Expressing yourself. Technology helps.

I have to stay in touch.

There are many ways to do it, such as sending messages on my smartphone.

I write to say I’m going to call later.

Later, of course, I call a few times and my friends and family are busy.

At least, that’s what Whatsapp tells me.          

It’s such a complicated way to stay in touch.

I mean, I send messages a lot.

I write rather than talk.

Do I stay in touch so that I never actually need to talk?

I write a little and read a bit, but do I communicate?

I send photos as well as recording my voice.

In fact, I use all kinds of media to speak but am I likely to be heard?

I could go on with this poem but a number of you may get bored.  

So I ask you, have I said anything at all?

Obviously, I’m not a poet and I’m not really trying to get you to philosophise about modern communication. I actually just wanted to present you with the most common formulaic expressions in the English language.


Where?! I can’t see any expressions. I’ve been learning (or teaching) English for years and I can’t see any ‘expressions’. Yep. Formulaic expressions. Can’t you see them?

No? Well, according to Martinez and Schmitt (see the end of the article), my ‘poem’ contains 20 of the most frequently-used 21 expressions in the English language.

Can you see them now?

Here’s one from the first line to give you a clue: have to

Aside from the fact that you probably don’t recognise them as expressions (you’re probably thinking of longer things like How’s it going? or See you later! And you probably think of have to as a grammar item), you should also know that Martinez and Schmitt (ibid.) say these expressions are ‘deceptively transparent’ – you may think you know what they mean, but maybe you don’t. You probably understand the individual words separately but their combined meaning is less obvious, i.e. formulaic.

Needless to say, after lots of thinking and overthinking, and then some justifying in ways that I still don’t really understand, these two scholars are telling us that these expressions are important to learn. That’s good enough for me!

You can check it out HERE if you don’t want to take my word for it…but if your English is not that advanced, be prepared for some hard work.

Have you identified any of them yet?

Maybe you could ask someone. Not your English teachers though. Especially if they’re native speakers. They have terrible intuitions about how common or how useful expressions are. (But, don’t tell them that. Remember they’re the experts – see Experts? Who Needs Them?)

Many years ago we (not me; applied linguists and people like that) realised that we need the help of technology, powerful computer programmes which analyse corpora (extremely large collections of spoken and written texts), to find out how people actually use languages and which individual words and blocks of words (chunks, expressions, etc) are most frequent. Without computers, we usually get this wrong.

If you are a native-speaker teacher reading this, I’m sorry. First of all, sorry if this is old news. But also if you feel this undermines your credibility – don’t worry, you’ve still got all those incredibly interesting but pretty useless idioms only you can understand and (sometimes) explain. Take this frequency intuition test to see whether that’s fair or not in your case.

If you’re a learner, see below for these important formulaic expressions. Go and underline them in the text, find them online, make sure you understand them, ask your teachers, and practise using them. Even better, check out the link to the full list to see the top 505 combinations. If you’re still reading this, you’ll probably know how to use a lot of them but you may want to explore further:

1) have to

2) There are

3) such as

4) going to

5) of course

6) a few

7) at least           

8) such a

9) I mean

10) a lot

11) rather than

12) so that

13) a little

14) a bit

15) as well as

16) In fact

17) (be) likely to

18) go on

19) a number of

21) at all


Do you recognise these as the most frequent ‘formulaic expressions’ or are you surprised?

Martinez and Schmitt say that this language is not given enough importance in language learning materials. What do you think?

Martinez, R. and Schmitt, N. 2012, A Phrasal Expressions List, Applied Linguistics 2012: 33/3: 299–320, Oxford University Press, see here:

Frequency Trainer:

“you can check it out HERE”:

The PHRASE List –

Posted in Lifestyle Tagged with: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join our Student Magazine mailing list

Last Name*
Fuente de Posible cliente
Suscripción Revista