ENGLISCH/945: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (209) - well and truly ... (SB)

Hello Mrs Gobbledygook,

My name is Gertrud P., I was born in Sweden but I'm working now in China, in Bejing. One of my Chinese colleagues ask me about the phrase "well and truly". She had noticed that we can say "well and truly stuck" but not "well and truly beautiful". I have to admit that, although I did not have an answer to that question, I became interested in it. Are there any rules for the use of this phrase or is it something you just have to learn? Is "well and truly" an adverb and what should follow it, or is it an adjective? And can it only be used for negative and unpleasant things?

Gertrud P. (Bejing, China)


Dear Ms P.,

Thank you very much for your question, which actually raises a very interesting topic for learners of English, the "fixed expressions" or "fixed phrases". Because like idioms these expressions don't always make sense literally, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the meaning and usage of each phrase. That may seem like a lot of work, but learning idioms is fun, especially when you compare English idioms to the idioms in your own language.

First let me explain what "well and truly stuck" means. If something is "well and truly stuck" we really can not move it. If, for example, you drive your car into a mud hole and the tires spin, then you are "well and truly stuck"! In this case, well and truly means immovably stuck. There's no way to move the car, we have to call a towing service. In addition, you were right to assume that "well and truly" is mainly used in connection with unpleasant stuff, things about which we are not particularly happy and perhaps also a little frustrated.

Imagine the following circumstance: You come home after an exhausting day at work and look forward to a piece of home-made cake. You open the fridge and it is completely empty. Your flatmates have eaten everything. Then you may say: "This cake is well and truly finished", emphasizing that it is completely gone.

However, "well and truly" is a very difficult phrase to use, especially if you aren't a native speaker of English, because it doesn't go with lots of other different adjectives. If you were to say "well and truly" to someone in Britain they would always imagine that the next word will be "stuck", or - less likely - "finished", "gone" or "done" . It is an adverbial phrase to describe these adjectives. They just go together. There are no clear rules for why certain adverbs go with specific adjectives, they just do. You could even say, they collocate - "co locate" - which simply means, they belong together.

For example, if someone in Britain says the adverb "stunningly" the adjective to follow most likely will be "beautiful". Or think about the last English conversation you had. Did you or your colleagues use phrases like "agree to disagree" if you could not agree on something, or "it cost an arm and a leg" to describe something expensive? These may seem very different topics, but all are examples of fixed phrases. Fixed phrases are phrases in which the wording cannot be changed without sounding odd to native speakers, even if the literal meaning is the same.

In addition to adverbs and adjectives, there are also many nouns that represent fixed phrases, so for example: "fish 'n chips". One common English idiom is: "It's raining cats and dogs." Of course, the actual meaning of the phrase is not related to its literal definition. It simply means that it's raining very hard. Since idioms are fixed phrases, you cannot substitute in other words, even if it seems the literal meaning would stay the same. You can't, for example, say "It's raining kittens and puppies." The idiom is set the way it is.

Another English idiom is when something happens "once in a blue moon." A blue moon is the second full moon in a month, so they are fairly rare. If something happens "once in a blue moon," it really hardly happens. Even though the literal definition makes more sense for this idiom, you still cannot make substitutions. For example, you cannot change "blue moon" to another rare event. So, "once in an eclipse" would not be acceptable.

Not all fixed phrases take the form of idioms. Non-idiom fixed phrases tend to be more closely linked to their literal definitions than idioms. One English fixed phrase is "of its own accord," meaning "on its own" or "automatically". As you can see, the meaning is closely matched to the literal definition. However, you still cannot substitute words. In the sentence "The car moved of its own accord", for example, you cannot say "The car moved of its own ability". This phrasing is awkward.

Another example is "heavy smoker", that is someone who smokes a lot. Or we can say "heavy drinker", someone who drinks a lot. But someone who eats a lot? No it's not a "heavy eater" it's a "big eater". Basically these phrases which go together form patterns, there are no real rules to learn. You just have to be able to work out what the patterns are. So, how do you learn these phrases which go together?

Well, the two best things you can do are to read and to listen. When you're reading a newspaper, a book or a magazine try to work out phrases that you see coming up more frequently. If you see a phrase that goes together, maybe two or three times, then you can say to yourself, "well I think these two go together, they collocate". Similarly, when you are listening to the radio, to a British or American broadcaster and you hear a certain phrase two or three times, make a note of it, because then you probably found a fixed phrase.

To sum up: Well and truly is an adverbial phrase and most often used with the adjective "stuck". You can use it in one or two other circumstances but usually you will hear it with the adjective "stuck".

Now, I'm well and truly finished and hoping that I could help you and have earned myself a nice cup of tea.

Miranda Gobbledygook

17. Oktober 2018

Zur Tagesausgabe / Zum Seitenanfang