Volume 7 (2016) Issue 2 - Review Schmale
JLLT 7 (2016) 2 Publication Version.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 7 (2016) Issue 2 (PDF)

David Wood: Fundamentals of Formulaic Language. An Introduction. London etc.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015 (vii + 198pp.) (ISBN 978-0-567-27898-2).

The volume Fundamentals of Formulaic Language, presented by its author as an 'introduction', deals with a widely discussed topic of research within a broad range of different scientific disciplines such as linguistics, language acquisition, psycho- and neurolinguistics, semantics, lexicology and lexicography, syntax, and of course, among others, phraseology and language teaching.

After a brief Preface, the volume of 198 pages comprises ten chapters of 15 to 20 pages each, 18 pages of references in English only plus an index of 8 pages. The central issues of each section are recapitulated by a short summary, followed by invariably ten “Points to ponder and things to do”.

Chapter 1 (1-17) deals with formulaic language research (= FLR) in a historical perspective, going back as far as Jesperson (1924), but omitting to mention highly relevant insight from non-English speaking researchers (e.g. Bréal 1872, Paul 1880, Bally 1909, Saussure 1916 or Porzig 1934)1 and especially the highly productive Russian paradigm which has thoroughly influenced phraseological research in Europe. The three criteria of general definition which, according to Wood, constitute a consensus do not reflect the current state of research into formulaic language. The criterion multi word (p. 3) does in fact not cover a great number of routine formulae which the author himself treats as formulaic language (FL) (e.g. good morning, p. 3)2. What is more, FL has by no means a “single meaning or function”; neurological research results establish that not all FL is stored and retrieved as if it were a single lexical item (cf. p. 3).

The second section (19-33) on the identification of formulaic language is about frequency, psychological representation and (native speaker) judgment as to what is to be considered as an FL unit. Following the discussion of different approaches, corpus research and native speaker judgment seeming to be accredited the same scientific value, the author concludes:

“Even if you use corpus frequency and MI (= mutual information; GS) statistics and acoustical features and judges and checklists, you are likely to remain guarded about your decisions about formulaicity.” (32)

However, from a treatment of FL claiming the status of an introduction, one would expect a clear-cut definition as to what is to be considered as FL and how to determine it. It is also surprising that native speaker judgment seems to be attributed the same value as corpus research, which is accorded too little space in this chapter.

The third part (35-51) deals with different categories of formulaic language. Following a long list of English terms referring to FL (36-37), Wood treats the main candidates, starting with collocations and idioms which are given the most attention. Again the author mentions one category of idioms which is “completely frozen” (41) even though empirical research clearly shows that in fact “nothing is impossible”, a look at advertising or newspaper headlines suffices to convince oneself of the somewhat unlimited flexibility of FL in general and idioms in particular. Other types of FL are treated very briefly indeed, “metaphors” (17 lines), “proverbs” (11 lines), without any bibliographical information whatsoever being given (in a book that is called “an introduction”!). Unfortunately, the summary of this chapter has nothing more to offer than some commonplaces such as “Formulaic sequences can be classified in various ways.” or “Some categories overlap with others.” (50).

Chapter 4 (53-66) deals with aspects of “Mental processing of formulaic language”. Starting out from Alison Wray’s work, the author sketches a number of interesting aspects, e.g. “Evidence of holistic processing” or “Wray’s heteromorphic mental lexicon”; however, his remarks about spontaneous speech do unfortunately not take its interactive and multimodal character into account. And it is by no means certain that “both the analysis of the literal meaning and the retrieval of the figurative interpretation” (60) of an idiomatic word string are systematically initiated, independently of the context. Whereas this may be the case when, for instance, advertisers deliberately play with the - potential - literal meaning of an idiom, it is not sure that language users are aware of the two facets of meaning when producing a “normal” utterance. When Wood states in his summary of Chapter 4 that “A great deal of the research in this area is highly experimental and does not deal much with real life language use.” (66), one wonder why he does not present insight from existing corpus research.

Section 5 is dedicated to “Formulaic language and acquisition” (67-80) from a first- and second-language perspective. The section contains useful information on early research and more recent insight into this domain. The author rightly states that little research has so far been carried out on the role of FL on language acquisition due to “the fixation of linguistics and applied linguistics on acquisition of morphosyntax” (67). Again, results from non-English language research reflecting on the role of constructions vs rules are being neglected (Schmale 2015).

Part 6 (81-99) addresses the question of “Fluency and pragmatic competence” (81) as far as spoken language is concerned. The author initially refers to the frequently cited studies by Erman & Warren (2000) and Altenberg (1998), considering up to 80% of spoken language as being formulaic, without mentioning, however, that the criteria that cover FL remain vague and non-distinctive, necessitating a cautious reference to these results. But the rest of the chapter delivers useful information on the importance of FL for fluency in spoken language. Presenting several studies, the author in particular demonstrates that what is commonly considered as the heart of FL, i.e. proverbs and idioms, is by no means what is most frequently used in spoken language. Part 6 is, thus, certainly the most useful one of the book.

Chapter 7 (100-119) deals with FL in “Written Language”, concentrating on academic discourse, a domain widely researched upon. Apart from reflections on the nature of writing, the historical perspective and a look at learner corpora, the author presents different lists of formulae elucidated via corpus studies. Wood nevertheless recognizes, given the specific nature of academic writing, that “there is really no master list of formulaic sequences which are characteristic of written language” (117).

Section 8 (121-137) treats one specific type of FL, studied by more recent research, i.e. “Lexical bundles”, discussing corpora, frequency and functions. Following some theoretical implications of lexical bundles, “three or more words which are identified in a corpus of natural language by means of corpus analysis” (122) and some thoughts on the acquisition of such bundles. The author then describes structural characteristics of lexical bundles, e.g. those incorporating verb-phrase fragments, dependent-clause fragments or noun-phrase and prepositional-phrase fragments. He also discusses functional categories, such as stance bundles (I don’t think), discourse organizing bundles (if you look at) or referential bundles (one of the things).

The last thematic part 9 (139-158), deals with “Formulaic language and language teaching”. Having presented a variety of different works on this aspect, in particular Lewis’s lexical approach, the author’s conclusion that “Evidence shows that encouraging automatization of formulaic sequences can have positive effects on spoken fluency” and especially “the teaching of formulaic language is an area still ripe for investigation by researchers and teachers alike” does not seem to reflect the current state of research into the implications of FL teaching. An undifferentiated treatment of any more or less stable sequence as 'formulaic' is by no means acceptable and sufficient (Schmale 2012). In fact, it appears to be rather salutary if foreign language learners do not use certain highly idiomatic types of FL, charged with an extremely complex number of co(n)textual parameters and connotations of use.

Chapter 10 (159-172), finally, reflects on “Current and Future Directions in FL language research”, presenting short passages on the different points treated and repeating the main results presented before. Wood deplores “the lack of a unifying theory to explain its (i.e. FL’s) nature and roles” (mentioning, however, Mel’čuk’s meaning-text theory). A solution to this problem might be to take research from non-English speaking (European) countries into account. Burger (52015), for instance, presents a highly developed categorization of phraseological expressions for German (also Schmale 2013 for an extension of the phraseological domain to prefabricated turn-construction units). However, the recourse to Hoey’s empirically based model of lexical priming, conceiving “language first and foremost as a system of interactions among words rather than as a series of grammatical structures”, a “systematic web of collocation and association” (171), constitutes a positive outlook at the end of this treatment of formulaic language.

We deliberately employ the term ‘treatment’ rather than ‘introduction’ proffered by its author as, in our opinion, this book is not an introduction which could serve neophytes in the domain of FL, especially not students of linguistics or foreign language teaching methodology. This volume is rather a selective overview of different aspects of research in the English-speaking world into various phenomena appertaining to formulaic language. As mentioned throughout this admittedly critical review, insight from non-English publications is not being taken into account. What is more, even results published in English – apart from very rare exceptions – by authors from non-English speaking countries are being neglected. In an “introduction”, one would also expect more examples of FL and illustrations of its use. As to the “Points to ponder and things to do” at the end of each chapter (except for the last one), they pose necessary, even essential questions for fundamental research on FL - questions meant for confirmed researchers in this field -, but not for neophytes consulting an “introduction”; even more so as the author does not come up with any answers to these questions.

Thus, Wood’s overview is a useful reference book (18 pages of references and 8 pages of index!) for those who have read a genuine introduction to FL before, but not for real beginners in this extremely important and vast field of language study.


Bally, Charles (1909). Traité de stylistique française. Paris: Klincksieck.

Bréal, Michel (1872). Quelques mots sur l’instruction publique en France. Paris: Hachette.

Burger, Harald, 20155. neu bearb. Aufl. (1998). Phraseologie. Eine Einführung am Beispiel des Deutschen. Berlin: Erich Schmidt.

Paul, Hermann (81970; 1880). Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte. Tübingen: Niemeyer

Porzig, Walter (1934). Wesenhafte Bedeutungsbeziehungen. In: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Sprache der deutschen Literatur 58 (1934), 70-97.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.

Schmale, Günter (2012). Formulaic Expressions for Foreign Language Learning. In: Tinnefeld, Thomas (ed.) (2012). Hochschulischer Fremdsprachenunterricht –Anfor­derungen, Ausrichtung, Spezifik. Saarbrücken: HTW, 161-178.

Schmale, Günter (2013). Qu’est-ce qui est préfabriqué dans la langue ? – Réflexions au sujet d’une définition élargie de la préformation langagière. In: Legallois, Dominique & Agnès Tutin (eds.) (2013). Vers une extension du domaine de la phraséologie. Langages 189 (2013), 27-45.

Schmale, Günter (2016). Konstruktionen statt Regeln. In: Bürgel, Christoph & Dirk Siepmann (Hrsg.) (2016). Sprachwissenschaft und Fremdsprachendidaktik: Zum Verhältnis von sprachlichen Mitteln und Kompetenzentwicklung. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren, 1-24.


Günter Schmale

Professeur de linguistique

Faculté des Langues

Directeur du Département d'Allemand

Université Jean Moulin - Lyon 3

Centre d'Etudes Linguistiques (EA 1663)