Constituents are parts that make up a whole. Nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech combine to make phrases. A single phrase or a collection of phrases constitute a clause, and a clause or a collection of clauses form a sentence.
This is where things get interesting. Ever wonder why English speakers of various backgrounds say the same lines, like “more power to you,” “the upper hand,” and “let’s split up?” It’s because, unbeknownst to us everyday speakers, every facet of written and spoken language is a phrase. Some phrases are more common than others.
Enter Lynsay Sands and Jeaniene Frost’s The Bite Before Christmas. Cheesy title aside, it has some great examples.
“The only ones,” “stayed in,” “keeping watch.” These phrases aren’t as strong or well known as proverbs, but I would argue they’re more important. They are bridges to communicate meaning. If need be, they can be swapped for similar bridges to tweak the meaning or alter the cadence.
“Keeping watch” can be swapped for “looking out.” “Stayed in” for “guarded.” “The only ones” for “the only two.”
But these phrases aren’t Sands’s or Frost’s creations. The originator is untraceable. They could be us collectively, operators of the English language. How often have you said, “Me and ___ were the only ones to ___.” or “The only ones who got away with it were ___.” Phrases are underappreciated; they don’t get the acclaim a proverb like “the pen is mightier than the sword” does. Still, they are absolutely necessary, for speakers and for writers.
So how can you be original if it’s all been said before? Easy. Take something known, modify it a bit, then display it like new.
Teju Cole has a great example of phrase manipulation in Red Shift, an essay from his essay collection, Known and Strange Things. He alters the phrase “the one that you like best.”
“Perhaps your favorite film isn’t the one that you like best but the one that likes you best.”
By extending the common phrase, adding another phrase to it, Cole puts a spin on what would be a typical statement.
Writers of all kinds utilize phrases to strengthen the meaning of their words. In Canadian rapper k-os’s song, Spraying My Pen, rapper Saukrates uses several common phrases in his verses.
“Beggin’ my pardon, pardon my French but I leave you starvin’.”
“Gone til November (…)”
“(…) in the wrong department”
“Next stop is (…)”
While the last three lines buoy the verses, the first is an example of phrase manipulation. “Beggin’ my pardon” and “pardon my French” are two common phrases in one line, and they share a homonym in “pardon.” It’s effective; lyrically, it’s cool to hear the same word twice with different meanings.
To make unique or unheard of phrases requires good judgement and creativity. Phrases are context sensitive, after all. As Steven Pinker says of idioms in The Sense of Style, I say with phrases: the best use of a phrase is to put a new spin on something mundane.