Binomials in English: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Cutting board with buttered bread and a container of butter.
The word pair bread and butter is an example of an irreversible binomial.

Martin Schroeder / EyeEm / Getty Images 

In language studies, a pair of words (for example, loud and clear) conventionally linked by a conjunction (usually and) or a preposition is called a binomial, or a binomial pair.

When the word order of the pair is fixed, the binomial is said to be irreversible.

A similar construction involving three nouns or adjectives (bell, book, and candle; calm, cool, and collected) is called a trinomial.

Common Examples of Binomials

There are many examples of binomials in the English language. The following examples are considered irreversible binomials, because the order of each pair is fixed.

  • aches and pains
  • bigger and better
  • bread and butter
  • cease and desist
  • checks and balances
  • dead or alive
  • dos and don'ts
  • fair and square
  • goods and services
  • ham and eggs
  • high and low
  • hugs and kisses
  • knife and fork
  • life and death
  • nuts and bolts
  • old and gray
  • pins and needles
  • pots and pans
  • rags to riches
  • rise and fall
  • rise and shine

Reversible and Irreversible Binomials

While some binomials are irreversible, others can be reversed. The main difference between the two is that reversible binomials do not sound odd when the two words are reversed; while irreversible binomials sound awkward when the order of the pair is switched.

"In the typical newspaper headline Cold and snow grip the nation it is proper to set off the segment cold and snow as a binomial, if one agrees so to label the sequence of two words pertaining to the same form-class, placed on an identical level of syntactic hierarchy, and ordinarily connected by some kind of lexical link. There is nothing unchangeable or formulaic about this particular binomial: Speakers are at liberty to invert the succession of its members (snow and cold . . .) and may with impunity replace either snow or cold by some semantically related word (say, wind or ice). However, in a binomial such as odds and ends the situation is different: The succession of its constituents has hardened to such an extent that an inversion of the two kernels--*ends and odds--would be barely understandable to listeners caught by surprise. Odds and ends, then, represents the special case of an irreversible binomial."
(Yakov Malkiel, "Studies in Irreversible Binomials." Essays on Linguistic Themes. University of California Press, 1968)

Synonymous and Echoic Binomials

Synonymous binomials are a pair of words that both have the same or similar meanings. Echoic binomials are two identical words.

"The third most frequent binomial in the DoD [Department of Defense] corpus is 'friends and allies,' with 67 instances. Unlike the majority of binomials, it is reversible: 'allies and friends' also occurs, with 47 occurrences.
"Both allies and friends refer to countries which accord with US policies; as such, the two coordinates of the binomial may incline us to categorize the binomial as 'synonymous' (Gustafsson, 1975). Rhetorically speaking, friends and allies may have an intensifying function, similar to 'echoic' binomials (where WORD1 is identical to WORD2), such as more and more and stronger and stronger."
(Andrea Mayr, "Language and Power: An Introduction to Institutional Discourse." Continuum, 2008)