There are phrases which pair things up. For example, "checks and balances", "bells and whistles",

What is the rational behind this construct? Any more examples?

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    A bell is a metal device shaped like an upside down "U" that is struck with another piece of metal to make a sound. A whistle is a tube that makes sounds when you blow into it. – Kosmonaut Dec 21 '10 at 2:36
  • @Kosmonuat very funny. – John Smith Dec 21 '10 at 2:55
  • I've removed the joke question about distinguishing bell from whistle. People took the question too seriously. It's a joke from software features. – John Smith Dec 21 '10 at 11:35
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    While it is nice to have some humor from time to time, I would imagine majority of the users on this site like to take all questions seriously, spending valuable time pondering and researching answers to various questions. I really hope this attitude does not change because that is what makes this place so special and different from other Q&A sites. One way that askers can help preserve this is to post questions in all seriousness. There are many here who are trying to learn English and it would be horrible if one day a question was not answered because users thought it a joke. – Jimi Oke Dec 22 '10 at 7:16

One rationale for the pairings may just be that using them sounds better than a single word. They add a bit of rhythm to the sentence


It is a figure of style known since Antiquity, called hendiadys, "one through two": two parallel nominal words are used to express a single idea, which would ordinarily be expressed by a "head" word and an attribute. There is no reason for this phenomenon but style.


Off the top of my head, I would suggest two broad rationales for these idiomatic pairings: 1) contrast and 2) emphasis (based on the similarity between the words making up the pair).


  • checks and balances

  • day and night/night and day

  • do or die

  • dos and don'ts

  • give and take

  • [come] hell or high water

  • hill and dale

  • high and low

  • ins and outs

  • open-and-shut

  • pros and cons

  • [come] rain or shine

  • ups and downs


  • airs and graces

  • an arm and a leg

  • be-all and end-all

  • bells and whistles

  • blood and guts/thunder

  • [rain] cats and dogs

  • cut and dried

  • day and age

  • dazed and desultory

  • [between] the devil and the deep blue sea

  • fire and brimstone

  • flesh and blood

  • high and mighty

  • Ps and Qs

  • plain and simple

  • [between] a rock and a hard place

  • simple and straightforward


There are some phrases that pair synonyms where one of the words is considered archaic, for example:

  • kith and kin
  • time and tide

"Kith" and "kin" both mean "relatives" -- kith is archaic.

"Time" and "tide" both mean "time" -- tide, in this sense, is archaic (compare to "Zeit" and "tijd" in German and Dutch).

  • Nice additions! The second was a teacher's favorite: Time and tide wait for no man. I think fire and brimstone will also fall into this category, as brimstone is archaic. Nice one. – Jimi Oke Dec 21 '10 at 17:19

Cooper and Ross 1975 deal with both kinds of such English fixed conjoined phrases (which they call Freezes) -- the ones where the conjoined words have meaning, like

  • here and there, the long and the short of it, playing cat and mouse, sooner or later

as well as the kind where they don't, like

  • dribs and drabs, spic and span, hem and haw, tit for tat, bricabrac, tick tock, hippity hop

They show that both types of freezes follow the the same phonological rules.

  • Which 'they' follow which 'same rules'? – Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 23:43
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    Both the here and there type and the tit for tat type. I fixed the answer. Thanks. – John Lawler Jan 2 '13 at 23:48
  • There's a pattern to 'cat' and 'mouse'? – Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 23:52
  • Read the paper; you'll see. It's a classic. And, yes, there are a number of patterns. I've already mentioned this here and here. – John Lawler Jan 2 '13 at 23:59

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