Pro forma

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Pro forma, a prepositional phrase used as an adverbial in Latin, has been used in English as an adverb since 1572, an adjective since 1823, and a noun since 1928, when Edmund Blunden wrote in Undertones of War: "He rejoiced in inventing new Army Forms, which he called 'pro forma's'... Some of them were such that one's best information could not find a heading in them" (ii. 19, cited OED).

  • As an adverb, it means 'as a matter of form', 'for the sake of appearances', 'for politeness'.
  • As an adjective, it is used for describing something done 'for the sake of appearances'.
  • As a noun, it appears to be an unnecessary elaboration of the plain word 'form' - a prepared document, or template for a document, which requires a respondent only to fill in a certain number of blank spaces.
    • The plural form of the English noun is pro formas. Pedants have been known to dispute this, saying that the Latin was originally pro forma tantum; but the adverbial tantum is not inflected, and pro forma tantums seems barbarous. The best Latin form of the plural might be pro formis - but the Romans did not use the phrase as a noun. The English do, however unnecessarily, and therefore the English plural should be used - as given in Speake, 1999: "plural pro formas". AER's advice is that:
The plural of the noun pro forma is forms -
- and the singular is form.


Etymological note: the earliest record in OED of 'pro forma' in English is by Archbishop Whitgift in 1572: "The learned Papiste...commeth [to Holy Communion] onely for feare of punishement, or pro forma tantum, for fashion sake" (An answere to a certen libel intituled An admonition to the parliament, 180); Whitgift was asserting the authority of the English Reformation, and attempting to suppress the Roman Catholic religion). 'Pro forma tantum', word by word, means 'for' '[the] form' 'only' therefore meaning 'only for form's sake'.