Formulaic Sequences

Formulaic Sequences

ELT concept #18 – Formulaic sequences

Nguyen Thi My Hang

What is it?

English teachers and learners must already be familiar with what it means by a word, that is, a lexical single unit such as day, honest and rain. They also know that English vocabulary also comprises preconstructed multiword combinations, or formulaic sequences such as at the end of the day, to be honest and raining cats and dogs. Wray (2002) defines the term formulaic sequence as:

“a sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated: that is, stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar” (p.9).

Formulaic sequence, also known as multiword expression or prefabricated language, is an umbrella term to cover other linguistic phenomena, including the following:

  • Collocation: A combination of two words that frequently occur together (e.g., big surprise and pay attention)
  • Idiom: An expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from its constituent words (e.g., once in a blue moon means not very often)
  • Phrasal verb: An idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and a preposition (e.g., to get over means to recover from something)

Why is it important?

Formulaic sequences are important for several reasons. First, they are critical components of both spoken and written texts. According to Erman and Warren (2000), multiword expressions are estimated to account for up to 50% of the English language. With such prevalence, knowledge of formulaic sequences is essential for successful communicative purposes.

Second, formulaic sequences facilitate the processing of perceived information. When people hear or see a word in a fixed combination (e.g., pros), they can anticipate what will appear next (e.g., and cons). In other words, language users can process formulaic sequences faster than unpredicted word combinations. Lastly, the use of multiword expressions in speaking and writing can contribute to learners’ greater fluency and establish their identity as proficient language users (Siyanova-Chanturia & Pellicer-Sánchez, 2019).

My reflection

In my teaching context for EFL students, most of the class time is devoted to practicing the four English skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing). This is because students are required to complete one of the language proficiency tests such as IELTS or TOEFL in order to graduate from universities, and teaching is often oriented by testing. As vocabulary is not a separate component in those skill-based tests, the time and effort spent on it in the classroom are usually insufficient. Consequently, learners may not be fully aware of formulaic sequence and its importance.

In fact, multiword expressions receive a great attention from researchers in vocabulary studies, which leads to the creation of pedagogical word lists to support teaching and learning. Unfortunately, there appears to be a gap between research and practice as from my observation, these lists have not been commonly used in English classes. With the recommendations below, I hope to bring these valuable sources of formulaic sequences to a wider ELT community.

1. EAP foundation website

Several published lists are freely available on this website, including the Academic Idioms List (Miller, 2020), the Academic Collocation List (Ackermann & Chen, 2013) and the Academic Formulas List (Simpson-Vlach & Ellis, 2010).

2. Academic Phrase bank

This page is extremely handy for academic and scientific writers who are in need of prefabricated language for various writing functions such as describing trends, comparing and contrasting, signaling transitions, etc. Users can also find the formulaic sequences organized according to the main sections of a research paper (e.g., journal articles or dissertations).

Other useful published lists of formulaic sequences: An academic multiword unit list by Rogers et al. (2021), a list of phrasal verbs by Garnier and Schmitt (2015), a multiword expression list by Martinez and Schmitt (2012).


Erman, B., & Warren, B. (2000). The idiom principle and the open choice principle. Text & Talk, 20(1), 29–62.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2015). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 19(6), 645–666.

Martinez, R., & Schmitt, N. (2012). A Phrasal Expressions List. Applied Linguistics, 33(3), 299–320.

Miller, J. (2020). The bottom line: Are idioms used in English academic speech and writing? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43, 100810.

Rogers, J., Müller, A., Daulton, F. E., Dickinson, P., Florescu, C., Reid, G., & Stoeckel, T. (2021). The creation and application of a large-scale corpus-based academic multi-word unit list. English for Specific Purposes, 62, 142–157.

Simpson-Vlach, R., & Ellis, N. C. (2010). An Academic Formulas List: New methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics, 31(4), 487–512.

Siyanova-Chanturia, A., & Pellicer-Sánchez, A. (Eds.). (2019). Understanding formulaic language: A second language acquisition perspective. Routledge.

Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge University Press.

ELT Concepts 11-15 can be viewed below

ELT Concepts #11-15 – Teachers’ Perspectives

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