If you wanna be a star on stage and scream
Look out it’s rough and mean
It’s a long way to the top
If you wanna rock ‘n’ roll
- from ‘It’s a long way to the top’ by AC/DC
Even if your grandmother doesn’t speak a word of English, I bet she has heard of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll.’ However, what she may not know is that these three words put together are a special kind of collocation in English: a trinomial.
Just like a binomial is a phrase containing two words that are joined together by ‘and’ (eg rock and roll, fish and chips, knife and fork) or ‘or’ (eg laugh or cry), a trinomial is when three words come together.
Those three little words
The interesting thing about these kinds of collocations is that there is a fixed word order.
So just like your uncle, aunt and brother all sit in the same order at the dinner table every time you have a family dinner, these words also follow the same order. ie so we say ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n'roll, and NOT ‘rock and roll, drugs and sex.’
Other examples of trinomials
- “I really like Terry. He’s just what I like in a man – he’s tall, dark and handsome.”
This is used to describe the stereotype of what an attractive man might look like: he’s tall, has dark hair and is handsome. Hmm, well, at least my hair is getting darker as I get older.
- “Australia won gold, silver and bronze at the Olympics 800m swimming final.”
Likewise, the first, second and third best cricketers in the world are Aussies
- “I’m in no way shape or form a Manchester fan.”
This means ‘not at all,’ used to emphasise that what you’re talking about it not true at all.
- “President Obama was cool, calm and collected as usual.”
This means that he was very calm and able to control his emotions, perhaps during a stressful situation.
- “We spoke about this, that, and the other.”
This means we spoke about all kinds of things, without there being any structure or order to what we were talking about. We spoke about various kinds of things.
- “We sell these shirts in small, medium, and large.”
This one’s interesting. McDonald’s and some other companies actually play with the word order, as some people are more likely to order the first word which is said. That’s why you sometimes hear “large, medium or small.”
- “I’m ready, willing and able – just call me when you need me.”
This means that you’re well-prepared and capable of acting as soon as you are needed.
- “Prince William, do you promise to love, honour and obey Waitey Katey for as long as you shall live?”
Hopefully you will only say this once in your life – this trinomial is used when you exchange vows with your partner in a wedding ceremony, although it’s also possible that the woman might not promise to ‘obey’ her partner these days.
- “Julie, it’s a great gym. They have a pool, sauna, massage, everything. It’ll be good for your mind, body and soul.”
- “I can’t believe I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
This is based on the idea of a fish so hungry it swallows the hook (the part that catches the fish), the line ( the string) and the sinker (a weight attached to the line to keep it under water).” [source]
For example, if someone tries to trick you and you believe their story completely without even suspecting there could be something wrong, you can say you fell for it hook, line and sinker.
This means that something is no longer available anymore. It’s what an auctioneer calls out when he has a high bid (for a house), and is asking if anyone else is interested to continue bidding. He says ‘gone’ when he has found a buyer for the house.
Similarly, you can say this when you are talking with your friends. It’s used humorously. For example:
“Who wants the last piece of cake. Anyone? No? Ok, going, going..gone!” And then you eat it
- “We’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Over to you
- Do you have trinomials in your language? How do they translate in English?
- Would you like to live a lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll or is it better to look after your mind, body and soul?
- Do you know someone who’s cool, calm and collected?
Please feel free to leave your thoughts below in the comment section.
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david [at] GetIntoEnglish [dot] com