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I am going through some of my old school notes about English idioms and the text describes idioms as having a non productive syntactic structure. I don't understand and couldn't find anything more about the 'non productive' part of the phrase.

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It isn’t true that idioms have a non-productive syntactic structure. An idiom is an expression that can be understood only as a whole, and not by interpreting each of its parts. He kicked the bucket means ‘He died’, but you wouldn’t know that if all you knew were the words he, kicked, the and bucket. There is, however, nothing non-productive about the grammar. It follows the normal English word order, and the pronoun, he, is in the form used when it is the subject of a sentence.

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What is an idiom? As explained in the Glossary of linguistic terms by Eugene E. Loos,

Substituting other words from the same generic lexical relation set will destroy the idiomatic meaning of the expression.
eat one's words
*eat one's sentences
?swallow one's words

Alternatives 2 & 3 above are grammatical and make sense (semantically correct), but do not make an idiom — because the idiom cannot have its words substituted or rearranged.

[ibid] An idiom has a non-productive syntactic structure. Only single particular lexemes can collocate in an idiomatic construction.

Today, however, we see this rule regularly violated. Every idiom has been turned on its head in various contexts for various effects.

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Productivity is concerned with whether a grammatical process is still being used in the formation of new words- i.e., it is involved in the production of new words. A non-productive process is one which has previously been used, but is no longer being used such that we can see evidence of its use, but no new words or phrases have been produced for a long time using that process.

So your non-productive syntactic structure refers to a syntax structure that was used in the past, so that the language has words or phrases in use that exhibit that syntactic structure, but is no longer being used to form new words or phrases.

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Oh, I see. Now that just refers to the fact that words of an idiom are consistent and are not supposed get replaced or modified. Right? – Elzee Feb 17 '13 at 5:15
Actually you can boil it down to "Nobody talks like that anymore." – Jim Feb 17 '13 at 5:17
I'm sorry, Jim, but that confuses me a little. Considering that idioms are frequently used in communication and are in fact an effective device of expression, where does the 'non productive' sense fit in, other than that they cannot produce new forms of themselves? Or maybe, that's exactly you said and it was I who didn't get it. – Elzee Feb 17 '13 at 5:28
Notice my Thinkest thou question above. The syntactic structure is "verb, noun/subject, noun-phrase/object, adjective" Nobody uses that structure anymore to create new sentences so that structure is non-productive in modern English. – Jim Feb 17 '13 at 5:31
Yes. But how does that apply to idioms? Many idioms seem to follow the "verb, noun/subject, noun-phrase/object, adjective" structure, for example, 'hold all the aces' and 'add fuel to the flames'. – Elzee Feb 17 '13 at 5:36

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