BLP A-Z of Learning English: B – Binomial

BLP A-Z of Learning English: B – Binomial

What are binomials?  Why is my English teacher talking about maths?

Maria Pilar Gracia

Well, though apparently there is a mathematical concept which is known as binomials, I’m afraid it is beyond me!  However, in English (and Spanish!) we do have something also known as binomials – and as the word itself proclaims, it is made up of two elements.   They are two words (as the prefix bi- denotes) linked by a conjunction (such as and  or), in a fixed and irreversible order.

In English (and Spanish) to say “approximately” we can say:

  • Tiene más o menos 30 años.
  • He’s more or less thirty years old.

The expressions “más o menos” and “more or less” both mean approximately.  And in both expressions we cannot change the order.  We cannot say “menos o más” and we cannot say “less or more”.

There are binomials that are exactly the same in both languages, as the above example.  There are some that express the same idea but are slightly different, such as “safe and sound” = “sano y salvo”.  And there are some that we simply don’t have in Spanish, “short and sweet” = getting directly to the point “ir al grano”.

As idiomatic expressions, using binomials makes your English sound more natural and it makes your English more descriptive.  In reality they are quite common and can be found everywhere… from a newspaper article (which is clearly written in black and white), to songs (Anastascia told us she was sick and tired of her love life and Elvis created a classic) to a very funny scene between Wanda Sykes and Jane Fonda. (see the links below).

There’s an additional twist to many binomials, which is quite common in English – and that is alliteration.  Alliteration is simply the repetition of sounds.  For some reason, English really likes repeating sounds.  We do this when naming our children (Danny Devito, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford), when naming our companies (Best Buy, Pay Pal, Coca Cola), when naming our cartoons (Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny) and of course we do this in our binomials (safe and sound, last but not least, rest and relaxation, rock and roll, now or never).

Binomials could express similar ideas (rest and relaxation) or contrasts (black and white).

Unfortunately, like so many other things in English, these must be learnt by heart.  You must learn them through study and repetition.  Some of them are exactly the same as Spanish, some of them have a similar expression to Spanish, and some of them have NO connection to Spanish at all.

Here’s an introduction to some common binomials found in the business world:

Binomial Example
all or nothing We cannot take an all or nothing approach to business.  We must be prepared to compromise.
bread and butter Small businesses are our bread and butter.  We have to keep them satisfied with our service.
cut and dried Their instructions were cut and dried.  They want a delivery by Monday or we can forget the deal.
dos and don’ts There are some basic dos and don’ts of email writing that most people accept.
nuts and bolts When you look at the nuts and bolts of running a business, you soon realise that it’s harder than it seems.
touch and go For a few days the negotiations were in real danger of collapsing.  It was touch and go for a while!
(to fight) tooth and nail I have fought tooth and nail to get where I am today.
part and parcel Working long hours is part and parcel of running your own business.
give or take There are about 100 employees now, give or take.
take it or leave it I’m afraid I’m unable to bring the price down any further.  You can take it or leave it.

If you’re unfamiliar with these expressions, use the internet as a tool to find more example sentences.  By finding more sentences, reading and thinking about what they mean as well as translating them into Spanish (if that helps) you are reinforcing the language which helps to fix them in your brain!

Why not listen to your favourite drama series on your favourite platform and listen out for their use?  Why not read a book by your favourite English author and underline any you find?  Why not have a binomial of the day where you choose one expression and try to use in an email or conversation?

Remember, repetition is the key!

Anastacia:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzfyCuPVpCY
Jane Fonda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJI4s7aPulo
Elvis Presley:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkMVscR5YOo
Business Binomials:  https://englishwithatwist.com/2016/10/07/14-more-binomials-in-business/

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