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(From A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe, Part II Cambridge Choir, chapter 17)

  • (William's mother Evelyn is visiting her son, a chorister probationer, for the first time. They are having lunch in a restaurant)

He (William) tells her - even though she already knows - that because Martin was sick, he (William) sang a solo and did so well that Phillip (the choirmaster) wanted him in the choir by half-term, helped by Porter's voice breaking.

'So from next week, I'll be sitting with the choristers, next to Martin.'

Evelyn has picked up her cutlery and is struggling to chew her food because of the smile splitting her face. William wants to keep her happy.

Are the bold words idiomatic language? I know split one's sides laughing but I don't know the wording in hand.

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    I would have thought "her face split into a smile" is a reasonably common way of saying "she smiled". Your quotation develops a consequence of that.
    – Henry
    Commented May 11 at 13:02
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    The "splitting her face" phrasing is a one-off, which is contextually licensed because she's trying to chew her food without opening her mouth (observing the standard injunction "Don't chew with your mouth open"). You wouldn't use that "split" metaphor normally in conversation, but her face split into a wide grin is a literary cliche, and we might say a smile broke out on her face. Commented May 11 at 13:21
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    It's just using the language poetically. A scream split the night's tranquility.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 11 at 14:12
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    "Idiomatic" has two meanings - one relates to something being an idiom, the other means something that sounds like a native speaker (see the did you know? section).
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 11 at 14:57
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    @FumbleFingers What a disturbingly macabre collocation! Historically the only smile that ever split anyone's face was Lizzie Borden's, faces not her own. For whatever reason, I've never read this until here and now; perhaps it’s due to my—ahem, “antemilllennial”—English education in which such grotesque collocations did not (yet?) occur. I recommend more investigation into the more historically typical collocations here via COCA and the BNC.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 12 at 0:31

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Since the year 2000 this expression is found often in the literature; this is shown in the ngrams below; it has to be considered idiomatic.

enter image description here smile splitting her face (159 occurrences)

enter image description here smile splitting his face (156 occurrences)

The forms shown in the two ngrams above are the -ing clauses that correspond to the the finite forms

  • "a smile/grin split < someone's > face".

The ngram below shows that the finite form with the pronoun "her" is used just as much.

enter image description here a smile split her face (128 occurrences)

Strangely enough, "the smile/grin splitting his face" is found frequently, but not a single corresponding form with "her" can be found for either "smile" or "grin". This is shown in the two ngrams that follow. (I wouldn't take this sort of anomaly as a sign that the expressions with "the" might be non-idiomatic; there must be another explanation.)

enter image description here the smile splitting his face (41 occurrences)

enter image description here the grin splitting his face (73 occurrences)

enter image description here

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    Without comparing the phrase to similar expressions it's too early in the day to say that "smile/grin split ... is an idiom. If it were, it would be listed in dictionaries. Is it? Note that "grin" with "splitting" is more common than "smile".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 11 at 14:37
  • ["face split into" [a grin]](google.com/…)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 11 at 14:39
  • @Mari-LouA No, I haven't found it in dictionaries, as otherwise, in most cases, I quote a dictionary definition; yet, the number of occurrences that Google Books finds make it inescapable to conclude that it is an idiom. It is true that I haven't provided the links to the pages of research (I might do that later), but if you check those pages you're bound to conclude it is an expression that is familiar to a lot of people.
    – LPH
    Commented May 11 at 15:38
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    I'm not sure that the vertical scale on those graphs can be taken as evidence of idiomaticity. (That is, I'm rather sure it can't.) Commented May 11 at 15:45
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    There is evidence only of the formulaic nature of the phrase. It is not ungrammatical, It is not an idiom. It is a "stock" description. What does it mean? That half of her face is smiling? Some people think it describes the transition from non-smile to smile. Some people think it's a half smile, a not fully committed smile. Who knows? ;-z
    – TimR
    Commented May 11 at 21:17

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