Formulaic phrases are related to idioms. SIL International defines an idiom as a expression made up of multiple words that function as a meaningful or understandable unit. Idioms are difficult for second language learners because their meaning is not clear when looking at the individual words. Both formulaic phrases and idioms are related to figurative language, or language which does not mean exactly what it says. For novice writers, formulaic phrases can become a barrier to becoming more detail-oriented and exacting.
Marcus Evans of "Linguarama" defines idioms as phrases created when words are "used in connection with other words with which they frequently appear." In the English language, formulaic phrases are either fixed or flexible. In the former, the same words always appear together; in the latter, specific words can vary. Whether fixed or flexible, formulaic phrases present problems for second language learners, like English as a Second Language (ESL) students, even at the college level.
An example of a formulaic phrase is "be that as it may." When you break the phrase down into its constituent parts, you cannot understand the meaning of the phrase, not only because it is idiomatic, but also because it is connotative, which means that it has an understood implication. Speakers of English know that when someone begins a sentence with "be that as it may," their next utterance is one of disagreement, a challenge to the information to which they are responding, The phrase "be that as it may" basically means "I agree with what you are saying, but..."
Not So Obvious
Another formulaic phrase in English is "that goes without saying." This loosely translates to words or phrases that indicate complete agreement. In this case, the phrase cannot be accurately translated, but it means something close to "obviously," "I agree," or the more recent and insulting idioms "d'uh" or "do ya think." For language learners, a literal translation of "that goes without saying" proves challenging on two levels: meaning and implication. The meaning is unclear because like most formulaic phrases, the phrase is more than the sum of its parts. The implication is problematic because one could reason, if something goes without saying, why say it?
Formulaic phrases are problematic for native English speakers, too. These phrases are so common in English to the point they are overused, trite, and cliche. Writing teachers will find themselves losing count of the number of "in today's society," "really unique," "same but different," and more recently "he was like" to introduce a quote. These phrases can end up taking the place of details, which are the essence of good writing.
The other problem formulaic phrases cause in writing occurs when they are misheard and student writers begin using what they think the phrase must be. Because these phrases are idiomatic, they don't translate literally and are easy to mistake, since the actual words in the phrase are not clear to begin with, outside of the phrase itself. Phrases like "into the state of oblivion," "tide me over" and "soap opera" have been misheard by students and misrepresented as "into the state of Bolivia," "tie me over" and "soap poppers." While comical when they occur, these present yet another writing pitfall for student writers, who already have enough to worry about when learning to write well.
Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.