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Passivizability of Idioms: Has the Wrong Tree Been Barked Up?

Kyriacou, Marianna; Conklin, Kathy; Thompson, Dominic

Passivizability of Idioms: Has the Wrong Tree Been Barked Up? Thumbnail


Marianna Kyriacou


A growing number of studies support the partial compositionality of idiomatic phrases, while idioms are thought to vary in their syntactic flexibility. Some idioms, like kick the bucket, have been classified as inflexible and incapable of being passivized without losing their figurative interpretation (i.e., the bucket was kicked ? died). Crucially, this has never been substantiated by empirical findings. In the current study, we used eye-tracking to examine whether the passive forms of (flexible and inflexible) idioms retain or lose their figurative meaning. Active and passivized idioms (he kicked the bucket/the bucket was kicked) and incongruous active and passive control phrases (he kicked the apple/the apple was kicked) were inserted in sentences biasing the figurative meaning of the respective idiom (die). Active idioms served as a baseline. We hypothesized that if passivized idioms retain their figurative meaning (the bucket was kicked = died), they should be processed more efficiently than the control phrases, since their figurative meaning would be congruous in the context. If, on the other hand, passivized idioms lose their figurative interpretation (the bucket was kicked = the pail was kicked), then their meaning should be just as incongruous as that of both control phrases, in which case we would expect no difference in their processing. Eye movement patterns demonstrated a processing advantage for passivized idioms (flexible and inflexible) over control phrases, thus indicating that their figurative meaning was not compromised. These findings challenge classifications of idiom flexibility and highlight the creative nature of language.


Kyriacou, M., Conklin, K., & Thompson, D. (2020). Passivizability of Idioms: Has the Wrong Tree Been Barked Up?. Language and Speech, 63(2), 404-435.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 10, 2019
Online Publication Date May 19, 2019
Publication Date Jun 1, 2020
Deposit Date Feb 16, 2020
Publicly Available Date Feb 17, 2020
Journal Language and Speech
Print ISSN 0023-8309
Electronic ISSN 1756-6053
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 63
Issue 2
Pages 404-435
Keywords idioms, passive voice, syntactic flexibility, eye-tracking, reading, processing
Public URL
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