Reading Chinese four-character idiomatic expressions: Knowing more about semi-fixed idioms from eye-movement measures

Tsz Hin Daniel LEE, Hin Tat CHEUNG

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Four-character idiomatic expressions are frequently used in Chinese. Although some of these idioms are known as lexically fixed, there is one type of them that is semi-fixed, not fully lexicalized and contains open slots for variants in actual use. These semi-fixed idioms, as called schematic expressions, are abundant and productive in Chinese idioms (Ching, 1964; Zhang, 2002). Open slots, such as not-A-not-B where A and B usually conform to certain structural and semantic constraints, enable creation of novel phrases. However, not much has been known about what morphemes can be put into these slots, how people process these semi-fixed idioms when they contain semantically legitimate and illegitimate morphemes, and how people process the semi-fixed structure. This study uses eyetracking to investigate the features of the internal components of these semi-fixed idioms by comparing them with other four-character idioms and determiner phrases. The design contains two independent variables, a) type of four-character expression (semi-fixed idioms, non-fixed idioms, determiner phrases) and b) legitimacy of the morpheme at one of the four characters (legitimate, illegitimate). Twenty-four native mandarin participated in the eyetracking experiment. Participants read 48 experimental stimuli and 48 fillers at their pace, and answered a yes/no question after each trial. Various eye-movement measures are taken for the analysis, including first-fixation duration, first and second pass duration, fixation counts, regressive path duration. The results will tell more about the semantic and structural configurations of the semi-fixed idioms and how they are different from the non-fixed idioms. The results will also tell about the compositional view during idiomatic processing of these highly institutionalized four-character patterns (Nippold & Taylor, 2002). Copyright © 2018 ICPEAL 17 - CLDC 9.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018



Lee, D. T., & Cheung, H. (2018, October). Reading Chinese four-character idiomatic expressions: Knowing more about semi-fixed idioms from eye-movement measures. Paper presented at The 17th International Conference on the Processing of East Asian Languages and the 9th Conference on Language, Discourse, and Cognition (ICPEAL 17 – CLDC 9), National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan.