Salt and pepper/Rain or shine

Mark Horton/EyeEm/Getty

by Kate Woodford

This week, as you’ll probably have guessed from the title, we’re looking at pairs of words that are used together in a fixed order, separated either by ‘and’ or ‘or’. Some of these word pairs are simply two things that we use or experience together, such as ‘knife and fork’ and ‘thunder and lightning’. Others are more idiomatic, their meanings not always obvious, for example bits and pieces (=small things or tasks of different types) and short and sweet (=surprisingly quick). The English language is full of these short phrases and this post aims to give you a useful selection of them. As ever, we focus only on items in current use.

Let’s start with the first type – things that logically come together. The ‘which comes first?’ rule for these pairs is generally that the bigger or more important of the two items comes first, (though it’s not always possible to say which this is): bread and butter; tables and chairs; shirt and tie; cup and saucer; name and address; hot and cold; rich and famous; win or lose.

Now let’s focus on a set of frequently used adjective pairs, most of which are at least partly idiomatic. In spoken English, if you are sick and tired of something or someone, you are annoyed because you have experienced too much of them: I do all the work in this house and I’m sick and tired of it. Something that is rough and ready has been produced quickly and is therefore quite basic: The program is still in development so it’s a bit rough and ready. Similarly, a calculation or other method which is quick and dirty has been done quickly and slightly carelessly and is often just a temporary solution. I’ve done a few sums – they’re quick and dirty but quite revealing. Cut and dried, meanwhile, means ‘already decided and unlikely to change’: I wouldn’t like to predict who will win the competition – it’s by no means cut and dried.

There are also some very frequent idiomatic verb pairs that are worth learning. If you chop and change, you keep changing from one thing to a different thing: We need to decide on a course of action – we can’t keep chopping and changing. In a new situation, if you are left to sink or swim, you are given no help so that you succeed or fail by your own efforts: There was no one there to ask for help – it was basically sink or swim. Something that (informal) crashes and burns, suddenly and completely fails: In this business, products can crash and burn.

Next month, we’ll focus on some more of the noun pairs, (of which there are many).

25 thoughts on “Salt and pepper/Rain or shine

  1. Ary Pelegrino

    I’ll go out for dinner tonight, rain or shine. Talking about salt and pepper, bread and butter or cup and saucer, make me really hungry. I appreciate it a lot. It’s clear, precise and concise. It gives us a general idea about these word pairs that sometimes can confuse us. The debates around this subject matter is by no means cut and dried yet, but this post’s already been a must! Well done!

  2. Nadun Ratnayake

    HI Kate, Good day to you.I really enjoyed your article about word pairs in English.Basically, using pairs of words makes a conversation energitic and live.Honestly, I was familier only with the pair “short and sweet” before reading your infomative piece of writing . Therefore, I am to write few sentences using other pairs you have mentioned here.Your invaluble job of widening the knowledge of English language in people like us ins highly appreciated.

  3. Hadeel Hammam

    I am already hungry and thirsty for your next post. I am really lucky learner for having YOU on this website

  4. Yanda

    Dear Kate I really enjoy your blog. I just started reading it today. I didn’t know about it, and I’ve been looking for such blogs. I’m looking forward to learning new idioms/words, especially putting them in a sentence.

  5. Hi Kate .
    I really enjoyed reading your amazing article which gives me more knowledge about how to use two noun pairs that goes together …
    Thank very much …

  6. Ojong

    Highly informative I would say your piece is. Though a first timer on this blog, I hope to learn from more of your piece in the near future.

  7. Sharon Bailie

    Hi there Kate
    Very interesting article. I enjoyed it.
    Being Northern Irish I use alot of these phrases as second nature believe it or not. Even fellow countrymen sometimes would say ‘oh i havent heard that before’. Here alot of the lingo is made up of Ulster Scots (do you know it?) and pure slang. Its all great craic really

  8. THANKS FOR A FASCINATING ARTICLE. i KNOW THERE IS A TECHNICAL WORD TO DESCRIBE SUCH COUPLINGS LINGUISTICALLY. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS kATE. tHANKS IN ADVANCE. I m studying Spanish but have used Fish and chips (in welsh) for a homework piece and the spanish is very prosaic but may need to explain to other leraners)

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Anni! Thanks for your lovely message. Yes, the linguistic term is ‘irreversible binomial’. Best wishes from us!

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