Pragmatics is a sub-field of linguistics concerned with the communicative function of utterances apart from their literal
interpretation or grammatical structure. Take for example the following utterances which, when spoken in a particular context
and with a particular tone of voice, mean the opposite of the words employed (the intended meaning is in parentheses):
You're a real genius (You are an idiot)
Well, that's just wonderful (That is not good)
Nice job (Poorly done)
disagreeing and criticizing in a sarcastic way -- which is not necessarily "nice," but is in fact gentler than the direct form, e.g.,
"You are an idiot." Consider the literal meaning of these sentences:
Do you know what time it is?
Can I get some more coffee?
Yes, I do know what time it is.
You might be able to get more coffee.
putting requests or commands in question form "softens" them and makes them more polite.
To understand the speaker's pragmatic intentions requires pragmatic competence. To misunderstand the speaker's intentions
-- for instance, to answer "do you know what time it is" with only "yes I do" -- is a case of pragmatic failure. A good deal of cross-
cultural miscommunication is the result of pragmatic failure, as illustrated by my misunderstanding of "慢慢吃" and "慢走"
mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. It is in this area where literal translations create problems: English translations "eat
slowly" and "walk slowly" do not carry the pragmatic intentions of the original Chinese.
Just being polite
Linguist Robin Lakoff asserts that pragmatic competence in informal conversation is more a matter of "reaffirming and
strengthening relationships" (being polite), than a matter of conveying important ideas [in Bonvillain 2003:126]. So when the
two matters are in conflict, politeness usually wins out. Politeness in speaking, according to Lakoff, has three goals:
1. To avoid imposing on, or making requirements of the hearer
time," which may be the actual requirement being made.
know." It would be even more polite to ask "Could you tell me the time?" The hearer has more response options, such
as "No, I could not," or "I could, but I don't want to," etc.
feature of all cultures, but all cultures do not express friendliness in the same way or to the same degree in every
situation. Moreover, rules of politeness depend on who is being polite to whom -- children to parents, stranger to
stranger, employer to employee, for example -- and these roles and their obligations are culturally defined.
An amusing story is told of a North American man visiting a South American country who offered his Latin host a compliment,
saying, "I really like your shirt." The next day, the host handed his foreign guest a gift-wrapped package, which was politely and
gratefully received. When the North American returned home, he opened the package and found the same shirt he had
complimented! The speech act of complimenting was misconstrued as a request.
We will examine cultural rules for polite interaction in detail in a later chapter, so for now, one more example will suffice:
(Female Chinese Student and male American Teacher finish a conversation after a chance meeting in a hallway)
AT: Okay, well, we should talk again some time.
AT: Um... We'll play it by ear.
statement, "We should talk again some time" was just as surprising to the student. Was he so interested in seeing her again?
Could there be romance in the air? In fact, out of habit the teacher was offering an empty invitation -- a fairly common parting
speech act in American English. The student construed this as a sincere invitation. As a result of pragmatic failure, each party
walked away with wrong ideas about the other.
Context is cultural, social, situational and sequential -- meanings are constrained by what has come before. If someone says,
"Good thing I brought my coat," we can't be sure what this means unless we assume, for example, that he has just come in
from outdoors, in which case the pragmatic intentions would be to say it was cold outside. Let's imagine that the above
dialogue between teacher and student is taking place after the interlocutors have already had two chance hallway meetings in
one day, this being their third encounter. In this case, their words might have very different meanings:
time to go.)
AT: Okay, well, we should talk again some time. (Said sarcastically, jokingly, meaning: We seem to talk a lot, don't we?)
CS: When? (Said jokingly.)
AT: Um... We'll play it by ear. (Said jokingly.)
2.1.6. Strategic competence
Sociolinguists Canale and Swain identify three parts of communicative competence: grammatical competence, pragmatic
competence, and strategic competence. We have already noted the necessary competences of forming correct sentences
(grammar) and understanding how meaning is created in social context (pragmatics). A third competence involves strategies
of avoiding or remedying breakdowns in communication, which are common occurrences in everyday native speech. Examples
can be quite simple, such as saying "pardon?" when one doesn't hear clearly was what spoken. Native speaker
communication strategies are basically attempts to (1) affirm the hearer's attention and comprehension, and (2) clarify what the
speaker has said, requesting additional information if necessary. Let's illustrate these two points with a telephone
conversation between two male speakers of American English. The number in parentheses indicates attempts to affirm or
B: What guy? (2)
A: That salesman guy.
B: Oh yeah. (1) No, here's the thing, right... (1)
A: Mm. (1)
B: he left that message a long time ago...
A: Mm. (1)
B: and I didn't call him back, y'know? (1)
A: Right. (1)
B: I have no interest in that "Amway" kind of...
A: Amway? (2)
B: You know, (1) like a pyramid scheme.
A: Oh (1)...
beginning of this chapter. This conversation could have taken place between native speakers of just about any language.
Language learners, however, face additional challenges when confronted with breakdowns in communication. Probably every
language learner has felt the frustration of understanding every word except one, and that one word is the key to understanding
everything else. For instance, I once took a Chinese language test (no dictionary allowed) in which I had to translate a short
article which was based on a term I didn't know. Although I knew every character in the article, I couldn't guess from the context
what the key term was -- what the article was about. So I took a guess, and I guessed wrong! (It was天文學家 -- "astronomer" --
and I guessed it was "philosopher").
Language learners can rely on a dictionary when reading, but in face-to-face interaction with native speakers, learners need to
rely on affirming and clarifying strategies. Too often, learners will let a native speaker talk on and on, and will nod and say "mm-
hm," "yes," and so on, as if they comprehend, but in fact they do not. The learner should also set the pace of the conversation, to
let native-speaking interlocutors know they need to slow down a bit. Therefore, phrases such as "I'm sorry, could you speak
slowly please?" and "Excuse me, could you repeat that?" are indispensable for non-native strategic competence. And when the
native speaker pauses or otherwise indicates a comprehension check, the language learner should take advantage of the
opportunity to ask for clarification.
The following two examples illustrate commonly used communication strategies between native speakers that would be very
useful for language learners: The first example illustrates paraphrasing or circumlocution, in which a speaker "talks around" an
unknown vocabulary item with other known vocabulary. The second example illustrates the importance of nonverbal
communication and a method of employing a neutral title when the addressee's social footing is not known.
1) Situation: American father and young son in the backyard, grilling hamburgers; father teaching son how to cook.
Speech act: Request (directive)
S: That what? Spach...?
F: The long thing with the flat part on it for flipping hamburgers.
Breakdown: Son does not understand the word "spatula."
Communication strategy: Paraphrasing (circumlocution)
2) Situation: Client and secretary in an investment office; client arrives for a scheduled appointment.
Speech acts: Announcing, requesting information
S: Okay, Miss... ? (raises eyebrows; voice intonation rises and trails off)
C: Sanders. Eileen Sanders.
S: Yes, Ms. Sanders, I'll tell him you are here.
other) client prefers.
Remedies: (1) Secretary uses the nonverbal strategy of raising her eyebrows and her intonation, in this case meaning, "What is
your name?" (2) Secretary uses a neutral title, "Ms.," rather than ask which title client prefers.
Communication strategies: (1) Nonverbal request for information in context (2) Guessing and employing a neutral title.
2.1.7. Language and social footing: Status and solidarity
George Orwell said, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." That is to say, status differentials
are a fact of life. Regardless of egalitarian ideals, there are some people who are older than others, know more than others
and have more than others. But there is also an interest in polite cooperation among people, as previously mentioned.
Therefore, cultures have devised linguistic ways of showing respect and marking social footing, noting where they stand in a
status hierarchy. People are concerned not only with marking status, but also with showing solidarity or friendliness. Status
equals are less constrained to use polite terms for each other, as the relational goal of equals is to establish solidarity.
Status markers are fairly clear in Chinese, in which terms for siblings mark their rank in birth order (姐，妹，哥，第), and polite
terms for man and woman translate literally in English as "earlier born" (先生) and "young elder sister" (小姐). Yet, of course,
calling a woman "小姐" does not necessarily mean she was born before you -- it is just a polite thing to say, and a matter of habit.
Status in American English is marked quite differently. Sibling terms brother and sister mark gender but not birth order (cousin
marks neither). Polite terms sir, ma'am or miss are understood to be markers of status, but are most commonly used as polite
forms of address for persons whose names are not known (it has been observed that Americans often prefer to say "hey, uh,"
"excuse me" or simply speak directly, avoiding any form of address). Generally speaking, Americans prefer to downplay
formality and establish solidarity as soon as possible. Hence you may have observed an exchange like the following in
B: Hutchins -- Bob Hutchins (extends hand for handshake). Please call me Bob.
A: Nice to meet you, Bob. I'm Sam Perrido.
B: (Nods) Sam.
frequently used forms of address in American English are first name (Bob) and title + last name (Mr. Hutchins).
Formality vs. informality
Which form of address Americans will use depends on the formality of the situation, or, in sociolinguist's terms, the setting. In
an informal setting, two men might address each other with first names, e.g., Bob and Sam. But if these same men were
lawyers in a courtroom -- a formal setting -- they would address each other as Mr. Hutchins and Mr. Perrido. If, however, Sam
were 16 years old and Bob 45, Sam would likely say "Mr. Hutchins" and Bob would say "Sam." Likewise, Bob and Sam might
use these unequal forms of address if they were lawyer and client, respectively. Therefore, in two-party interactions, there are
three ways interlocutors might address each other:
(1) Both use first name (status unmarked, informal setting)
(2) One uses the other's first name, the other uses title and last name (status marked, formal or informal setting)
(3) Both use title and last name (status marked, formal setting)
Anthropologist Judith Irvine identifies four universal aspects of a formal setting, which I will illustrate with the example of
parents having a conference with their child's elementary school teacher:
(1) Increased structure and etiquette
for example), use titles (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), and observe such customs as handshakes, invitations to sit down, etc. The
meeting will have a definite structure, controlled by the teacher.
tone. All parties are expected to maintain serious (but not grave) facial expressions.
matter at hand.
behavior at school -- should remain in focus. A lawyer in a courtroom trial shouldn't engage the judge in an
extemporaneous chat about golf, for example.
On the whole, formal language is polite and informal language is casual. In English, informal usage is marked by contractions
(what're, gonna, wanna, hafta -- fluid, slurred pronunciation), imprecise terms (stuff, thing, like, sort of, kind of) and slang (cool,
dude, chick, junk). A few examples follow:
As much as Americans may seem to downplay formality, they have no less an elaborate system of indicating politeness than
any other culture. In general, American informality increases with familiarity: The more familiar one is, the fewer forms of
politeness are required. It would not be impolite to say to my close friend, for example, "Hey, what time is it?" But generally
speaking, I wouldn't say this to a passerby on the street -- although I might say it to a child. As an adult, I might take offense if a
child I do not know said "Hey, what time is it?" to me -- this is a case of both social status and familiarity. As a rule (traditionally,
I should say), children are expected to use polite forms when addressing adults, as are employees addressing employers,
citizens addressing government officials, and so on. The point is, it is not safe to assume that because American culture
seems to favor informality, you can be informal with whomever you meet. The details and exceptions to rules of politeness are
so complex that learning these subtleties is best done while immersed in the social context. It's safest to start out formal.
While living in Taiwan, I was asked on many occasions if American students address a teacher by his or her first name. My
answer is: In my experience in kindergarten through twelfth grade -- being part of the school system in New York state as a
student and teacher -- I have never known a teacher who preferred or even allowed students to call him/her anything other than
title (Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms.) and last name while in school. This may be owing to customs in this region of the country, but it's safe
to assume Americans mark the status of K-12 teachers with polite forms of address. To call a teacher by his or her first name
would be to assume too much familiarity. Where professor and student are somewhat closer in age, as in college, and
especially graduate school, using first names is more common (but I personally prefer to use titles).
The common expression on a first name basis indicates familiarity and solidarity. If, for example, I were "on a first name basis"
with the President of the United States, people would be impressed that I, an ordinary citizen, could be so friendly with such a
powerful man. And if the President and I were friends, we would speak informally to each other, probably slurring our speech,
using plenty of imprecise terms and many colorful expressions such as feeling like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking
contest (describing defeat), or give him a knuckle sandwich (a punch in the mouth). Such language is often a sign of solidarity
among men, and the ability to use it well gives a man a special kind of status among men.
Men and women express solidarity differently. Research indicates that American females are more likely to sense solidarity
with each other despite status difference [Rubin 1981 in Wolfson]. General indications are that, while men tend to express
solidarity by using nonstandard language (slang), women tend to use gentler, more polite forms with each other.
Complimenting is also an expression of solidarity, and as we have discussed above, women tend to compliment one
another's appearance more than do men.
I have met many young Taiwanese learners of English (boys mainly, as it happens) who thought I would be impressed with
their use of informal, slangy language. To the contrary, I felt embarrassed for them (and a little annoyed) because, not only did
they assume too much familiarity, they did not observe an appropriate student/teacher social footing. Thus it is that persons
from one social group are expected to address persons from other social groups in appropriate, culturally-defined ways.