The term phrase refers to a part of a sentence that acts much like a word that might be in the same position in the sentence. Its meaning is found from the words of the phrase just as the meaning of a sentence is from those of its words and phrases. By a standard phrase I mean a few words, usually two, that convey a meaning that is immediately conveyed without consulting the meanings of the words therein. The standard phrase is like a word in that its meaning is usually determined by association rather than analysis. “Men and women” is a phrase whose meaning you get very well upon analysis, but I claim it is none the less a standard phrase and is selected by the speaker as a standard unit and heard the same way. My main evidence for this it that “women and men” is an entirely different category of construction. Lest that seem sexist I mention “ladies and gentlemen” which easily dominates “gentlemen and ladies” in frequency. The only standard phrase I know without this asymmetry is “boys and girls” whose reverse is as common. These are all conjunctive phrases; I expand below.

I know no reference work that collects standard phrases. I found the French varieties by searching with Google for French cognates to English phrases.

This is my only note on my web site, so far on natural languages but the subject bears on search engines which would work better if they were aware of standard phrases. I suspect indeed that they are.

Somewhere I recently read of a theory on the evolution of language which suggested that older words became united by twos to form new phrases and concepts, and soon new words. Clearly words in all languages visibly retain their antecedents for a while. This is as true in written Chinese as in alphabetic languages. I wonder if the boundary between words was as clear before printers began the practice of leaving spaces between ‘words’. Is there a biological foundation for the distinction between words and phrases?

There is a clear adaptive advantage to preferring one form of a conjunctive phrase over the other: it makes parsing by the listener easier and more robust. This obviates any need for a biological explanation. Languages evolve culturally so as to retain ease of understanding. That suffices to explain the regularity. “Ease of understanding” is too little used to explain language features. It is banal but important.

“From pillar to post” is an old phrase, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal evidently has a style that prefers “to X from Y” thereby making reports of price changes, and such, more uniformly comprehended. I was tempted to write in that they should have said “To post from pillar”. I didn’t.

I have been wondering about this situation every since I was about four years old and wondered why we said “shoes and socks” instead of the more logical reverse. This is cultural, of course, just as a particular natural language is cultural. French prefers “hommes et femmes” to its reverse and likewise “mesdames et messieurs” in accordance with English, which suggests a common culture. The phrase “feu vert” literally means “green fire” but came to mean the traffic signal that we call “green light”. Likewise “feu rouge” and “red light”. In both cases both constructs took on the broader meanings of allowing and impeding some sort of activity. In this case one of the two languages borrowed the phrase from the other, holding the phrase meaning the same and then extending the meaning in the same ways. (These results confirmed by Google.) But are these cultural ties purely grammatical, or are they semantic?

Phrases aside I have always been struck by parallel constructions of tenses between English and French. “I have read the book.” to “J’ai lu le livre.” is a highly parallel construction. It perseveres thru the contorted grammatical permutations of both languages. “I will have finished the book when I get there.” → “J’aurai fini le livre quand je suis arrivé.”. “Je vais partir demain.” ← “I am going to leave tomorrow.”. I think Spanish has some similar constructs. These suggest to me a second level of parsing; first to “diagram the sentence” and second to access the “deep verb structures” to extract the tense sense. I don’t know how to write a program to translate such sentences despite their parallel construction.

The order of adjectives