I saw this phrase: "to look the horse in the mouth" and remembered that there are many more such phrases out there.

What are such constructions called and how do they function?

  • Your cited phrase can be the subject of a sentence. Sep 12, 2018 at 17:16
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    I really don't understand this question. Are you asking why look there is like the transitive verb punch when it normally takes a prepositional phrase, as in look at him?
    – TimR
    Sep 12, 2018 at 18:14
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    Don't you mean "verbs with the object right after them"?
    – Laurel
    Sep 12, 2018 at 21:06
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    mouth is the object of the preposition but is not the object of look. Someone can look you in the eye.
    – TimR
    Sep 13, 2018 at 18:01
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    @SovereignSun "the horse" is the object of "look" and "in the mouth" is an adverbial construction. I'm not 100% sure how this works but I do think it's an exception due to the idiom. However, perhaps a comparison can be made with phrasal verbs like "look him over", "look/stare them down", "look it up"? Sep 14, 2018 at 4:57

1 Answer 1


Never look a gift horse in the mouth

This is a common English aphorism that means, "Don't be too critical about gifts you receive". It's phrased as an imperative, so it's like a strong suggestion or command.

Many aphorisms are similarly phrased as imperatives:

Look before you leap. (Take reasonable precautions before you do anything risky)

Don't count your chickens before they hatch. (Don't assume an outcome before it actually happens)

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (when in a different country or environment, act according to the customs and habits of that culture)

Don't judge a book by its cover. (don't assume superficial appearance tells you everything about something)

and various others. However you can phrase almost any statement as an imperative, if you want to use it as a request, command, or demand:

Look both ways before crossing the street!

Finish your vegetables, then you can have dessert!

and so on.

  • This doesn't answer the actual question and is surprisingly mistargeted considering the level that SovereignSun has generally displayed around the site... Sep 14, 2018 at 4:54
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    @LukeSawczak OK, seems my answer is off-base. Does SovereignSun mean the object not the subject? I'm not sure why this would be unusual, e.g. "Meet me there" has a direct and an indirect object. It's pretty common grammar.
    – Andrew
    Sep 15, 2018 at 16:05
  • I think he does mean the object — and specifically the absent of the phrasal element of "look at". Sep 15, 2018 at 16:17

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