An ELT Glossary : Binomial and trinomial expressions


Binomials are fixed lexical chunks which consist of two words of the same word class usually joined by a co-ordinating conjunction. Trinomials have three words of the same class joined by a co-ordinating conjunction.

Examples - Binomials

sick and tired
ups and downs
sink or swim
poor but honest
slowly but surely

Some binomials are joined by a preposition rather than a conjunction. As the following examples show, this often (though not always) involves the repetition of the same word - eg step by step, day after day, face to face, hand in hand, hand in glove, tit for tat.

Examples - Trinomials

hook, line and sinker
tall, dark and handsome
beg, steal or borrow
lock, stock and barrel

- Binomials and trinomials are fully fixed  - items cannot be substituted, and the order of the items cannot be reversed.

- They often include devices such as alliteration (repetition of the same consonant sound), eg part and parcel, sink or swim - or rhyme, eg hustle and bustle, wine and dine, make or break.

McCarthy (1990) suggests that many of these expressions exist in other languages, but may cause problems for learners because of a reverse in the order of the constituents in the L1 expression - eg Gentlemen and Ladies in Malay, rather than the English Ladies and Gentlemen.


McCarthy, M. 1990, Vocabulary, OUP