The Chicken or the Egg? A Probabilistic Analysis of English Binomials

Why is it preferable to say salt and pepper over pepper and salt? Based on an analysis of 692 binomial tokens from online corpora, we show that a number of semantic, metrical, and frequency constraints contribute significantly to ordering preferences, overshadowing the phonological factors that have traditionally been considered important. The ordering of binomials exhibits a considerable amount of variation. For example, although principal and interest is the more frequent order, interest and principal also occurs. We consider three frameworks for analysis of this variation: traditional optimality theory, stochastic optimality theory, and logistic regression. Our best models—using logistic regression—predict 79.2% of the binomial tokens and 76.7% of types, and the remainder are predicted as less frequent—but not ungrammatical—variants.