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In the last 30 years, corpus research (study of language through samples of 'real world' text) has shown that language is highly formulaic, i.e. consisting of recurring strings of words, otherwise known as “chunks”. What makes them chunks is the fact that they are stored in and retrieved from memory as ‘wholes’ rather than generated on a word-by-word basis at the moment of language production.
Public speeches are a prime example of formulaicity in language in that they consist of conventionalised routines; some of these are very fixed, highly probable combinations whose content can be predicted by the hearer. A few years ago when I was invited to give a talk at a conference I started my session with a slide with the following lines:
thank you for _______ me here today...
a topic I am particularly _______ in
have enjoyed a fruitful _______
hope our relationship continues to _______
and got the audience to complete them. Here’s what they came up with, as I’m sure you did too:
thank you for having me here today...
a topic I am particularly interested in
have enjoyed a fruitful co-operation
hope our relationship continues to grow
Chunks in different genres
The formulaic nature of language was first brought to the fore in a seminal paper by Australian linguist Andrew Pawley and and his colleague Frances Syder, who pointed out that competent language users have at their disposal hundreds of thousands of ready-made phrases (Pawley and Syder 1983). Some linguists have argued that up to 80% of English text (Altenberg 1998) consists of recurring sequences. More conservative estimates suggest that 50-60% of discourse is formulaic (Erman and Warren 2000).
The figure, of course, depends on the genre. There are fewer chunks in creative writing or fiction but more chunks in news reports. Similarly, when it comes to spoken language there will be fewer chunks in storytellers' narratives, but a higher prevalence - probably nearing a more liberal estimate of 80% - in the speech of auctioneers, TV sports announcers or other ‘smooth talkers’ (Kuiper 2004 cited in Schmitt 2010). This is because language users rely on chunks to produce fluent speech under time pressure. In addition to that, chunks perform a number of interactional and social functions, and are used to accomplish various transactions. Your exchange with a shop assistant is likely to be very formulaic and predictable:
|Image by Julian Lim on Flickr [CC BY 2.0]|
Excuse me, do you work here?
Can I help you?
I’m just looking around.
Have you got ….. in [size] ?
I’m looking for a …
How much is ...
Where is the fitting room?
Academic discourse also relies heavily on chunks. Analyses of academic corpora show that academic writing is made up of a substantial number of recurring word combinations:
On the other hand
At the same time
In the present study
In terms of
As shown in future
It was found that
(from Biber, Conrad, & Cortes, 2004)
Let me just say this
Although they are usually not constructed in real time, political speeches are a shining example of a genre laden with formulaic language. Not only they contain a high number of (grossly overused) recurrent combinations, they employ similar rhetoric and generally follow the same format. Moreover, they are so remarkably similar that their content can be distilled down to an algorithm. Indeed, that’s what a group of researchers at the University of Massachusetts recently did. They ran 4,000 political speech segments through text analysis software and came up with an algorithm which can generate convincing political speeches. To do this, they built a model based on n-grams, which evaluates the probability of a word appearing after a given number of items (words) – a model commonly used in computational linguistics made popular by Google N-gram Viewer. Put simply, they taught a robot to write speeches similar to formulaic and cliché-ridden speeches by politicians.
Obama’s well applauded Victory speech is no exception. Here’s the final part of his famous 2008 speech:
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; […] This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people...
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Apart from clichés such as “This is our moment. This is our time” and “And while we breathe we hope”, it contains collocations (which is one kind of a formulaic sequence) such as “promote the cause of peace” and "reaffirm the truth” as well as a number of predictable strings:
America, we have come so _____. We have seen so _____. But there is so much more to ____.
Let’s now take an excerpt from Melania’s speech, which came under criticism:
From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow.
A quick corpus search will tell you that “impress on(upon)” is commonly used with PARENTS and FATHER, and the things that are usually impressed on are THE IMPORTANCE / NEED / VALUE. The Longman Dictionary actually gives the following example:
Father impressed on me the value of hard work.
So if I was teaching “impress on smb” I’d probably give this as an example of how the verb is used. Then I’m sure you’ll find there is nothing illicit with “work hard” or “keep promise” either. On the contrary, I’m certain you would correct your students if they said *worked hardly or used held instead of keep in "keep a promise"
Looking at “treat people with respect” which is supposedly copied from Michelle Obama’s “treat people with dignity and respect”, you will see that dignity and respect are two of the very highly likely collocates here. Here is how Netspeak, a tool which helps you find a missing word in a sequence (see how you can use it HERE), suggests "treat people with" should be completed:
Altenberg, B. (1998). On the phraseology of spoken English: the evidence of recurrent word-combinations. In A. P. Cowie (Ed.), Phraseology: theory, analysis and application (pp. 101–122). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Pearson.
Erman, B. & Warren, B. (2000). The idiom principle and the open choice principle. Text 20(1): 29–62
Pawley, A., & Syder, F.H. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency in Richards, J.C. & Schmidt, R.W. (eds) Language and Communication,
London; : Longman, pp 191 – 225. Available
online at http://www.uni-mainz.de/FB/Philologie-II/fb1414/lampert/download/so2008/PawleySyder.pdf New York
Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.