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Syntactic Idioms and Imperfect Learning

Idioms have an interesting status. Every language is replete with them, and they are among the first items that the learner confronts, be it native speakers acquiring their own language or foreigners learning a new one. Proverbs constitute the longest idioms, and in some languages (like Russian), despite industrialization (most proverbs sprang historically from an agricultural setting), they are as prevalent as ever in speech and writing.

A subspecies of idioms is the syntactic kind. Typically, this sort of idiom involves the choice of a verb and its complement, i. e., the noun the verb governs. A measure of imperfect learning is the failure to learn what verb goes with what noun, and in this age of the internet and video games, such instances of misuse turn up constantly in the media and in ordinary speech.

Here is a fresh example from writers whose education would seem to protect them from such elementary mistakes. On The New York Times Op-Ed page for Tuesday, June 23, 2009, two doctoral candidates in economics at Harvard have the following first sentence in the second paragraph of their contribution, “A Fairer Credit Card? Priceless” (National Edition, p. A23): “But the example of cards issued by credit unions puts the lie to these claims.”

Now, it is part of the idiomatic syntax of English that one “gives the lie” not “puts the lie” to something. Neither the writers nor the editors evidently have a command of English syntax that extends to idiomatic structure.


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