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Is something the matter?

I've read or heard this usage of matter many times. For instance, in The pleasure of finding things out, R.P. Feynman writes:

I could tell that something was the matter.

This usage doesn't seem right to me. It's hard for me to pinpoint what exactly bothers me, but I think it has to do with the use of the definite article "the" when the existence of a problem hasn't even been confirmed/acknowledged yet.

I know this usage of matter is accepted by many, but how does it make logical/grammatical sense?


Instead of:

Is something the matter?

I would much prefer

Is there a problem?

Instead of

I could tell that something was the matter.

I would prefer

I could tell that there was a problem.

Note that my issue is with the choice of article, not with that of the noun.

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Would you not use what's the matter? –  terdon Oct 21 '13 at 22:30
    
@terdon Yes, I would, but, in that question, it is implied that the existence of a matter is known and has been acknowledged. One is merely inquiring what the nature of the matter is. "Is something the matter?" is completly different. –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 22:39
    
Is something the matter is the same thing really. Think of what's green? and is something green?. –  terdon Oct 21 '13 at 22:43
    
2500+ views for a question with a zero score? Weird... –  Jubobs Aug 17 at 19:56

5 Answers 5

The reason you're confused is because you're trying to analyze an idiom, a set phrase. the matter is a set phrase, not decomposable into its constituents. Your examples are all correct and idiomatic.

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Are you saying: "people use that phrase; therefore questioning whether it makes logical sense is irrelevant"? In that case, I disagree. I think there is value in deconstructing idioms and avoiding them when they obscure the meaning. –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 21:18
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@Jubobs: Often it is the case. In this particular case my understanding was that you were not asking whether it made logical sense, but rather whether it was correct and idiomatic English. –  Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 21 '13 at 21:20
    
Ok. I'll edit the question. –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 21:20
    
The first thing you need to do is decide on is which sense of idiomatic you intend to be understood: 'pertaining to an idiom' (a fixed expression not totally explicable in terms of its component words) or 'being a widely accepted and used usage'. Then read about how decomposable and grammatical various idioms are (they vary). –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 '13 at 21:39
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@Jubobs You're free to use whichever style you like. And avoid constructions you don't like the sound of (unless you have a draconian tutor or editor). By no means all English is strictly logical (in syntactic or semantic aspects). I'm not too keen on the 'double possessive' (eg 'a book of mine') myself. But I use this common construction because almost all other anglophones know, understand, tolerate and use it too. I've even got articles saved on 'extragrammatical idioms' (they really redefine rather than break syntactic 'rules'). This is Englishyou 're recommending something else. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 '13 at 21:51

Almost always, there is a logical explanation to the actual wording of an idiom. Often lost in the mists of time. I'd guess that 'Is something the matter?' is a shortened form of an expression like the logical 'Is something I can help with the matter causing you concern?' And one can research 'kick the bucket' on the web.

Sometimes, the meaning of an idiom may be opaque but the literal meaning of the words quite obvious, with standard syntax being used

kick the bucket

Sometimes, the meaning may be fairly transparent (deducible) and the literal meaning of the words quite obvious, with standard syntax being used

ship of the desert

I won't attempt to give an example of each of the 8 possible permutations, or throw in how flexible (ships of the desert? handsome ships of the desert?...) individual idioms might be, but here are some which depart from the use of standard grammar:

all of a sudden

all the same

at daggers drawn

beyond compare

curiouser and curiouser

flatter to deceive

long time, no see

on the up and up

the bigger, the better

trip the light fantastic

Some may be rather more old fashioned than others, but their use seems to cause no worries for most anglophones. Some are more transparent than others (I've seen arguments about the meaning of 'flatter to deceive').

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Isn't curiouser and curiouser just mischief by Lewis Carroll? I'm not sure I'd call it an idiom... –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 22:18
1  
@Jubobs that's one of the ways that idioms are formed. Happiness was coined by Shakespeare, today it is an integral part of the language. In the same way, curiouser and curiouser has become an idiomatic phrase despite being easily traceable to a single book. –  terdon Oct 21 '13 at 22:29
    
People here and here agree that it's now achieved the status of an idiom – and with it showing 904 000 Google hits I'd agree it has become lexicalised. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 21 '13 at 22:35
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I've just learned on Wikipedia that in "A Whiter Shade of Pale", the verse "skip the light fandango" is a play on the phrase trip the light fantastic. Groovy. –  Talia Ford Oct 22 '13 at 0:04
    
@terdon I was fascinated by your claim that "happiness" was coined by Shakespeare, so I did a little research. According to Merriam-Webster the first known usage of "happiness" was in the 1400's. I'm eager to learn more. Do you have a source to back your assertion? Google is really letting me down tonight. –  Lumberjack Oct 22 '13 at 18:36

It seems to me that this idiom comes from an abbreviation of a phrase used to further describe a situation that is unpleasant or wrong. One might have begun, "something is wrong." In response, another might ask "what is the matter?" That question would be a logical and complete request for more information on the issue, as in "of what matter are you complaining (or talking)?" Switching the question with the initial statement, one might notice a problem and ask, "is something the matter?"

No citation - but it makes sense to me.

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Yes, I've got the same impression. –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 22:19

The only thing the matter with what you are asking is the suggestion that 'problem' does the job better. The only word currently more overworked than 'problem' is 'issue'. I contacted my internet service provider recently, as something was the matter, and they came back to me asking about my 'issue'. 'I only have issues when I go to the toilet' was my reply. 'Your service isn't working, that's what's the matter with me!'

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1  
I disagree. I'm guessing you wouldn't accept "Is something the problem?" as valid. My issue is with the choice of article, not with that of the noun. –  Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 21:24
    
'Is something the matter?' is my preference, but then I'm the sort who tends to treat overworked words and phrases with contempt. –  WS2 Oct 21 '13 at 21:34

I'm guessing people use this because of politeness. They don't want to imply that there IS actually a problem, if it turns out that there isn't one. Matter is thus a neutral way of inquiring about someone's/something's well being.

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Read my question again. Your answer if off the mark. I'm not debating whether matter or problem is preferable. –  Jubobs Jan 31 at 6:20

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