chunk (language acquisition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

chunk and chunking
The fairy tale phrases "Once upon a time" and " . . . lived happily ever after" are examples of chunks or formulaic expressions. (JDawnInk/Getty Images)


In studies of language acquisition, the term chunk refers to several words that are customarily used together in a fixed expression, such as "in my opinion," "to make a long story short," "How are you?" or "Know what I mean?" Also known as language chunk, lexical chunk, praxon, formulated speech, formulaic phrase, formulaic speech, lexical bundle, lexical phrase, and collocation.

Chunk and chunking were introduced as cognitive terms by psychologist George A.

Miller in his paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" (1956).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "Here is one that got away, and lived to tell the tale."
    (Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983, 2009)
  • "Oh, by the way, how's the Florence Henderson look working for you?"
    (Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester, "The Power of Madonna." Glee, 2010)
  • "Once upon a time, there was a lovely princess. But she had an enchantment upon her of a fearful sort, which could only be broken by love's first kiss."
    (Shrek, 2001)
  • "The only thing Junior Singleton reads cover to cover is a matchbook."
    (The Red Green Show, 1991)
  • "It may be that across the immensity of space the Martians have watched the fate of these pioneers of theirs and learned their lesson, and that on the planet Venus they have found a securer settlement. Be that as it may, for many years yet there will certainly be no relaxation of the eager scrutiny of the Martian disk, and those fiery darts of the sky, the shooting stars, will bring with them as they fall an unavoidable apprehension."
    (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1898)

  • "'Do you know the phrase watershed moment, buddy?'

    "I nodded. You didn't have to be an English teacher to know that one; you didn't even have to be literate. It was one of those annoying linguistic shortcuts that show up on cable TV news shows, day in and day out. Others include connect the dots and at this point in time. The most annoying of all (I have inveighed against it to my clearly bored students time and time and time again) is the totally meaningless some people say, or many people believe."
    (Stephen King, 11/22/63. Scribner, 2011)
  • Uses of Prefabricated Chunks
    - "It seems that in the initial stages of first language acquisition and natural second language acquisition we acquire unanalysed chunks, but that these gradually get broken down into smaller components . . ..

    "The prefabricated chunks are utilised in fluent output, which, as many researchers from different traditions have noted, largely depends on automatic processing of stored units. According to Erman and Warren's (2000) count, about half of running text is covered by such recurrent units."
    (J. M. Sinclair and A. Mauranen, Linear Unit Grammar: Integrating Speech and Writing. John Benjamins, 2006)

    - "If I find an especially felicitous way of expressing an idea, I may store up that turn of phrase so that the next time I need it it will come forth as a prefabricated chunk, even though to my hearer it may not be distinguishable from newly generated speech. This . . . kind of expression, then, not only is completely analyzable by the grammar of the language but as a result of its transparency has a dual status for the speaker: It can be handled either as a single unit or as a complex construction with internal structure (e.g., words can be inserted into or deleted from the phrase, or the grammatical structure can be changed as needed)."
    (Ann M. Peters, The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press, 1983)
  • Formulaic Phrases vs. Literal Expressions
    "[T]he formulaic phrase has unique properties: it is cohesive and unitary in structure (sometimes with aberrant grammatical form), often nonliteral or deviant in meaning properties, and usually contains a nuanced meaning that transcends the sum of its (lexical) parts. The canonical form of the expression ('formuleme') is known to native speakers. This is to say that a formulaic expression functions differently in form, meaning, and use from a matched, literal, novel, or propositional expression (Lounsbury, 1963). 'It broke the ice,' for example, as a formula, differs regarding meaning representation, exploitation of lexical items, status in language memory, and range of possible usages, when compared to the exact same sequence of words as a novel expression."
    (Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, "Formulaic and Novel Language in a 'Dual Process' Model of Language Competence." Formulaic Language, Vol. 2., ed. by Roberta Corrigan et al. John Benjamins, 2009)
  • Criticism of the Lexical-Chunk Approach
    "Michael Swan, a British writer on language pedagogy, has emerged as a prominent critic of the lexical-chunk approach. Though he acknowledges, as he told me in an e-mail, that 'high-priority chunks need to be taught,' he worries that 'the "new toy" effect can mean that formulaic expressions get more attention than they deserve, and other aspects of language--ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills--get sidelined.'

    "Swan also finds it unrealistic to expect that teaching chunks will produce nativelike proficiency in language learners. 'Native English speakers have tens or hundreds of thousands--estimates vary--of these formulae at their command,' he says. 'A student could learn 10 a day for years and still not approach native-speaker competence.'"
    (Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Chunking." The New York Times Magazine, Sep. 19, 2010)