The Other Half of Language


Clyde Coreil


(An address delivered on April 19, 2014)




          The two main opinions that I will express today concern (1) speculations about the nature of lexical chunks and (2) my regret at the probability that they are being neglected in thousands of classrooms around the world. Most teachers of teachers discuss with their colleagues and their graduate students the fairly well known “lexical phrases,” “formulaic sequences,” "collocations," "non-propositional language," etcetera, etcetera. But it is my hunch that in the classrooms where English and many other languages are actually taught, there is precious little time spent on two things: (1) the presentation of at least some of the thousands of specific, individual chunks or—as I call them-- "preformulations" or "preforms" for short; and (2) discussions  of the manner in which these linguistic units are acquired.  The absence of these two things—the specific units and their acquisition—are the deficiencies that you and I are very likely responsible for. Examples of preforms  are “crowning glory,” “smack-dab in the middle,”  “Starry, Starry Night,” “the best of both worlds,” “come hell or high water,” and “See ya later, Alligator.”

It is necessary to mention early on that preforms must always be used exactly as we encounter them. We don’t even change “a” to “the” or else we probably lose the preform: "the apple of my eye" and not "*an apple of my eye." It is also worth mentioning is that we never attempt to “make up” preforms. It doesn’t work that way. Preforms are always the result of language we share with at least one other person. An interlocutor is essential. It seems likely that preforms are part of a deep-seated social bond. Why do I wish to introduce yet another name, "preformulations"--“preforms,” when we already have more than we can handle? Frankly: because I think that several of the concepts referred to by "preforms" are not included in the other names. Also because the word “preforms” might well go over better, especially in the elementary, secondary, and undergraduate classrooms which we are neglecting.


                                   The Theory of Preformulation

            Preforms have been studied extensively for more than 30 years. So what am I adding to the theses and dissertations already written? My modest contribution is the suggestion that the teaching of preforms has fallen short because of a generally incomplete understanding of their nature. There: I am on a very shaky branch which position I will try to justify. The preform seems to operate on a basis that is similar to the lexical items of which it is composed. I am referring to the "lexical features" that are bonded together to constitute a single lexical item. For example, among the lexical features of the word "cat" are (1) feline animal, (2) eyes forward, (3) whiskers, (4) approximately five pounds, (5) fur covering skin, (6) paws, (7) retractable nails, (8) tail, (9) purrs, and (10) nocturnally active. When these and other features were present, the lexical item "cat" was fused together in the perception of individual, living, breathing human beings, and that perception was and remains housed in language, of which it is a part. Accordingly, it is my hunch that at least one of the sources of language is in the ongoing, active processes of the human mind. Language is a fixed “system,” but it is equally a process that never stops growing. Never.

I think that ANY two or more lexical items themselves possess the feature of being able to fuse together, especially when they are encountered in a situation of heightened emotion and/or relevance to the moment. Sometimes, as we shall see, it takes only one encounter to result in a fused preform. Sometimes it takes several encounters.  Upon realization, however, these items result in a permanent union with a single, fixed semantic charge or meaning. It seems remotely possible that the neurons bearing the identity of the lexical item fire and fuse creating a veritable new part of the physical brain. If this outrageous speculation were to prove true, it would help account for the fact that preformulated sequences are the last to go in patients afflicted with aphasia. Such a possibility might point to a new method of delaying the progress of this condition through exposing the patient to a concentration of lexical items that are on their way to becoming preforms. Outrageous but fascinating!.

This propensity of fusing together seems to be a fundamental characteristic of all lexical items in all languages. I call such a linguistic entity a "preformulation." It asserts the possibility that the surface of these items becomes instantly sticky and sticks to another lexical item in the presence of heightened emotion. It is the rule, I think, rather than the exception or anomaly. In other words, one undercurrent in language itself often seems to be the moving to fused preforms. So why don’t all words in all languages just stick together and be done with it?  This is a facetious question: we do have a lexicon, syntax and semantics to worry about. But look around and you’ll see that most words have already found several partners. By way of illustration, let is consider "The Glomar Response."


                                       The Glomar Response


Preforms are sometimes based on a sentence or even the narration of a relatively complex incident. The preform often serves as the name for such an incident, which is not described once both interlocutors are aware of it. Such is the “Glomar Response,” a denial to say anything about anything.  Harriet Ann Phillipi was a journalist who asked the government for certain information. She was answered, “We can neither confirm+nor+deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed." "Neither+confirm+nor+deny." This whole "Glomar+Response" thus joined thousands of preforms.


If two or more words are used only once in a situation that is not heightened, it is probable that no preformulation will be involved. This is the situation in a sentence like the following: John buried the apple in his yard. It is thus possible to stay away entirely from preforms if we try very hard. When I was writing this paper, however, I had a near miss: I said, John buried the apple in his back yard. “Back yard,” however is questionably a preform. My computer accepted back yard both as one word and as two words. I had wanted to present an example of a preform-free sentence: only syntax and semantics. So I dropped “back” and think that I might have been successful. John buried the apple in his yard. It’s tricky, though. If you work hard at it, you might be able to write a similar preform-free sentence. But you have to watch out. Preforms are everywhere. For instance, in verb formations like might have been, would be, and will have been.


            Once the words are united in a preform, that preform has a single meaning and will not permit changes in either constituent words or meaning, nor will it permit a change back to what it was before. To an extent, language seems to be a dynamic progression. The preform and its meaning are here to stay. I am not talking about a special set of words: I am talking about all lexical items. I think that this is a defining condition, not only of English but of the whole system of language. This brings us to a somewhat interesting possibility. One of the key features of language is that it breaks itself into syntactic units which makes possible their exchange and recombination in a virtually infinite range of variations. This is one source of its genius for invention and precision. Preformulation, on the other hand, seems to do exactly the opposite: it continually locks together two or more lexical items that had not been locked together previously. It also makes it virtually impossible to ever separate them or rearrange them. And it is always on the march.


                                                   The Movie-House Factor


            I think that what we are dealing with here is the possibility that language has two sources: (1) the familiar rules of syntax and semantics which generate many structures, and (2) the property by which words used together often tend to fuse together on a continuing basis. "Continuing" is critical here. It takes a more or less static conception of language and adds to it a dimension of dynamic change and growth. Not only is language centered in living, breathing human beings, it is also produced dynamically in the never ending dimension of time.

Conceived thusly, language seems also dependent on one more factor--exchange with an interlocutor. Conversation. Social discourse. Language comes to be language only in the presence of the other.  (I can almost see Lev Vygotsky smiling down on me now.) The words don’t even have to be heard or used twice. For instance, I take my eight-year-old grandson to a movie, and comment on the size of the audience. I say, “How do you like that, a full house?” He has seen the audience and heard two lower register preforms: “How do you like that” and “full house.” Just like that, the words become fused. These preforms are his for life. And he has all of the rest of that afternoon to acquire other preforms.

Both the student and the teacher of native and non-native students must realize that the goal is at least 40,000 preforms. I mentioned in an e-mail to that Head Guru of Chunks Andrew Pawley that I thought that the number was that big. “Actually,” he answered, “it’s probably a lot bigger that that.” Of course, I agreed. A young native speaker of Chinese or French is well on his or her way to acquiring more than 40,000 preforms in that first language. There are literally thousands of ways in which this is done. The movie house is only one example. The second-language student must be made to imagine at least hundreds of ways in which the second language preforms can be acquired, and the student must attempt to follow these if near-native fluency in the second language is the goal. We can reduce those awful declensions which waste so much time.

For example, more productive methods might include keeping a journal in the second language. If the student thinks of a new way or questions an expression he has heard, he is to write about it in his journal, and ask a native can speaker about it. The journal becomes an important stand-in for the necessary interlocutor: it includes acquisition through the eyes, ears, and  mouth as well as hands. Listening to recorded passages repeated again and again are also excellent. A teacher can begin each class with a running of the same scene from the same movie for the first three to five  minutes. There need be no explanation of grammar--only possibly of situation and attitude in the film. This could continue with the same scene for at least two weeks. The amount of lexical, intonational and facial information that the students acquire would be staggering. These are other ways of reaching the stupendous goal of 40,000. It is crucial that an awareness of this goal be brought to the front of the student’s mind. We can all accomplish enormous goals, but we must be aware of what we are attempting, and we must be willing to make an enormous commitment. If we don’t, then we have no chance. Second language learning is like breathing: if we stop, then we are dead. If the teacher stops, then his or her class is dead. We are all enormously imaginative; but the door to using that imagination in the second language must be consciously opened and opened wide.


            This is all speculation, but if I am right any similar way we can heighten the emotional circumstance of exposing the student to a preform will help his brain to fuse that perform. For instance, the girl who sets my son John’s heart beating says, “John, you mean more to me than all the stars in heaven.” My son is beside himself. Fusion of at least “all the stars in heaven” will very probably occur immediately. He will never forget that: for him, at least, it has become an enduring preform. The key elements are (1) presentation of a preform, (2) in a heightened state of awareness and receptivity. The imagination is all. Likewise, if this is somehow explained to students, then they might themselves be the initial source of heightened awareness. Then, all we need is the preform itself. For instance, give the student a gold star if he can memorize and write all of the preforms boldfaced by the teacher in a short story. Don’t be afraid of that pseudo-monster, memorization. Give him two gold stars if he can incorporate them into his own sentence. There are countless ways to put the preform and the heightened awareness together. The teacher and hopefully the student must, however, be alerted to what is going on. The awareness is all.


Let us look at this from a slightly different angle. Although these two sources—grammar and fusion--successfully integrate with one another, their underlying duality is not lost. If this process is explained to language students, they will understand. And if they keep it in the forefront of their minds, I believe that this integration will work as well as a movie house.  These persons learned to use their native language which very likely has more than 40,000 preforms. Using an old-style of math, this would mean that a ten-year-old native acquiring one perform every day would have a total of approximately 4,000 preforms at his or her disposal. At the same incredibly rapid rate of acquisition, a 20-year-old native would have 8,000 preforms available. Working with our modest 40,000 preforms, this still leaves about 32,000 unaccounted for. Something else must be happening. And until I learn what it is, I will have to assume that the “Movie-House Factor” is at work in the shadows of our minds. I don’t think it’s a simple process and certainly not a knot that I will ever unravel. Instead, I offer the preceding and the following as observations, intuited guesses—no more.

When researchers use names such as “formulaic sequences” and “non-propositional speech,” they are referring primarily to the internal structure and characteristics of these linguistic entities. For me, however, the distinguishing features of preforms are (1) that they can be repeated verbatim, (2) that they become double-locked to a single concept, and (3) that, like teenagers in love, they cling to one another before we know what’s happening. I also strongly suspect that all verbal languages have thousands of preforms in them, yet these structures curiously remain hidden. The relevant preforms seem to make themselves available when needed, and then to vanish like a puff of smoke.


                                                       Constellations of Speech


          Before we get more deeply involved in this discussion, I find it useful to speculate a little about where preforms such as “Let me say this about that” and “The Big Lie” come from. In short, I think that preforms come from different fields, different categories and subcategories of human activity. I will suggest a name for these slippery subcategories which I suggest are subsets of a larger category that I will call “Constellations of Speech.” These subsets consist of two parts: (1) the actual preforms, and (2) the field or constellation of language from which these individual preforms are primarily taken. I will now make another statement that is nothing but a hunch, but I think that it might be relevant: I think that the fundamental thrust of language in different subsets or fields is almost as important as the preforms that come out of these fields.

The preforms are of a higher intensity than the subsets themselves, but they are part and parcel of these fields, which you will recognize at once. Examples include: Lawyer Discourse, Physician Discourse, Agriculture Discourse, Aviation Discourse, Sports Discourse and, of course, Academic Discourse. This implies that something other than syntax and semantics provides a unifying bond within each of these fields. Because I do not happen to have come across discussions of these fields, I will call them “Conceptual Ambience Fields.”A Conceptual Ambience Field (CAF). Take it or leave it. Familiarity with a given CAF is, I think, important because each CAF specifies the kinds of articulation it will permit, and the kinds that it will regard as peculiar, odd or downright incomprehensible.

Each specialty or CAF is constituted of a vast number of complex concepts, each of which is likewise constituted of a large number of somewhat more simple concepts. Each of these concepts bears a name, and that name is a specific preform. So that a doctor of medicine knows a vast number of preforms that a lawyer doesn't. Considering that each preform is at least partly linguistic in nature, it would follow that becoming qualified in each specialty or CAF is very much like learning a foreign language. In each of these fields of knowledge, there are pinpoints of meaning that have been joined through the phenomenon of preformulation. For example, a sentence in medicine expressing the deterioration of an organ will have little or no meaning for another field, such as law. Regardless, once you have mastered the preforms of medicine, they hang a sign around your neck, call you doctor, and begin a litany of aches and pains they have been having.

There is something else I would like to say about these different CAF fields. Whether or not there is a technical preform associated with it, there is an ambience for each. By that I mean that there is a register of a certain height. And a type of sentence structure. And a lexicon: there are words that we cannot, under any conditions, use. And there are other words that make all of us comfortable, words that we must use. And we must not confuse the technical field from the lower register conversational field. It is a mistake to assume that if we speak in paragraphs and use lots and lots of those high register words, we will distinguish ourselves. We sprinkle lots of le mot juste around our discourse, which we are inclined to continue hour after hour after hour.

There is, however, a legitimate time and place for such speech. After working with lists of preforms for several classes, I asked my students to p[hotocopy two pages of a textbook they were using in some other course, not ESL. I also asked them to find and highlight up to five non-technical preforms. They did this and were happy. Then I asked them to use exactly the same preforms in their own sentences. So that, in a way, this extended their ESL training to other parts of the campus. Next, I asked them to combine in semi-original sentences (1) preforms from the list they had memorized, (2) possible preforms from a more general list of high register structures, and (3) phrases and sentences from an article by Virginia Woolf. The results were mixed but surprisingly good. I was coaxing and forcing them to read and write in a Conceptual Ambience Field that constituted a second veritable foreign language.

Here are three examples, each of which has at least two of the three sources I just mentioned. Example (1) “One issue that has generated some heat is that they were expected to marry as soon as possible.” (2) “If society excluded women, marginalizing then as insignificant, we can draw several broad conclusions.” (3) “In order to gain some insight into the matter, Woolf examines the circumstances common to women’s lives.”  Most of these students were considerably more limited in their ability to conceive of and express such thoughts in English. In fact, a major benefit of this method allows them to pull on their own bootstraps and rise to a higher level of thinking and articulating.

                                                    Technical and Non-Technical Preforms

It is highly relevant to mention here that there are two broad categories of preforms: Technical Preforms and Non-Technical Preforms. Technical Preforms are those that are based on information that is essential to the articulation of findings in each Conceptual Ambience Field, each CAF, such as medicine or law.  One example is the conception that there are huge areas of the universe that we cannot see with our telescopes because their gravity is so intense that it will not even let light escape. We have invented an efficient preform for these particular areas: “Black Holes,” which is far shorter and easier to use. Every area of science is based on hundreds of conceptions like this which are articulated in complex Technical Preforms stacked on simpler technical preforms. In this conference, Dr. Mittman will talk about mathematical conceptions that are behind the multitude of Technical Preforms that he calls “jargon.”


Non-Technical Preforms are those for which we need little or no training in mathematics or physics to understand and correctly use. The most obvious of these are the names of persons. But they are just names, you object. They are not really part of language. But they meet all of my requirements to be called preforms: they can be repeated verbatim and they are locked to particular concepts. Therefore, they are indeed, ipso facto, in themselves, preforms. Also, ideas introduced by persons often have a rich if single conceptual meaning. For example, ideas of the collective unconscious are based on the thoughts of Carl Jung, who invented the preform, “collective unconscious.”  They are accordingly called “Jungian.”

We can see from these examples that language is not simply a fixed system of communication, but an ever-growing tool consisting at least in part of preforms that multiply faster than any of us can imagine. Just look at a newspaper and you will find more new preforms than you can shake a stick at. When two or more words are put into contact with each other and fuse, they are possibly shunted to a special part of the brain. Possibly two neurons fire at each other and become welded into a brand new perform. A brand new part of the brain itself, a part that is the last to go in a state of dementia. Such preforms are here to stay.


                     The Yin and the Yang of Language and Preformulation


Let us pause and offer a slightly more precise definition: A preformulation consists of two or more lexical items that recur in specific situations; that do not change in sequence but only in number, tense and sometimes person; that participate in the surface formation of concepts; and that become locked to a single meaning that cannot be accessed by any other linguistic expression. The following words recur in unchanging sequence: home+run and not *run+home--at least, that might be a different preform. Here are other examples of what I am calling preformulations:  John+Kennedy, wash+the+dishes, Blue+Dog+Democrat, inquiring+mind, space+shuttle, moon+rock, Much+Ado+about+Nothing, the+center+cannot+hold, let+me+say+this+about+that, Lady+Macbeth, land+of+the+free, Oh+say+can+you+see, tomorrow+never+comes, might+have+been, future+perfect, pull+a+tooth, bald+headed, cross+eyed, ethnic+cleansing, cancer+causing, fur+coat, trial+by+fire, common+denominator, it+could+be+argued+that, you+all or “yall” if you have the good fortune to be from the South, optical+illusion, sign+of+the+cross, acoustic+phonetics, square+root, isoceles+triangle, light+year, A+Tale+of+Two+Cities, crowning+glory, zip+ah+de+do+dah, E=MC2, walking+tall, exemplia+gratia or as we commonly write, "e.g."  Some of the preceding are nouns; some are verbs; some are complete sentences; at least one seems nonsensical. They all, however, are specific lexical items that recur in unchanging sequence in reference to a single situation. One can be “walking+tall” but not “*tall+walking.” Again I say, preformulation seems the opposite of generation according to rules, which is near the center of the other half of language. It has been noted that when you are dealing with preforms, memory seems to replace generation.


The next realization is that it is impossible to conceive of language that does not have, near its center, preformulation; and it is impossible to have a preformulation that is not inextricably tied to language. This is the essence of the yin-yang symbol. One is a part of the other, yet the two retain their identity. I think that this "yin-yang" relationship should be presented in many forms in all language classes. We need, however, a master list from which we could draw say ten or so preforms for each class period at each language level. If we teach three classes per week, the total number of preforms presented during a given month would be approximately 120. But if we teach the students how to fish, how to find preforms, we are feeding them for life. Teaching the principle of preformulation will make the students aware that all language depends on the incorporation of preforms in its very existence. If this is done, it will probably sensitize the students to preformulation. I have seen this happen in several of my classes. Once they are told about the principle of preformulation, they grasp it in 15 to 20 minutes. Needless to say, this is an important 15 to 20 minutes because it opens their minds to another dimension of language, another way to acquire it. In Dr. Beliavsky's plenary, she will present more specific examples. I would like to acknowledge here that I am very very grateful to her for listening and giving it a go by using a book of lessons I put together named Term Papers and Academic Writing which is in the constellation of

The value of  preforms becomes clear when the teacher attempts to teach expressions from a higher register. For example, the formal language of Academic Discourse. The whole register. This goal is obviously too high, but students will encounter academic structures in their textbooks and in many of their classes. Once students are aware of this principle of preforms, they can be shown examples and asked to complete them with words of their own. They are very proud of the writing that results, even if it’s only a few sentences. For instance, they are given the preform "What no one can deny..." and they think and then they write "What no one can deny is that students perform better when they are happy."

The next step is to demonstrate that preforms are often "recursive"; that is, they can be added to another preform in the same sentence. For example, this is the first preform: "__X__ is thought to __Verb--V__." The second preform is "__X__ has played a major role in __V__." Then we put them together: "__X__ is thought to have played a major role in __Y__." Finally, we take everything to the surface: "John's anger is thought to have played a major role in his getting fired." The end result can be that a whole new set of actual expressions is added to the student's lexicon.


Preforms are usually right at hand in memory when we need them in conversation or writing, yet they are almost unavailable when we are trying to recall them. At least, I have had that difficulty. They come and go into my consciousness like snakes in a lake. So I am asking you to consider helping me to create an ongoing and progressive list from which we could choose, say ten preforms for instruction in each class. Possibly, we could establish a website and together expand it via e-mail. When you happen to encounter what you think is probably a candidate preform such as "crowning glory," you could send it to that website. The users of the site could decide for themselves if they wish to teach it. What we would be doing is making a list that is alphabetized according to first major word encountered. From this list, we could all find about ten preforms for each class. This whole idea seems quite primitive, yet it might be the best we can do as of today. One leading scholar in formulaic language, Dr. Alison Wray of the University of Cardiff in the U.K, said that this seems to be an interesting idea. The name of the "expandable" website I am creating is I am sponsoring it myself, and no money will be exchanged in the addition or extraction of preforms for use in class.


                                               Another Example of Preforms


           Preforms are closely tied to register, which generally means how formal is a given word or structure. In writing for the Academy, several things increase.  One is stylistic elevation in what we might call tone of expression; another is use of the passive; orientation to an end that is defined in an early thesis statement; little or no rambling; and the careful and precise use of language, including but not limited to preforms. Avoiding ambiguity ranks high in this type of speech. Ambiguity, lack of precision, off+the+cuff remarks, jokes, careless generalizations--these are among the unwelcome guests of Academic Speech and Writing. Why? Mainly because what the academic speaker is talking about is a new discovery that he or she has made, a new finding, a new relationship, a new point of view. New, new, new. That and not income or profit or tuition or the corporate model is the key to the heart of the contemporary university. In the "Conceptual Ambience Field" of the Academy, one wants to be perfectly clear about what is new in comparison to what is old. If one does not have something new to say, one does not engage in Academic Writing or Speaking.

            If you still think I am exaggerating, look at Black's Law Dictionary. It’s chock full of preforms. "Run with the land" means that buildings or other improvements are inherited as part and parcel of the inheritance of land. In fact, preforms such as this have a special semantic function. Once a phrase or sentence is used several times, it becomes "preformulated." That is, the meaning of a phrase or sentence that is destined for preformulation, becomes--as we have pointed out--locked to the particular concept involved. And not only is it locked, it is "double locked." To talk about the concept in question, it is necessary to use the required preform. And if I use the particular preform, I cannot get away from the expectation that I am referring to that preformulated concept. If, for example, I want to refer to land with improvements being inherited, I will use "run with the land." If I fail to do this, everyone in the room will ask about where did he go to law school, or indeed IF he went to law school. Fluent control of preforms indeed has an important gatekeeper function, whether we approve of gatekeepers or not.


                                             No Composite if Preform Exists


I will call your attention to the following statement: I will not use a regular composite structure if indeed there is an accepted preform available. In other words, “preforms have priority over both syntax and semantics.” This is a very, very important point. Knowing when there is a specific, articulated preform available, is absolutely critical to writers as well as to public speakers.

            Let us look at a non-ludicrous example of a Non-Technical preform--"go to sleep." There is a difference between the preform "go to sleep" vs. the non-preform "*start sleeping." I can "start" doing a great many things, but I cannot *start sleeping. At least, I don’t think that I can. Can you? Or rather, do you use "went-to-sleep" to refer to what your child did last night at 10 o'clock?  One possible explanation of why one is good and one is bad is that preformulation has created the concept "begin+to+sleep" and locked it to the specific formulaic expression "go to sleep," and will not yield itself to any other. It is in a double lock: I can’t get at the idea without the preform, and the preform cannot be effectively expressed by any other linguistic expression.

Let us look more closely at this."Go+to+sleep" has precisely the meaning of losing consciousness to sleep normally and naturally without any drugs or medicines or changes in temperature or being struck. If I lose consciousness as a result of being hit, this preform, go+to+sleep, will not work, but another preform--"knock+out"--will. "Tom knocked Edgar out." If I drink too much alcohol, I "pass out." If I lose consciousness suddenly, then I “lose+consciousness“ which seems to be another preform. I am, of course, free to try to construct another one from syntax and semantics: I can awkwardly and imprecisely say that I “*became+unconscious,”  but that is quite a ways from saying, “I went to sleep.” In my opinion, upon preformulation, the phrase "go to sleep" becomes locked to the specific change to which we just referred. Possibly, the phrase "go+to+sleep" has been shunted or sent to another part of the brain to join tens of thousands of other preformulations.


        Preforms Involved in Sentence Construction


Another point that I wish to suggest is somewhat more daring. It is the following: It is difficult if not virtually impossible to construct or comprehend a sentence that does not involve preforms in a substantial manner. That is the claim of the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Well, I am no longer young, but that indeed is what I am claiming. Again: it is difficult if not virtually impossible to construct or comprehend a sentence that does not involve preformulations in a substantial manner.


                            Preforms Issue not from Language but from Memory


            Preforms do not seem to issue primarily from the generative processes of language but from memory. A bit more precisely, from the type of memory that is related to the exact reproduction of phrases and clauses of any kind. The kind your kids use when they chant: “Johnny’s got a girl friend. Johnny’s got a girl friend.” Are there any performs here? You bet! Practically the whole utterance is a preform: “has got a girl friend.”  “Girl friend” is used with “has got.” The whole sentence is virtually formed from memory. If the kid didn’t know the preform before, he knows it now. This is one way in which native speakers of any language pick up preforms: through incidental exposure. When an adult begins to study English, he lacks such extended and repeated exposure. In order to help such adults, we must devise strategies that consciously if only partially make up for this deficiency.


The category of "preform," as we are using it, has no internal prerequisites: it includes sentences, exclamations, phrases, proper names, questions, and whole passages of indefinite length. The only external necessary characteristic is that it can be repeated verbatim. The course of the evolution of preforms seems to be this: first, the concept is articulated once through language; then, upon repetition, it often becomes abbreviated or reduced to a preformulation. Occasionally, the preform becomes further reduced to an acronym. The final step is when folks forget the words for which the letters of the acronym stand--for example, SOS, PhD, or BDSM or the meaning of the words themselves such as "spic and span" and "ship-shape” and “hoity-toity.”


                                                       Relevant Scholars


            I am certainly not claiming to have discovered or even developed the theory of formulaic language. Dr. Diana Van Lancker, Dr. Alison Wray, Dr. Adele Goldberg and Dr. David Wood have done a superb job of describing the interior characteristics of preformulations. Dr. Van Lancker calls them “Non-Propositional language”. I beg to differ slightly. Many preforms are not exactly “non-propositional” as much as the proposition is not constructed from grammar but drawn from memory, such as “Johnny’s got a girl friend.” I do not wish to bicker. What I DO wish to do today is lament the point that the theoretical writings of these scholars have not really reached the elementary, secondary, undergraduate and graduate classrooms in an applied manner. Students at all of these levels are expected to acquire preforms "en passant." In passing. As far as I know, the principle of individual preformulations with examples is not the focus of instruction at any of these levels in English or any other language. One direct result of this curious lack of communication is that students of second languages continue to struggle.


                               The Corpus:The Closest We Have Come to Such a Book


            The closest we come to a Dictionary of Preformulations”  is the language "corpus" which we produce with computers. We feed a lot of books, speeches, newspaper articles and other collections of writing into these enormous computer programs. They go through and bring together, between spaces, groups of letters which, we have decided, form lexical items. All the computer is concerned with is executing the bit or no-bit instructions of its program. That’s it. The computer programs then indicate the words and spaces that surround the target groups of letters and spaces. These surrounding letters and spaces comprise the environments in which the targets are found. This corpus is amazing in that it can keep track of letters in groups set off by spaces, and record when they occur together. That is amazing. The list is enormous, but unfortunately, the computer corpus cannot really help us to organize teachable lists. Why not? Because the list of preforms is too huge to be of service to educators.  At least, to my knowledge, no one has undertaken to play the role that Samuel Johnson played in organizing dictionaries. I fully endorse, however, lists of ranked preforms of almost any kind.

In other words, it is unfortunate but computers cannot think. They cannot distinguish the concepts and meanings behind these preformulations. The computer programs are not in the least concerned with whether or not these sequences of letters make up a lexical item. They simply do what they are told to do. Period.  In other words, there is no thinking going on. As I just said, if there were, this would be an enormous step to making beginners’ dictionaries and advanced dictionaries that could be used with the various levels of proficiency of students studying English or French or Spanish or Urdu or Swahili or Arabic or what have you. It seems that we must compile these lists, almost with pencil and paper. That is at present. If the Apple people or the Cambridge University people or the Oxford people or the Harvard people were to focus on developing such ranked and usable lists and advocating methods of teaching preforms, I do not think it would take them very long. In fact, I am calling on them right now to do precisely that. I have a suspicion that projects much like these are underway. I just hope that they will hit the classrooms as soon as possible.


So it is probably not that preforms are an anomaly of syntax and semantics, but rather that preforms seem to have been here for as long as language itself. Possibly longer. After all, monkeys do not have language to any meaningful degree. But they do seem to have a “preformulated sound” for ‘danger+from+above,” namely a hungry eagle that can snatch them up; and a different sound for “danger+from+below,” mainly a big snake that can squeeze them to death. In fact, preforms do seem to be a part of our communication system that does not involve language as we often think of it. This is made clear in the sessions of this conference dealing with music, dance, and math, which has developed memorized and written formulations to an astonishing degree.



                                              Memory Instead of Order


            Syntax is wonderful. As is semantics. Together they allow us to conceive of and specify a past, present or future location and relationship between things. That is, they are wonderful in that they enable us to make propositions about real as well as abstract things. They enable us to make these propositions through an ordered system of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and exclamations. If we are intent on doing so, we can probably stuff preforms into one or the other of these categories. But these preforms might resist and ask us why are we trying to twist and tweak them instead of simply creating a new category, one that is not systematic. “Who needs a new category of language that is not systematic?” I said.  "We do," said the little preform as he dashed into his hole. "So what if that new category is based mainly on memory and not on system," he added.


"But that's not efficient," I said. "We need theories that are as clean and efficient as possible. That's what makes them--elegant," I added. He looked at me and smiled. "That's also," he said, "what makes them irrelevant."  "Now wait a minute,” I said, “that's an oxymoron. If something is elegant, it cannot at the same time be irrelevant." "Then what are you going to do with us?" he said. "We preforms operate on the principle of 'piling on'." The preform went on to say that human memory is so vast and powerful that elegance becomes indeed irrelevant and often a hindrance where preforms are concerned. “Attemping to find what you call ‘elegance’ can sometimes be pointless in a reality that does not need it to function very, very well.” He went on to suggest that the operative principle of preformulations can best be called "cumulative."  Like things accumulate. “Your fantastic brains can work with an enormous pile of expressions that are not arranged in a systematic, hierarchical fashion, which is often said of language. If that is so,” he continued, "elegance is like preformulation squeezing into an overly-tight Superman outfit and strutting across the stage.” I thought of the pianist who can play concerto after concerto with no written music, only memory to keep him or her going.

As I was pondering on what to do with that diminutive fool preform, he said that maybe I was a little correct. He pointed out that the principle of preformulation does not exclude aberrations in either or both syntax and semantics. Aberrations that form some sort of a tab that helps us pick them out. "We often incorporate syntactic and semantic aberrations into ourselves," he said and began singing "Zip ah dee do dah, zip a dee ay.' Those lyrics play hell with both syntax and semantics," he said. "But it's what we say when we are happy and the sun is shining like it is today. Less extreme examples of our aberrations include the following: "come hell or high water," "Shame on you!" "damn the torpedoes: full steam ahead." And with that, he left. Frankly, I was glad to be rid of him.