Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 39;   September 29, 2021:

Formulaic Utterances: II

by

Formulaic utterances are things we say that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar to all, and have standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can be useful for establishing or maintaining dominance and credibility.
A collection of identical bolts

A collection of identical bolts. Bolts are manufactured by machine. After acquiring a working bolt-making machine, you can produce bolts at a prodigious rate. So it is with formulaic utterances. Once you have committed a formulaic utterance to memory, the effort required to use it is minimal. While speaking a formulaic utterance, you can speak fluently while composing your next comments. If the utterance is well chosen, listeners will be unaware of how little mental effort you're expending while speaking the utterance. Image by antmoreton.

Much of what we say at work is formulaic, in that we follow prescribed patterns that repeat in many contexts. Some of these utterances function almost as if they were single words. We think of them that way, and we use them that way. For example, "That having been said" usually means the same thing as "But." Or, "The sad truth is…" usually means the same thing as "Unfortunately…".

Some formulaic utterances confer on their users elevated social status that might otherwise be difficult to attain. But I'll get to that in a minute, after I briefly explore two risks of using these forms.

Risks of using formulaic utterances

The more significant risk is that using formulaic utterances as if they were single words — or single linguistic chunks — can tangle our grammar and confuse the message. And when that happens, the benefit you were seeking by using a formulaic utterance might not become available.

This "single-word-ness" of formulaic utterances might account to some extent for the common occurrence of the "double is" as in, "The reality is is that we just don't know everything we need to know to make this project a success." The speaker of that sentence regards the first three words, "The reality is," as a unit, meaning "The reality." So the "is" gets doubled.

A second risk arises from overuse. When the utterance becomes so popular that it loses its punch, it becomes trite. Users seem to be following the crowd. That's one form of overuse. A second form of overuse relates to use by the speaker. A speaker who repeatedly uses the same utterance can seem stuck, addicted to that utterance, especially if its use is inappropriate for its context.

These risks are real. Double-is and other tangles can happen. Formulaic utterances are overused. Take care when adopting formulaic language as a part of your repertoire.

The benefits of formulaic utterances

Using formulaic Some formulaic utterances confer on their
users elevated social status that might
otherwise be difficult to attain
language does confer benefits, though the beneficiary is usually the speaker, rather than the listener, and certainly not the group. Perhaps most often cited is the benefit of creating a perception of fluency. Using formulaic utterances, speakers can mark time while formulating thoughts or wording for the rest of their contributions. This ploy can create a perception of mastery of form and substance that might exceed the reality.

For example, speaking the word "but" takes less than a second. But a speaker adept in using formulaic utterances can stretch any of the following formulaic utterances to two or three seconds:

  • That having been said
  • That said
  • That being said
  • Having said that

These particular formulaic utterances offer an additional advantage. Because they are technically clauses, and not sentences, the speaker can pause after saying them without risk of losing "the floor." That is, people are somewhat less likely to interrupt or seize the floor at the end of a clause, than they are to do so at the end of a sentence. Using this shield against interruption, speakers can gain even more time to compose their next thoughts.

Gaining time for composition is just one advantage formulaic utterances offer to speakers. Because formulaic utterances are formulaic, using them presents very little cognitive load — mental effort — to speakers. While reciting formulaic utterances speakers are, in effect, in automatic mode. So the time gained by using formulaic utterances isn't just time. It's quality time. It's time the speaker can use to think ahead. Thus, the longer the formulaic utterance, the greater the advantage to the speaker.

Another advantage arises not from any clock-related attributes of the formulaic utterance, but from its social value. Most formulaic utterances are familiar to speaker and listener. That familiarity is the source of the formulaic utterance's social value. We're accustomed to hearing respected figures such as politicians, experts, and other professionals utter phrases like these:

  • I will tell you that
  • That's true to a point
  • With all due respect
  • It's important to note that

When speakers use these formulaic utterances, they associate themselves with those respected figures. More important, the people listening to the speaker also make that association. Using these formulaic utterances transmits an unspoken message that the speaker is as important and credible as those respected figures.

The catalog of formulaic utterances that have this property is enormous. Here is a partial list:

  • That having been said, That said, That being said, Having said that
  • The reality is
  • The truth is
  • The sad truth is
  • To be /perfectly honest/candid/
  • Quite frankly
  • On the ground
  • Reality on the ground
  • First of all, firstly, and other constructions for higher numbers (2, 3 …)
  • The first thing /I should say/I'd like to say/ is
  • Let me start by /saying/noting/observing/ that
  • Absolutely
  • I'll get back to you
  • Another point I should mention is
  • I might point out that
  • We /should note/point out/ that
  • What's important to remember is
  • The last thing I'll say is
  • That's an /interesting/tricky/good/great/fascinating/ question
  • Hmm, that's a tough one
  • I've never really thought about that before, but I'd say
  • That's a difficult question but I'll try to answer it as best I can
  • Yes, that occurred to me as I was listening to your comments
  • Where /should/shall/ /I/we/ start?
  • What we /know/don't know/ is
  • Thank you so much
  • I appreciate that
  • That /would be/really is/ a game changer
  • Going forward
  • At this point
  • Let's touch base on this
  • We aren't there yet
  • That would be pushing the envelope
  • Getting too granular
  • Drilling down
  • Ramping up
  • It must be said that
  • They have a lot on their plate

I'm not advocating use of formulaic utterances. Rather, I'm pointing out that the people who use them skillfully do gain advantages that might otherwise be unavailable to them based only on the worth of what they have to say. If the rest of us are aware of these techniques, we have a better chance of evaluating all contributions solely on their merits. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Disagreements in Virtual Meetings  Next Issue

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