Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 25;   June 29, 2022: Formulaic Utterances: III

Formulaic Utterances: III


Formulaic utterances are phrases that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar, and they have standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can help establish or maintain dominance and credibility. Some do the opposite.
A working meeting

As I've explained in two previous posts [Brenner 2021.1] [Brenner 2021.2], much of what we say at work follows pre-formed templates. These expressions have a technical name: formulaic utterances. Some of them elevate the status of their users, and some have the opposite effect. "I will tell you that X" tends to make the user seem more authoritative. "Absolutely" once had a similar elevating effect, but by now it's so common that it probably does more harm than good for its users.

For some time now, I've been collecting formulaic utterances that I've encountered "in the wild." In this post I offer them without comment in the hope that their presence in this catalog can reduce their use. The order is alphabetical. In what follows, I've used letters like X, Y, and Z as placeholders for noun phrases.

  • Absolutely zero basis for X
  • All of the above/None of the above
  • As he was prone to do
  • As I've mentioned many times
  • As I've said before
  • At the end of the day
  • At the heart of the issue is
  • Back here on Planet Earth/Earth One
  • Before I let you go
  • Best in class
  • Bottom line
  • By the way
  • Complete nonsense
  • Don't hold your breath/I'm not holding my breath
  • Earth calling Bob
  • Effectively
  • Everybody was freaking out/losing their minds/had their hair on fire
  • Fake news
  • Going back to our earlier discussion
  • Help me understand why X
  • Here's how it looks to me
  • How can you possibly know X
  • I'm struck by/I was struck by
  • I can't speak to that
  • I don't know that X is so
  • I don't know that you can say X
  • I know you know this, but X
  • I was/We were in the posture of Z
  • I'll have more to say about that when/after X
  • I'm just curious, but X
  • I'm just making this up, but X
  • If things continue to deteriorate
  • In a moment like this
  • In all caps
  • In my judgment
  • In real time
  • In terms of X
  • In the days/weeks/months/years/quarters ahead/going forward
  • In the grand scheme of things
  • Is that something we/they should be looking at?
  • It doesn't add up
  • It was like playing whack-a-mole
  • It's fair to say that X
  • It's all part of the same bundle/package/hairball
  • It's always possible that X
  • It's important to note that
  • It's too soon to say
  • It's worth noting/remembering that X
  • Just because X doesn't mean that Y
  • Keep a close eye on that
  • Last point I'll make is
  • Let me add one thing
  • Let me flesh this out a bit
  • Let me focus on just three points
  • Let me remind you that X/I might remind you that X
  • Let me unpack this for you
  • Let's circle back tomorrow
  • The similarity between a conversation consisting
    solely of formulaic utterances and the discourse
    of an ordinary meeting is astounding
    Like water rolling off a duck's back
  • Maybe we can run this thing to ground
  • My belief is that it was
  • Not something you see every day
  • Numbers don't lie
  • OK?/Right?
  • On the question of X
  • Passed with flying colors
  • Specifically what I'm looking for is this
  • Stepping back a bit
  • Substantial uncertainty
  • Sucking up all the oxygen in the room
  • That action lit the fuse
  • That is not to say that X
  • That issue is a subtext
  • The big take-away here is X
  • The data is singularly unimpressive
  • The evidence just doesn't support that conclusion
  • The fact is
  • The last number of years
  • The last thing I'll add is
  • The least we should expect is X
  • The optics really do matter
  • The other piece of this is X
  • The other thing is X
  • The question is X
  • The third time is the charm
  • The view from 30,000 feet
  • There is a disconnect here/there/somewhere
  • There's no credible evidence that X
  • They do/don't know what they're doing
  • They have some skin in the game
  • They seem to have their heads in the sand
  • They're a dollar short and a day late
  • They're really focused on X
  • This is detached from reality
  • This is getting under my skin
  • This is no big deal
  • This is one of the key issues
  • This isn't panning out
  • This issue has multiple layers
  • This sends/would send a message that X
  • To add to what X has said
  • Too little too late
  • Trust me, you don't want that
  • Unknown unknowns
  • We can leverage that
  • We can raise/have raised the bar
  • We have a decent shot at
  • We have long passed the threshold of
  • We in fact satisfied ourselves that
  • We know what we know
  • We'll be going in a different direction on that
  • We're in a tailspin
  • We've already knocked that one down
  • We've heard from a lot of people that X
  • We've run that down/chased that down
  • What does that all mean? It means that X
  • What I'm really interested in, though, is X
  • What jumped out at me was X
  • What planet are they on?
  • What we know so far is X
  • What would it take to make X happen?
  • Where is this going?
  • Within his orbit
  • Words to the effect that X
  • Writ large
  • You know it
  • You must understand that X

Last words

The formulaic utterances in this list were selected with meetings in mind. But one can easily imagine other settings for which the lists of formulaic utterances would be rather different. Examples: visits to the dentist, bank robberies, parent-teacher conferences, or performance reviews. As an exercise, develop your own lists for formulaic utterances of specific settings.

Finally, here's a sketch of a very enlightening parlor game. Get together with a half-dozen or so colleagues, perhaps over a virtual lunch. Devise some way of splitting the above list randomly amongst all of you. (An example is in this Excel workbook, which is easily extended if you want to add your own formulaic utterances.) Then, by turns, have each person read one of their items. You'll be amazed at the similarity between that resulting conversation and your regular meeting discussions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Fake Requests for Help  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!


[Brenner 2021.1]
Richard Brenner. "Formulaic Utterances: I," Point Lookout blog, September 22, 2021. Available here. Back
[Brenner 2021.2]
Richard Brenner. "Formulaic Utterances: II," Point Lookout blog, September 29, 2021. Available here. Back

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Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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