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I heard someone on the radio this morning who was talking about some interest rate say, "[such and such an interest rate] will remain at one point two percent, in other words: low."

Since "low" is one word, that would seem to make the phrase, "in other words: low" sound incorrect. However, "in other words" is a well-established idiom. Does that make it impervious to grammatical rules, or should he have said "...in another word: low"?

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    You've misunderstood the expression. It means "...at 1.2%, or, using a different form of words [to express this idea], [it is] low".
    – Erik Kowal
    Jan 29, 2015 at 13:08
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    It's perfectly grammatical, just (on one level) nonsensical. But English would be a dull language indeed if everything people said had to make sense.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 29, 2015 at 13:09
  • Not exactly impervious, but certainly resistant.
    – ScotM
    Jan 29, 2015 at 17:17
  • @ErikKowal -- I don't feel I've misunderstood the expression. That's actually the crux of my question: whether the actual meaning of the idiom trumps the literal interpretation of the idiom. In other words, if the idiom wasn't well-established (and thus could only be taken literally), would it be used incorrectly in the quote I submitted, i.e., if you couldn't substitute "using a different form of words" instead of "in other words."?
    – rory.ap
    Jan 29, 2015 at 17:28
  • Two points: 1) I can't see how using 'in another word' to mean the same thing would be fundamentally different from 'in other words', because the basic meaning would still not be explicitly spelled out; you would just be recreating the same idiom in the singular. The proposed new idiom only works because the reader is already familiar with the old one. 2) My previous comment demonstrates that the fact that 'low' is only one word is irrelevant to the usage of the idiom 'in other words'. The two elements 'in other words' and 'low' are completely unconnected semantically.
    – Erik Kowal
    Jan 29, 2015 at 21:41

2 Answers 2

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Idioms are by definition unusual. This irregularity may manifest in an unusual usage of words, unusual grammar, or both. Moon (mentioned here many times before) deals with a subset of fixed expressions / idioms she labels extra-grammatical idioms. She also investigates how far from grammatical norms these expressions deviate (eg 'ships of the desert', but not 'in another word'). In a work over 100 pages long.

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It's OK, because the idiom "in other words" means "to put it another way". So in this case, yes the idiom is impervious to matching number.

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  • That's actually the crux of my question: whether the actual meaning of the idiom trumps the literal interpretation of the idiom. In other words, if the idiom wasn't well-established (and thus could only be taken literally), would it be used incorrectly in the quote I submitted?
    – rory.ap
    Jan 29, 2015 at 17:25
  • Yes. That's the answer, @roryap. Unfortunately, we can't give one word answers, or even one word comments. But, well, yes.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 29, 2015 at 18:02

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