In English we have expressions/phrases that come from the combination of two or more words, conjunctions, etc. These expressions have their own metaphorical meanings, which could be used in specific contexts.

Could they also be used in non metaphorical context with their literal meanings or are they strictly tied up to those specific meanings and contexts? To give you a few examples:

Come down to the line (of a race) be closely fought right until the end. (Oxford dictionary)

Could it also mean that someone literally comes down to the line?

What's up? informal 1 what is going on? 2 what is the matter?: what's up with you? (Oxford dictionary)

Could this also mean what is up(up in the ceilings for example)?

Sum up 1 one reviewer summed it up as “compelling”: evaluate, assess, appraise, rate, gauge, judge, deem, adjudge, estimate, form an opinion of. 2 he summed up his reasons: summarize, make/give a summary of, précis, outline, give an outline of, recapitulate, review; informal recap.(Oxford dictionary)

Could we say: To sum up all the revenue it will become a large sum of money?

  • The answers are Yes, Yes and Yes, respectively. Now what was the question? – user16269 Mar 19 '12 at 7:57
  • @DavidWallace- Is the last statement correct? And why do we need it in the first place? What is the difference between 'to sum it' and 'to sum it up'? – Noah Mar 19 '12 at 8:04
  • @DavidWallace: Mark Twain once said something along the lines of, "I don't know the answer, but I certainly appreciate the question." I guess we have somewhat the reverse situation here. I don't know the question, but I certainly appreciate your answers!...:) – Hexagon Tiling Mar 19 '12 at 8:23
  • @HexagonTiling- Thank you for the nice quotation. But I couldnt find 'sum up' to be mentioned in one of the synonymous for 'add up'. – Noah Mar 19 '12 at 8:27
  • 1
    You could say "sum up", or "sum it up" or "sum it". They can all mean adding things together. But where I come from, "add up" would be more common than "sum up", to actually mean adding; whereas "sum up" or "sum it up" can also mean to summarise. – user16269 Mar 19 '12 at 8:53

The short answer is that some idiomatic expressions can also have literal meanings and others cannot. So, for example,

  • She needs to pull her socks up

can be both. But

  • She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth

is idiomatic only.

  • @Feral Oink, An idiom is usually defined as an expression that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements. Since understanding lies with the reader, an idiom which is relatively clear to one may be completely opaque to another. Pull your socks up in the sense of starting working harder is an expression that will probably be more or less comprehensible to most advanced non-native learners if set in a meaningful context. But I would still contend that it qualifies as an idiom. – Shoe Mar 19 '12 at 10:55
  • How could we find out if it has both or only one meaning? – Noah Mar 19 '12 at 16:52
  • If the sum of the words in the expression make sense when understood in a literal way, then you know that the expression can have a literal meaning. Whether or not it also has an idiomatic meaning can be determined by looking up one or more of the expression's key words in idioms dictionary to see if you get a result. If you see an expression that makes no literal sense, then you know it can only be understood idiomatically. – Shoe Mar 19 '12 at 18:51

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