form and pro forma

When I lived in South Africa, I often claimed that the country's major industry was bureaucracy. As a foreigner, I had reason to feel this, since until I was granted permanent residence (not very permanent, it turned out), I had to stand for a few hours on a (BrE) queue/(AmE) line every three to six months in order to have my work permit renewed. There was one year in which I had three chest x-rays--first they lost one, and then they made me incorrect identity documents...twice. The first time, my ID book said I was born in South Africa, the second time it said I was born in Albania (see evidence right--first name covered with (BrE) toilet roll/(AmE) toilet paper in order to maintain a sense of mystery). It also said I was a South African citizen, which was never true. By the time all the corrections were processed, the second x-ray had 'expired', so I had to prove again that I was tuberculosis-free. So, if I ever come down with any cancers of the upper torso, we'll know which government to blame.

But it turns out that South Africans are mere amateurs at bureaucracy compared to Higher Education in England. My life is paperwork. Paperwork if I want to give students an extra week to write their essays. Evaluations to write up about my students' evaluations of my courses. Then evaluations of the external examiner's evaluations of my evaluation of my students. (Most American universities don't even have external examiners.) Evaluations of all the courses in the department, then evaluations of all of the degrees on which those courses are offered. My reading lists have to be written up in at least three different formats (one for the library, one for the bookshop, one for the students) before each course. And, just like in South Africa, there's always someone in some office to tell you that you've misinterpreted a question or you were supposed to fill out a CQ3 instead of a QC3, and therefore your proposal/evaluation/application won't be considered again until the next committee meeting.

But the most difficult part is that I have a big block against talking about this paperwork, because I just can't get my brain around the local terminology. My colleagues use the term pro forma for what I would call a form. This is a Latin prepositional phrase that means 'on account of form'. Using it as an adverb seems natural (It was done pro forma), as does using it as an adjective (a pro forma document). My colleagues use it as a noun, though, which I've never experienced outside the UK. The noun sense ('an official form for completion' [OED]) is not found in American dictionaries (well, at least not Merriam-Webster's or American Heritage), but is in Oxford's. It's spelt a variety of ways:

1945 Ann. Trop. Med. & Parasitol. XXXIX. 226 A senior member of the nursing staff..checked that the patient took the tablet and recorded each dose given and taken on a pro-forma. [OED]

1978 Jrnl. R. Soc. Med. LXXI. 413 Details of the illness were recorded on a proforma. [OED]

Use of a pro forma for head injuries in the accident and emergency department [Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine, 1994]
The examples above make clear that use of this term is common in medical jargon, but I'm here to tell you that the term is alive and well in English Higher Education as well.

Now, form in this meaning is perfectly sayable in British English, so I'm not really sure what has motivated the use of pro forma as a noun. But we can note that form has another sense in BrE, relating to a division of students in a school, discussed back here.


  1. I can help you here. For most of my life the British word was "form". "Pro Forma" seems to me to be an introduction of the last 20 or so years, by a generation where essentially no-one learnt any Latin and so persuaded itself (I guess) that Latin-sounding things are somehow posher. I have even heard it used, more than once, where the speaker presumably meant "pro rata". I think that accountants have a weakness for "pro forma" but what they suppose they mean by it I have no idea. In my own wee world I fight the same battle against "pro forma" that I wage against "Executive Summary".

  2. When I say "introduction" I'm not referring to the first sighting, as of some exotic insect. I mean when it first became a common pest.

  3. Thanks for that, dearieme! The OED has an army use that dates back to the 1920s, but the quotation makes clear that the term was 'exotic' then, and then we have medical uses. (And no one should be too surprised when doctors use Latin where English would do.)

    In 1977 there's a quotation from Wandsworth Borough Council, in which it doesn't look exotic--that is, it's not italici{s/z}ed, put in (BrE) inverted commas/(AmE) quotation marks or remarked upon. So the populari{s/z}ation of it may have begun by about 30 years ago.

  4. 30 rather than 20? I won't argue with that.

  5. I'm familiar with pro forma from invoicing clients, as in giving someone a preliminary invoice, where final details will be worked out at a later date. My dentist's office manager gives me a pro forma every time she schedules an appointment. It's their way of softening the blow to my wallet. It's an estimate, on paper.

    The use of pro forma instead of form is just sloppiness. It comes from the same lack of attention that prompts people to say Safeways instead of Safeway.

  6. Does it help to think of it as a shortening of the phrase "pro forma document"? Kind of like a high school formal dance gets called a "formal."

    Even if that's not how it came about, it might help you to use the phrase more easily.

  7. I'm sure that's how it came about, but a little knowledge of Latin is a dangerous thing, and so it doesn't feel like saying formal for formal dance, it feels more like a prepositional phrase.

    But seeing as it's not the only way (and not even a favo(u)red way, if the opinions above are to be taken as representative) of saying/meaning form in BrE, I don't feel particularly motivated to start using pro forma in place of the perfectly usable form.

  8. The relationship betwen formal and formal dance prompts a question about proms, The Proms, promenading, and promenades. Any thoughts on this little family?

  9. I haven't got a lot of thoughts on the matter, except that in both countries prom was originally short for promenade, but the meaning has floated pretty far from that now. Probably a topic for a separate post.

  10. I'm with David on this one - pro forma to me refers only to an invoice that requires paying before the goods or services are supplied. I've never come across it used in other contexts in the UK. Perhaps it's a Civil Service thing.

    But on other matters in your post - both toilet roll and toilet paper are spoken of in the UK, in my experience, though neither happily; call me old-fashioned or a snob, but in my view only loo roll/paper, lav roll/paper, lavatory roll/paper or bog roll will do. Toilet tissue is the worst - like nails on a blackboard...

  11. I worked in a correspondence (answering) office in an Australian Public Service office in the late '60s and early '70s. The term pro forma was quite common. But it was used to describe an answer by a form letter with minimal original additions, rather than a form.

    As in:

    Use pro forma no. 12b to reply to that letter.

  12. Yes, I've heard that use in BrE too. Thanks, Interface.

  13. I haven't heard toilet roll used in the UK to mean a piece of loo paper, rather than the whole roll - do you have a source for this?

  14. Here's an example from a London blogger:

    "We shared a chaste kiss goodbye when he dropped me off home and a quick check in the hallway mirror after he left revealed that I did not have food in my teeth, was not trailing toilet roll on my shoe, nor was my skirt tucked into my pants."

    I think it'd be better in either dialect to put a piece of or a bit of before toilet roll/paper in that context...but that's not what I did on that day...

  15. British-type toilet-roll has a strange, Tardis-like effect in that it can actually cover much more space than it appears to occupy when looked at. I suppose this is because of its customary, erm, absorbent use when not employed to veil mysterious parts of e.g. visas, passports, bus-passes. In trying to guess Ms Guist's enigmatic first name, we must therefore think in terms of really long names like Morwenna, Maddalena and Margaret or maybe Maximiliana. The winner will get a free definition by me of xmrzvix, which is Blogger's latest coinage and the code I must enter to post this.

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  17. This is a bit belated, but out of the places I have lived (Manchester UK, Boston, NYC, Vermont, and Stockholm) I have only ever seen pro forma used as a noun in Vermont.

    What a quandary.

  18. I always **hated** this usage in Britain! It seemed to be loved by administrative/secretarial types who thought that any Latin phrase, no matter how inappropriate, might make people take their directives more seriously. I'm very happy that it seems to be absent in the US.

  19. Really necro post here but the use I have seen of proforma (written as one word) is for a sample form to be personalised by the end user for use as a form

  20. It's as common as dust at my place of work when referring to anything that needs to be filled in, say, like a form, so much so that it just isn't worth raising it even as a light-hearted observation. Drives me up the wall, but it's a losing battle. Put it down to the evolution of language and never mind that it's just plain wrong. Definitely comes from the same affliction that gave us "methodology" instead of simply "method".

  21. In Russian проформа (proforma, one word) is used as a synonym for "formality" (as in "no real importance"), usually in the form of для проформы (for proforma), literally "for for (!) the sake of form".

  22. OED etymology
    pro forma = Latin pro forma as a formality
    form = Latin forma, primarily shape, configuration

    Both have been used for hundreds of years.

    So different origins. One definition of form, and there are many, is a 'formulary document with blanks for the insertion of particulars'. Definitions of pro forma relate to formality, e.g., 'Designating a formal or standard document, esp. an invoice sent in advance of goods ordered'. So you could have a pro forma form or an informal form. You could call the latter a form.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)