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Volume 21, Issue 38;   September 22, 2021: Formulaic Utterances: I

Formulaic Utterances: I

by

With all due respect is an example of a category of linguistic forms known as formulaic utterances. They differ across languages and cultures, but I speculate that their functions are near universal. In the workplace, using them can be constructive — or not.
Handling Q&A after a presentation, a situation in which formulaic utterances occur with elevated frequency

Handling Q&A after a presentation, a situation in which formulaic utterances occur with elevated frequency. Most speakers would like to be able to handle all questions with aplomb and fluency. But if a question is particularly novel, subtle, or otherwise induces stress, the speaker might almost reflexively resort to using "fillers." Fillers are a form of formulaic utterance that let the speaker continue speaking while allocating significant cognitive resources to other tasks.

Formulaic utterances are chunks of spoken or written language that have a fixed form. They include fillers such as "um," "like," or "well." And they include more elaborate constructs such as "That's a difficult question but I'll try to answer it as best I can…" or "Let me start by saying/noting/observing that…". Estimates are that formulaic utterances account for 25-70% of all discourse. Like all communication, formulaic utterances transmit information, but transmitting information might not be their primary function.

The meanings formulaic utterances actually transmit might differ from their literal meanings. For example, "with all due respect" can actually transmit contempt or disrespect. Two relatively recent additions, "his or her" and "he or she," convey not an ambiguity of gender, but rather the speaker's (writer's) acknowledgment of the neutrality of gender relative to the topic at hand. One of the shortest of the formulaic utterances, "um," has no literal meaning whatsoever.

How formulaic utterances can be risky to use

An important Some formulaic utterances — fillers — let
the speaker collect his or her thoughts while
keeping control of the audio "channel,"
and not risking its loss to someone else
function of some formulaic utterances is the "filler" role. They give the speaker the ability to keep control of the audio "channel" without risking its loss to someone else while the speaker collects his or her thoughts. Investigations of the use of fillers have shown elevated use when the speaker experiences high cognitive load — that is, when the speaker must devote significant resources to managing memory of elements of the communication exchange. One can reasonably suppose that use of fillers might become elevated when the subject of the exchange is unfamiliar, complex, or otherwise a source of stress to the speaker.

Fillers include "like," "um," "That's a great question," or even, at times, "indeed." By culture-specific convention, listeners grant speakers a quota of fillers. Speakers who exceed their quotas pay penalties in the form of loss of audience attention or loss of credibility. Repeat offenders might experience career stagnation.

Using other formulaic utterances at work can present risks in other forms. Some examples of characteristics that present risk include:

  • Out of place in the workplace culture
  • Too closely identified with low social status
  • "Unprofessional"
  • Overused to the point of being trite
  • Too bulky
  • Condescending
  • Sexist or racist
  • Excessively and too predictably sarcastic
  • Graphically depicting violence
  • Otherwise generally offensive

Formulaic utterances that can be risky to use

Some examples of formulaic utterances that present risk to the user:

  • Very, very
  • Very, very, very
  • In your face
  • How all this will play out
  • Keep in mind that
  • Remember that
  • On the front lines
  • You've got to be/must be kidding
  • Excuse me?
  • Seriously?
  • Really?
  • Hang on a minute
  • Not so fast
  • Hold on there, chief
  • We can walk and chew gum at the same time
  • I get that
  • News flash
  • The biggest thing I hear from them is
  • You know
  • You know what I mean
  • You know what I'm saying
  • I mean
  • I have neither the time nor the inclination to
  • So I asked myself
  • Let that sink in
  • Break down the silos
  • Do more with less
  • Work smarter, not harder
  • Throw her/him/them under the bus
  • Drink the Kool-Aid
  • It is what it is
  • Take it offline
  • Tee it up
  • Off the rails
  • Opening a can of worms
  • This is about X, This is not about X
  • The fact of the matter is

The most important characteristic of any formulaic utterance is that it is formulaic. It isn't original. It's familiar to (nearly) all speakers of the language, or to (nearly) all participants in the micro-culture in which the utterance is in wide use. In Part II of this survey, we'll examine some properties of formulaic utterances that present advantages to their users. And we'll include examples.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Formulaic Utterances: II  Next Issue

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
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Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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