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Revision: Language and Politeness


Following our current trend of revision posts, we thought we’d cram in as much English Language as possible before the first exam on Wednesday. If you’re revising for component one, you may also find yesterday’s language acquisition post useful.


Most concepts about politeness focus on the idea of face; our public self-image that conversations need to respect (Goffman). There are two types of face: Positive face (our desire to be appreciated for who we are) and Negative face (our desire to act unimpeded).

The rules that we expect to be abided by in order to respect our face are called face wants. Any act that disobeys these is called a face-threatening act, and repairs made to fix these threats is called a face-saving act (Brown and Levinson).


When asking for things, there are multiple ways to go about it.

Off record speech is considered the most polite, and involves using implicature to ask for things. For example, asking someone to close the window by saying how cold it is, giving them the opportunity to ignore the request.

On record speech is still considered quite polite, as it still gives the other person the opportunity to refuse. For example, just directly asking someone “please close the window”.

Bald on record speech can be considered rude, as it involves using the imperative to tell someone to do something. However, in some contexts such as telling someone “Be careful!”, this is considered acceptable.

Requests can be softened by using mitigating devices such as “please” or modality.


Lakoff’s politeness principle gives three maxims for language users to follow: Don’t impose, give options and give compliments.

Giles’s Accommodation theory says that speakers adjust their speech to fit in with (or differentiate from) other speakers. They can converge to fit in with other speakers or diverge to highlight differences. Convergence comes in two forms: Upward convergence (to fit in with a highly regarded speaker) or downward convergence (to fit in with a lower regarded one).

Grice’s maxims or Grice’s cooperative principle gives four maxims that speech must follow: quality, quantity, relevance and manner. If speakers flout these maxims, their speech can be considered impolite.

Suler’s Online Disinhibition Effect suggests that online, the usual rules of politeness are lost. This can come in two forms: Benign disinhibition (oversharing) or Toxic disinhibition (actively trying to hurt others). This concept is also useful for the language of the 21st-century essay.

Murphy also suggested that different cultures focus more on different kinds of politeness. Some cultures, such as the USA, hold positive politeness as more important, whereas other cultures like the UK favour negative politeness. This can cause clashes in conversations, for example in the famous interview between Meg Ryan and Michael Parkinson.

As always, good luck! More revision for this can be found on my Memrise course.

One thought on “Revision: Language and Politeness

  1. Pingback: Revision: Standard and Non-Standard English | Blogolepsy

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