an example of “order of operations” as we do in algebra.  The order of events takes precedence in choosing the word order, but if they occur simultaneously, the frequency of the words in English then determines which word will come first in the expression. 

I tried expressions with adjectives as well out of curiousity. Interestingly, all of the adjective+and+adjective expressions that I came up with follow the pattern that the adjective that occurs more frequently in spoken English appears first in the binomial expression.  Obviously, there is no sequence of events in adjectival binomial expressions, and no word us more “important” than the other.  It is still curious that every single one followed the “rule”.  One explanation is the obvious – that there was not enough data.  Still, I see an opportunity for more research in this area. 

For the most part, we have some valuable data here.  There is definitely a pattern, especially with adjectives and nouns, where the word found more frequently in English is found first in the binomial expression.  This does not disprove any other theories.  It does suggest, however, that more research could be done to see if there is indeed an order of operations effect surrounding binomial expressions.  Action order, word length, etymology, and phonetics certainly all play a roll in the word order.  We now have another item to add to that list: frequency.