The long and short of Binomials

Pair words or binomials are part and parcel of the English language, says Roopa Banerjee

A binomial is a pair of words linked by a conjunction (usually ‘and’) or a preposition. For instance ‘loud and clear’ or ‘peace and quiet’. There is balance in a pair, and the English language is no exception. Phrases which have two words that are paired are binomials. In these phrases, the word order doesn’t change. We always say ‘peace and quiet’, never ‘quiet and peace.’ 

The term binomial is Latin for ‘two names’. Binomials are mostly formed by combining two nouns, although some binomials are also formed with adjective and verb phrases. Some examples of noun binomials are ‘life and times’, ‘law and order’ and ‘pros and cons’. Also in a restaurant menu, noun binomials are used frequently. ‘Fish and chips’, ‘salt and pepper’, ‘steak and potatoes’, ‘bread and butter’, ‘cheese and crackers’ and ‘wine and cheese’ are the most used food binomials.

If binomials are so common, can trinomials be far behind? For example: ‘cool, calm and collected,’ ‘healthy, wealthy and wise’ and ‘hook, line and sinker’. All of these are trinomials as they have three words used in the exact order every time. 

While noun binomials rule the roost, adjective binomials are also popular in the English language. ‘Alive and kicking,’ ‘black and blue,’ ‘hale and hearty’ or ‘clean and tidy’ are used so regularly that we don’t give them a second thought. Teddy bears are ‘cute and cuddly’ while you can leave someone ‘high and dry.’ Messages are ‘loud and clear’ when someone acts ‘high and mighty’. Adjectives do the job of binomials equally well. There are no ‘hard and fast’ rules. 

The most effective binomials use antonyms or opposites. To go ‘back and forth’ over a point or to marry someone ‘for better or for worse’ are antonym binomials. Everything was explained in ‘black and white,’ while there was no ‘give and take’ in that relationship. Without binomials, we would have needed a lot more words to make the same point.

While not as dramatic, synonym binomials also help to emphasise points of view. These binomials are made by pairing two words that mean the same thing, to stress meaning. ‘By leaps and bounds’ or ‘null and void’ are synonym binomials. It was hidden in every ‘nook and cranny,’ and she was acting all ‘prim and proper’ are more examples of the same. You can ‘pick and choose’ any of these!

Many binomials combine words that rhyme. “I’ve almost finished every task; I’ve just got the ‘odds and sods’ left”. Or “this town used to be so quiet; I can’t believe the ‘hustle and bustle’ now”. 

Some binomials use alliteration cleverly. This is when the sounds at the beginning of the words are similar. She was advised some ‘rest and relaxation.’ Also, her life had its own ‘trials and tribulations’.

Try it out

Fill in the correct binomial pair to complete the sentences:

1. I agree that she was very impolite but let us not make a ____ ______ about it.
2.  Maya is fond of reading mysteries as she likes all those __________ plots.
3. When the old lady died, her relatives fought _________ over the inheritance.
4. He is very calm and patient as he has seen a lot of ________________ of life.
5. The new play station costs _________________. It will take me many months to repay the loan for it.



1. Song and dance 
2. Cloak and dagger
3. Tooth and nail
4. Ups and downs
5. An arm and a leg
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