Indirect speech acts in modern English discourse. -

Indirect speech acts in modern English discourse. -





2.1. The cooperative principle.7

2.2. The theory of politeness ...8



3.1. The inference theory...10

3.2. Indirect speech acts as idioms?...12

3.3. Other approaches to the problem13







6.1. Fiction18

6.2. Publicism20

6.3. Advertising.21

6.4. Anecdotes...21







A great deal can be said in the study of

language without studying speech acts,

but any such purely formal theory is

necessarily incomplete. It would be as if

baseball were studied only as a formal

system of rules and not as a game.

John Rogers Searle

In the late 1950s, the Oxford philosopher John Austin gave

some lectures on how speakers do things with words and so

invented a theory of speech acts [10, 40] which now occupies

the central place in pragmatics (pragmatics is the study of how

we use language to communicate in a particular context). Austin

highlighted the initial contrast between the constative and the

performative. While constatives describe a state of affairs,

performatives (explicit and implicit) have the potential to bring

about a change in some state of affairs. Classical examples of

performatives include the naming of a ship, the joining of two

persons in marriage, and the sentencing of a criminal by an

authorised person. Austin distinguished between the locution of a

speech act (the words uttered), its illocution (the intention of

the speaker in making the utterance) and its perlocution (its

effects, intended or otherwise). Whereas constatives typically

have truth conditions to comply with, speech acts must satisfy

certain felicity conditions in order to count as an action:

there must be a conventional procedure; the circumstances and

people must be appropriate; the procedure must be executed

correctly and completely; often, the persons must have the

requisite thoughts, feelings, etc.

John Austins theory of speech acts was generalized to

cover all utterances by a student of Austin's, John Rogers Searle

[43, 69]. Searle showed that we perform speech acts every time we

speak. For example, asking What's the time? we are performing

the speech act of making a request. Turning an erstwhile

constative into an explicit performative looks like this: It is

now ten oclock means I hereby pronounce that it is ten o

clock in the morning.

In such a situation, the original constative versus

performative distinction becomes untenable: all speech is

performative. The important distinction is not between the

performative and the constative, but between the different kinds

of speech acts being performed, that is between direct and

indirect speech acts. Searle's hypothesis was that in indirect

speech acts, the speaker communicates the non-literal as well as

the literal meaning to the hearer. This new pragmatic trend was

named intentionalism because it takes into account the initial

intention of the speaker and its interpretation by the hearer.

Actuality of research:

The problem of indirect speech acts has got a great

theoretical meaning for analysis of the form/function relation in

language: the same form performs more than one function. To

generate an indirect speech act, the speaker has to use

qualitatively different types of knowledge, both linguistic and

extralinguistic (interactive and encyclopaedic), as well as the

ability to reason [45, 97]. A number of theories try to explain

why we make indirect speech acts and how we understand their non-

literal meaning, but the research is still far from being


The practical value of research lies in the fact that it is

impossible to reach a high level of linguistic competence without

understanding the nature of indirect speech acts and knowing

typical indirect speech acts of a particular language.

The tasks of research:

analysis of the theories on indirect speech acts;

finding out why interlocutors generate indirect speech acts

instead of saying exactly what they mean;

comparing typical indirect speech acts in English and in


providing examples of indirect speech acts in various

communicational situations.

The object of research is a speech act as a communicational

action that speakers perform by saying things in a certain way in

a certain context.

The subject of research is an indirect speech act as the

main way in which the semantic content of a sentence can fail to

determine the full force and content of the illocutionary act

being performed in using the sentence.

Methods of research include critical analysis of scientific

works on the subject, analysis of speech of native English

speakers in various communicational situations, analysis of

speech behavior of literary personages created by modern British

and American writers.


Communication is successful not when

hearers recognize the linguistic meaning of the

utterance, but when they infer the speaker's

meaning from it.

Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson

Most of what human beings say is aimed at success of

perlocutionary acts, but because perlocutionary effects are

behavioural, cognitive, or emotional responses they are not

linguistic objects. What linguists can properly look at, however,

are the intentions of speakers to bring about certain

perlocutionary effects which are called illocutionary intentions.

The basis of a speech act is the speakers intention to

influence the hearer in a desired way. The intention can be

manifested and latent. According to O.G. Pocheptsov [13,74],

latent intentions cannot be linguistically analyzed while

manifested intentions can be divided into evident and inferable.

The illocutinary intention of indirect speech acts is inferable.

Three broad illocutionary categories are normally

identified a statement, a question and a command/request -

having typical realisations in declarative, interrogative and

imperative verb forms. But sometimes the syntactic form of a

sentence is not a good guide to the act it is performing. In

indirect speech acts the agreement between the intended function

and the realised form breaks down, and the outward (locutionary)

form of an utterance does not correspond with the intended

illocutionary force of the speech act which it performs [37,

263]. In indirection a single utterance is the performance of one

illocutionary act by way of performing another. Indirect speech

acts have two illocutionary forces [45, 195].

Searles classical example of an indirect speech act is the

utterance Can you pass the salt? Without breaking any

linguistic norms we can regard it as a general question and give

a yes/no answer. But most often hearers interpret it as a

request. Likewise, the utterance There's a fly in your soup

may be a simple assertion but, in a context, a warning not to

drink the soup. The question What's the time? might, when one

is looking for an excuse to get rid of an unwelcome guest, be

intended as a suggestion that the guest should leave.

Analogously, the statement I wouldn't do this if I were you has

the congruent force of an imperative: Don't do it!

In his works Searle gives other interesting examples of

indirect speech acts: Why dont you be quiet? It would be a good

idea if you gave me the money now. How many times have I told you

(must I tell you) not to eat with your fingers? I would

appreciate it if you could make less noise. In some contexts

these utterances combine two illocutionary forces and sound

idiomatic, even though they are not idioms in the proper sense of

the term. Each utterance contains an imperative (secondary

illocution) realized by means of a question or a statement

(primary illocution).

Paul Grice illustrates indirectness by the following

utterances [4, 22]: There is a garage around the corner used to

tell someone where to get petrol, and Mr. X's command of English

is excellent, and his attendance has been regular, giving the

high points in a letter of recommendation. A simple example of an

indirect speech act gives B.Russel: When parents say Puddle!

to their child, what they mean is Dont step into it! [41,

195]. These are examples in which what is meant is not

determined by what is said.

We can make a request or give permission by way of making

a statement, e.g. by uttering I am getting thirsty. or It

doesn't matter to me. We can make a statement or give an order

by way of asking a question, such as Will the sun rise

tomorrow? or Can you clean up your room? When an illocutionary

act is performed indirectly, it is performed by way of performing

some other one directly.

It has been found that indirect expressives, directives and

representatives compose the most numerous group of indirect

speech acts [11, 23].

The study of indirect speech acts has mostly dealt with

requests in various guises. Jerrold M. Sadock identified some

exotic species: whimperatives - indirect requests in the form

of a question, e.g. Can't you (please) do something? and Do

something, will you?; queclaratives - the speaker directly

questions and indirectly makes an assertion: Does anyone do A

any more? meaning "Nobody does A any more"; requestions are

quiz questions to which the speaker knows the answer, e.g.

Columbus discovered America in ...? [42, 168].

Summarizing, we can say that indirection is the main way in

which the semantic content of a sentence can fail to determine

the full force and content of the illocutionary act being

performed in using the sentence.


Everything that is worded too directly nowadays


the risk of being socially condemned.

Ye. Klyuev

2.1. The cooperative principle

An insight into indirectness is based on the

Cooperative Principle developed by Paul Grice [4, 14-76]:

language users tacitly agree to cooperate by making their

contributions to the conversation to further it in the desired

direction. Grice endeavoured to establish a set of general

principles explaining how language users convey indirect meanings

(so-called conversational implicatures, i.e. implicit meanings

which have to be inferred from what is being said explicitly, on

the basis of logical deduction). Adherence to this principle

entails that speakers simultaneously observe 4 maxims:

1) Maxim of Quality:

- Do not say what you believe to be false.

- Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

2) Maxim of Relevance:

- Be relevant.

3) Maxim of Quantity:

- Make your contribution as informative as required.

- Do not make your contribution more informative than

is required.

4) Maxim of Manner:

- Avoid obscurity of expression.

- Avoid ambiguity.

- Be brief.

- Be orderly.

This general description of the normal expectations we have

in conversations helps to explain a number of regular features in

the way people say things. For instance, the common expressions

"Well, to make a long story short" or "I won't bore you with the

details" indicate an awareness of the maxims of quantity and

manner. Because we assume that other speakers are following these

maxims, we often draw inferences based on this assumption.

At one level, cooperative behaviour between the

interactants means that the conversational maxims are being

followed; but at another and more important level, cooperative

behaviour still operates even if the conversational maxims are

apparently broken. For instance, when the speaker blatantly and

openly says something which appears to be irrelevant and

ambiguous (flouts the maxims of relevance and manner), it can be

assumed that s/he really intends to communicate something which

is relevant and unambiguous, but does so implicitly:

- I don't suppose you could manage tomorrow evening?

- How do you like to eat?

- Actually I rather enjoy cooking myself. [J.


The second remark, instead of being a direct answer (a

statement), is a question formally not connected with the first

remark. The maxims of relevance and manner are flouted. The

inferable implicature is: Yes, I can.Analogously, the

implication of the third remark is inferred: I invite you to

have dinner at my place.

If we were forced to draw only logical inferences, life

would be a lot more difficult. Conversations would take longer

since we would have to say things which reasonable language-users

currently infer.

Searle adds one more conversational maxim [45, 126]: Speak

idiomatically unless you have a reason not to. He exemplifies

this maxim like this: if we say archaically Knowest thou him who

calleth himself Richard Nixon? (not idiomatically), the

utterance will not be perceived as a usual question Do you know

Richard Nixon?

An important difference between implicatures and what is

said directly is that the speaker can always renounce the

implicatures s/he hinted at. For example, in Love and

friendship by A.Lourie the protagonist answers to a lady asking

him to keep her secret: A gentleman never talks of such things.

Later the lady finds out that he did let out her secret, and the

protagonist justifies himself saying: I never said I was a


Implicatures put a question of insincerity and hypocrisy

people resort to by means of a language (it is not by chance that

George Orwell introduced the word to double speak in his novel

1984). No doubt, implicatures are always present in human

communication. V.Bogdanov notes that numerous implicatures

raise the speakers and the hearers status in each others eyes:

the speaker sounds intelligent and knowledgeable about the

nuances of communication, and the hearer realizes that the

speaker relies on his shrewdness. Communication on the

implicature level is a prestigious type of verbal communication.

It is widely used by educated people: to understand

implicatures, the hearer must have a proper intellectual level.

( 1990:21).

The ancient rhetorician Demetrius declared the following:

People who understand what you do not literally say are not just

your audience. They are your witnesses, and well-wishing

witnesses at that. You gave them an occasion to show their wit,

and they think they are shrewd and quick-witted. But if you chew

over your every thought, your hearers will decide your opinion

of their intellect is rather low. ( 1973:273).

2.2. The theory of politeness

Another line of explanation of indirectness is provided by

a sociolinguistic theory of politeness developed in the late

1970s. Its founder Geoffrey Leech introduced the politeness

principle: people should minimize the expression of impolite

beliefs and maximize the expression of polite beliefs [36, 102].

According to the politeness theory, speakers avoid threats to the

face of the hearers by various forms of indirectness, and

thereby implicate their meanings rather than assert them

directly. The politeness theory is based on the notion that

participants are rational beings with two kinds of face wants

connected with their public self-image [26, 215]:

positive face - a desire to be appreciated and valued by

others; desire for approval;

negative face - concern for certain personal rights and

freedoms, such as autonomy to choose actions, claims on

territory, and so on; desire to be unimpeded.

Some speech acts (face threatening acts) intrinsically

threaten the faces. Orders and requests, for instance, threaten

the negative face, whereas criticism and disagreement threaten

the positive face. The perpetrator therefore must either avoid

such acts altogether (which may be impossible for a host of

reasons, including concern for her/his own face) or find ways of

performing them with mitigating of their face threatening

effect. For example, an indirectly formulated request (a son to

his father) Are you using the car tonight? counts as a face-

respecting strategy because it leaves room for father to refuse

by saying Sorry, it has already been taken (rather than the face-

threatening You may not use it). In that sense, the speakers

and the hearers faces are being attended to.

Therefore, politeness is a relative notion not only in its

qualitative aspect (what is considered to be polite), but in its

quantitative aspect as well (to what degree various language

constructions realize the politeness principle). Of course there

are absolute markers of politeness, e.g. please, but they are

not numerous. Most of language units gain a certain degree of

politeness in a context.



It has been pointed out above that in indirect speech acts

the relationship between the words being uttered and the

illocutionary force is often oblique. For example, the sentence

This is a pig sty might be used nonliterally to state that a

certain room is messy and filthy and, further, to demand

indirectly that it be cleaned up. Even when this sentence is used

literally and directly, say to describe a certain area of a

barnyard, the content of its utterance is not fully determined by

its linguistic meaning - in particular, the meaning of the word

this does not determine which area is being referred to.

How do we manage to define the illocution of an utterance

if we cannot do that by its syntactic form? There are several

theories trying to answer this question.

The inference theory

The basic steps in the inference of an indirect speech act

are as follows [37, 286-340]:

I. The literal meaning and force of the utterance are computed

by, and available to, the participants. The key to

understanding of the literal meaning is the syntactical

form of the utterance.

II. There is some indication that the literal meaning is

inadequate (a trigger of an indirect speech act).

According to Searle, in indirect speech acts the speaker

performs one illocutionary act but intends the hearer to infer

another illocution by relying on their mutually shared background

information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, as well as on

general powers of rationality and inference, that is on

illocutionary force indicating devices [43, 73]. The

illocutionary point of an utterance can be discovered by an

inferential process that attends to the speaker's prosody, the

context of utterance, the form of the sentence, the tense and

mood of verbs, knowledge of the language itself and of

conversational conventions, and general encyclopaedic knowledge.

The speaker knows this and speaks accordingly, aware that the

hearer - as a competent social being and language user - will

recognize the implications [32, 41]. So, indirectness relies on

conversational implicature: there is overwhelming evidence that

speakers expect hearers to draw inferences from everything that

is uttered. It follows that the hearer will begin the

inferential process immediately on being presented with the

locution. Under the cooperative principle, there is a convention

that the speaker has some purpose for choosing this very

utterance in this particular context instead of maintaining

silence or generating another utterance. The hearer tries to

guess this purpose, and in doing so, considers the context,

beliefs about normal behaviour in this context, beliefs about the

speaker, and the presumed common ground.

The fact that divergence between the form and the contents

of an utterance can vary within certain limits helps to discover

indirect speech acts: an order can be disguised as a request, a

piece of advice or a question, but it is much less probable as a


III. There are principles that allow us to derive the

relevant indirect force from the literal meaning and the context.

Searle suggests that these principles can be stated within

his theory of felicity conditions for speech acts [44, 38].

For example, according to Searles theory, a command or a

request has the following felicity conditions:

1. Asking or stating the preparatory condition:

Can you pass the salt? The hearer's ability to perform an

action is being asked.

Literally it is a question; non-literally it is a request.

2. Asking or stating the propositional content:

You're standing on my foot. Would you kindly get off my


Literally it is a statement or a question; non-literally it

is a request.

3. Stating the sincerity condition:

I'd like you to do this for me.

Literally it is a statement; non-literally it is a request.

4. Stating or asking the good/overriding reasons for doing

an action:

You had better go now. Hadn't you better go now? Why not go


Literally it is a statement or a question; non-literally it

is a request.

5. Asking if a person wants/wishes to perform an action:

Would you mind helping me with this? Would you mind if I

asked you if you could write me a reference?

Literally it is a question; non-literally it is a request

(in the last example an explicit directive verb is embedded).

All these indirect acts have several common features:

1. Imperative force is not part of the literal meaning of these


2. These sentences are not ambiguous.

3. These sentences are conventionally used to make requests. They

often have "please" at end or preceding the verb.

4. These sentences are not idioms, but are idiomatically

used as requests.

5. These sentences can have literal interpretations.

6. The literal meanings are maintained when they question

the physical ability: Can you pass the salt? - No, its too far

from me. I cant reach it.

7. Both the literal and the non-literal illocutionary acts

are made when making a report on the utterance:

The speaker: Can you come to my party tonight?

The hearer: I have to get up early tomorrow.

Report: He said he couldn't come. OR: He said he had to get

up early next morning.

A problem of the inference theory is that syntactic forms

with a similar meaning often show differences in the ease in

which they trigger indirect speech acts:

a) Can you reach the salt?

b) Are you able to reach the salt?

c) Is it the case that you at present have the ability to

reach the salt?

While (a) is most likely to be used as a request, (b) is

less likely, and (c) is highly unlikely, although they seem to

express the same proposition.

Another drawback of the inference theory is the complexity

of the algorithm it offers for recognizing and deciphering the

true meaning of indirect speech acts. If the hearer had to pass

all the three stages every time he faced an indirect speech act,

identifying the intended meaning would be time-consuming whereas

normally we recognize each others communicative intentions

quickly and easily.

3.2. Indirect speech acts as idioms?

Another line of explanation of indirect speech acts was

brought forward by Jerrold Sadock [42, 197]. According to his

theory, indirect speech acts are expressions based on an

idiomatic meaning added to their literal meaning (just like the

expression to push up daisies has two meanings: to increase

the distance of specimens of Bellis perennis from the center of

the earth by employing force and to be dead). Of course, we

do not have specific idioms here, but rather general idiom

schemes. For example, the scheme Can you + verb? is idiomatic

for commands and requests.

However, the idiomatic hypothesis is questionable as a

general strategy. One problem is that a reaction to an indirect

speech act can be composite to both the direct and the indirect

speech act, e.g.

The speaker: Can you tell me the time?

The hearer: Yes, its three oclock.

We never find this type of reaction to the literal and the

idiomatic intepretation of an idiom:

The speaker: Is he pushing the daisies by now?

Hearer 1: Yes/no (the idiomatic meaning is taken into


Hearer 2: Depends what you mean. As a gardener, yes (the

literal meaning is taken into account).

Another problem is that there is a multitude of different

(and seemingly semantically related) forms that behave in a

similar way:

a) Can you pass me the salt?

b) Could you pass me the salt?

c) May I have the salt?

d) May I ask you to pass the salt?

e) Would you be so kind to pass the salt?

f) Would you mind passing the salt?

Some of these expressions are obviously semantically

related (e.g. can/could, would you be so kind/would you mind),

and it seems that it is this semantic relation that makes them

express the same indirect speech act. This is different for

classical idioms, where the phrasing itself matters:

a) to push the daisies to be dead vs. to push the roses

b) to kick the bucket to die vs. to kick the barrel.

Hence, a defender of the idiom hypothesis must assume a

multitude of idiom schemes, some of which are obviously closely

semantically related.

Summarizing, we can say that there are certain cases of

indirect speech acts that have to be seen as idiomatized

syntactic constructions (for example, English why not-questions.)

But typically, instances of indirect speech acts should not be

analyzed as simple idioms.

3. Other approaches to the problem

The difference of the idiomatic and inference approaches

can be explained by different understanding of the role of

convention in communication. The former theory overestimates it

while the latter underestimates it, and both reject the

qualitative diversity of conventionality. Correcting this

shortcoming, Jerry Morgan writes about two types of convention in

indirect speech acts [39, 261]: conventions of language and

conventions of usage. The utterance Can you pass the salt?

cannot be considered as a regular idiom (conventions of

language), but its use for an indirect request is undoubtedly

conventional, i.e. habitual for everyday speech that is always

characterized by a certain degree of ritualization.

In accordance with this approach the function of an

indirect speech act is conventionally fixed, and an inference

process is not needed. Conventions of usage express what

Morgan calls short-circuited implicatures: implicatures that

once were motivated by explicit reasoning but which now do not

have to be calculated explicitly anymore.

There is an opinion that indirect speech acts must be

considered as language polysemy, e.g. Why not + verb?

construction serves as a formal marker of not just the illocutive

function of a question, but of that of a request, e.g. Why not

clean the room right now?

According to Grice and Searle, the implicit meaning of an

utterance can always be inferred from its literal meaning. But

according to the relevance theory developed by Sperber and Wilson

[46, 113], the process of interpretation of indirect speech acts

does not at all differ from the process of interpretation of

direct speech acts. Furthermore, it is literal utterances that

are often marked and sound less natural than utterances with an

indirect meaning. For example, the utterance She is a snake.

having an implicit meaning sounds more natural than She is

spiteful. Exclamatory utterances Its not exactly a picni

weather! and Its not a day for cricket! sound more

expressive and habitual than the literal utterance What nasty

weather we are having! The interrogative construction

expressing a request Could you put on your black dress? is more

customary than the performative: I suggest that you should put

on your black dress.

To summarize: there is no unanimity among linguists

studying indirect speech acts as to how we discover them in each

others speech and extract their meaning. Every theory has got

its strong and weak points, and the final word has not yet been




Speech act theories considered above treat an indirect

speech act as the product of a single utterance based on a single

sentence with only one illocutionary point - thus becoming a

pragmatic extension to sentence grammars. In real life, however,

we do not use isolated utterances: an utterance functions as part

of a larger intention or plan. In most interactions, the

interlocutors each have an agenda; and to carry out the plan, the

illocutions within a discourse are ordered with respect to one

another. Very little work has been done on the contribution of

the illocutions within utterances to the development of

understanding of a discourse.

As Labov and Fanshel pointed out, most utterances can be

seen as performing several speech acts simultaneously ...

Conversation is not a chain of utterances, but rather a matrix of

utterances and actions bound together by a web of understandings

and reactions ... In conversation, participants use language to

interpret to each other the significance of the actual and

potential events that surround them and to draw the consequences

for their past and future actions. (Labov, Fanshel 1977: 129).

Attempts to break out of the sentence-grammar mould were

made by Labov and Fanshel [35], Edmondson [29], Blum-Kulka,

House, and Kasper [24]. Even an ordinary and rather formal

dialogue between a customer and a chemist contains indirectness

(see table 4.1).

Table 4.1

Indirect speech acts of an ordinary formal dialogue

|Participant |Utterance |Indirect speech acts |

|Customer |Do you have any | Seeks to establish preparatory |

| |Actifed? |condition for |

| | |transaction and thereby implies the |

| | |intention to |

| | |buy on condition that Actifed is |

| | |available. |

|Chemist |Tablets or | Establishes a preparatory |

| |linctus? |condition for the |

| | |transaction by offering a choice of |

| | |product. |

|Customer |Packet of | Requests one of products offered,|

| |tablets, |initiates |

| |please. |transaction. In this context, even |

| | |without |

| | |please, the noun phrase alone will |

| | |function as |

| | |a requestive. |

|Chemist |That'll be | A statement disguising a request |

| |$18.50. |for payment to |

| | |execute the transaction. |

|Customer |OK. | Agrees to contract of sale thereby|

| | |fulfilling |

| | |t buyer's side of the bargain. |

|Chemist |Have a nice day! | Fulfills seller's side of the |

| | |bargain and |

| | |concludes interaction with a |

| | |conventional farewell. |

Discourse always displays one or more perlocutionary

functions. Social interaction predominates in everyday chitchat;

informativeness in academic texts; persuasiveness in political

speeches; and entertainment in novels. But many texts combine

some or all these functions in varying degrees to achieve their

communicational purpose. For instance, although an academic text

is primarily informative, it also tries to persuade readers to

reach a certain point of view; it needs to be entertaining enough

to keep the reader's attention; and most academic texts try to

get the reader on the authors side through social interactive

techniques such as use of authorial we to include the reader.

The genre of the text shapes the strategy for its

interpretation: we do not expect nonliterality when reading

medical prescriptions. For every genre there is an illocutionary

standard. For example, a letter of recommendation is an alloy of

declarations and expressives. A request added to it converts it

into a petition whereas a detailed list of facts from the

persons life turns it into a biography. In canonized texts, lack

of moulds has a significant pragmatic load.

The illocutionary standard of a text depends on the

communicative situation and macrocontext. For example, in The

Centaur by John Updike there is an obituary whose indirect

meaning is much wider than the literal meaning (chapter 5 of the


On the whole, the contribution of the illocutions of

individual utterances to the understanding of macrostructures

within texts is sorely in need of study.


Pragmatic research reveals that the main types of speech

acts can be found in all natural languages. Yet, some speech acts

are specific for a group of languages or even for a certain

language. For instance, the English question Have you got a

match? is a request while the Ukrainian utterance

? possesses two meanings: either the speaker is asking

you for matches or offering them to you. Only the utterance

? having interrogatory intonation and

stressed ດ is unambiguously a request.

Offering advice, the Ukrainians prefer not to use modal

verbs (, ) that would make up an indirect speech act.

Preference is given to direct speech acts of advice.

Seeing off guests, the Ukrainians often use causative

verbs, e.g. ! ! ! This communicative

behaviour often provokes an inadequate reaction of foreigners:

instead of ! prescribed by the Ukrainian speech etiquette

they say: With great pleasure! or ask When exactly should I

come? What for?

Mikhail Goldenkov describes a typical indirect speech act

used in US public transport [3,82]. If a passenger wants to get

off a crowded bus, s/he should not directly question the

passengers blocking the way if they are getting off or not (like

it is usually done in Ukraine). A direct speech act would be

taken as meddling in other peoples personal matters. A

request to make way must be disguised as a statement: Excuse me,

I am getting off or as a question in the first person: Could I

get off please?

Indirect speech acts must always be taken into account when

learning a foreign language. In many cases they make the

communicative center and sound much more natural than direct

speech acts. In particular, at English lessons in Ukraine much

attention is given to direct inverted questions. Furthermore,

often only such questions are considered to be correct, and as a

result students get accustomed to conversations reminding a

police quest: Have you got an apartment?, Where does your

father work?, etc. However, when asking for information, native

speakers do not often use direct speech acts because they are not

suitable from the point of view of speech etiquette. To master

the art of conversation, students must be able to use indirect

declarative questions, e.g. Id like to know if you are

interested in football or I wonder if we could be pen-pals,


Native English speakers often say that English-speaking

Ukrainians sound too direct. As a result, the hearer feels

pressure that can cause a communication failure. I remember

my husband selecting books to borrow in a public library of

Montreal, Canada. He put aside the books he chose and left them

unattended for a minute to go to another bookshelf. Meanwhile

another reader came by and took some of my husbands books.

Seeing that, my husband came up to the man and said: Please put

the books back. The man looked offended. Definitely, he did not

expect a direct speech act. He took it as a command threatening

his negative face. My husband made a communicational mistake.

An indirect speech act was the only thing appropriate in the

situation. He should have said something like Excuse me, but I

am borrowing those books. It would have been a request

disguised as a statement.

English lessons for the Ukrainians must include Tips for

making English less direct, i.e. special information on how to

soften directness of speech using indirect speech acts, for

example: Try to present your view as a question, not as a

statement. Say: Wouldnt that be too late? instead of That

will be too late.


1. Fiction

Literature is often compared to a mirror reflecting life.

Writers strive to make their personages sound natural, and

utterances of literary personages can be linguistically analyzed

just like speech of real people. Here are some examples of

indirect speech acts generated by heroes of works written by

modern British and US authors.

a) In the short story The Life Guard by John Wain young

Jimmy Townsend works as a beach lifeguard. One morning he wants

to get rid of an unwelcome visitor in his hut at the beach and

asks him to quit using an indirect speech act (a representative

with the illocutionary force of a directive): Im going swimming

now. I have to keep in practice. The visitor, however, does not

understand the implication and answers: I am not stopping you.

Jimmy tries another indirect speech act: I have to leave the hut

empty. The implication dawns on the visitor, but he is not sure:

You mean nobody is allowed in the hut? Jimmy uses an indirect

speech act to invite the visitor to join him for a swim (a

request disguised as a question): Why dont you come in swimming

with me if you want something to do?

To prove his efficiency as an instructor, Jimmy wants to

teach swimming to an old fat lady. The woman wants Jimmy to leave

her alone, but being polite, avoids a command and uses

representatives with the illocutionary force of a directive: The

water is cold?; Its the first time I am on the beach this

year; Ill never swim the Channel, that I do know.

Scared that he will be fired because no one needs a

lifeguard at a safe beach, Jimmy plans to arrange a fake rescue.

He asks his former schoolmate to pretend drowning: I want you to

go in swimming, pretend to get into trouble, wave to me, and Ill

swim out and tow you back to shore. The boy declines Jimmys

idea using an indirect speech act (a question with the

illocutionary force of a statement): What dyou think I am,


b) In Thorton Wilders novel titled "Heavens my

destination" a young man named Mr.Brush asks Mr. Bohardus, a

forensic photographer, to sell a photograph:

- There, now, I guess, we got some good pictures.

- Do you sell copies of these, Mr.Bohardus?

- We're not allowed to, I reckon. Leastways there never was

no great demand.

- I was thinking I could buy some extra. I haven't been

taken for more than two years. I know my mother would like some.

Bohardus stared at him narrowly.

- I don't think it shows a good spirit to make fun of this

work, Mr.Brown, and I tell you I don't like it. In fifteen years

here nobody's made fun of it, not even murderers haven't.

- Believe me, Mr.Bohardus, said Brush, turning red, "I

wasn't making fun of anything. I knew you made good photos, and

that's all I thought about."

Bohardus maintained an angry silence, and when Brush was

led away refused to return his greeting.

The question Do you sell copies of these, Mr.Bohardus?

has another meaning, that of a compliment. Compliments have a

restricted sphere of usage, and the photographers negative reply

showed that under the circumstances it was not appropriate to

compliment a policeman. The compliment was rejected in a

friendly manner. But Brush broke the standard scheme of an

indirect speech act and turned a compliment into a literal

request. The policeman was insulted: he thought that Brush mocked

at him. Brush tried to make amends, but to no avail. Brush

violated the communicative convention, and his words were

interpreted as an affront.

c) Earl Fox, the protagonist of the novel Live with

lightning composed by Mitchell Wilson, is a famous physicist

aged 50. His social status is high, but he falls out of love with

his science and feels inner emptiness and despair. The author

uses a rhetoric question to describe the first fit of Foxs

indifference to physics:

Realization had come slowly, against his reluctance. He

was listening to a paper being read, and he found himself asking

Who cares? It was the first open admission that curiosity was


Rhetoric questions are pseudoquestions because the speaker

knows the answer and does not ask for information. On the

contrary, a rhetoric question conveys some information to the

hearer and seeks to convince the hearer of something [15,97].

What Fox meant by the question Who cares? was the statement

statement Nobody cares.

d) Further on in Mitchell Wilsons novel, Fox interviews

Eric Gorin, a young scientist who applied for a job in his lab.

Closing their conversation, Fox wants to show his friendliness by

asking a formal personal question: "And did you have a pleasant

summer, Mr. Gorin? Its nonliteral meaning is that of a


Relax. Dont be so tense. Fox expects a conventional reply

Yes, thank you, but Gorins utterance breaks the rules of

speech etiquette: A pleasant summer? Erik was silent for the

time of two long breaths. No, sir, he said explosively. I damn

well did not have a pleasant summer! Fox is startled into

silence: Gorin not only took the question literally, but did not

follow the politeness principle as well.

e) I'm not quite sure how long you've known the

Fieldings (J. Fowles); "I'm dying to know what you did with all

the lions you slaughtered," said Susie Boyd (S. Maugham); I'd

like to know why she's gone off like this. (J. Fowles).

Indirect questions in the utterances above are compound

sentences whose principle clauses contain predicates of cognition

while subordinate clauses specify the desired information.

f) Indirect speech acts are frequent when a person of a

lower social status addresses a person of a higher social status.

Often they contain additional markers of politeness like

apologies, appellations to the hearers volition, etc. For

instance, a maid says to her mistress: I'm sorry to have

disturbed you, Madam... I only wondered whether you wished to see

me. (D. du Maurier). A visitor says to his hostess: I only want

to know the truth, if you.will tell it to me (E. Voynich).

g) A question in a question is also an indirect speech

act. The speaker asks if the hearer is knowledgeable about

something, and the informative question is included into the

whole construction as a complement. Such utterances give the

hearer a chance to quit the game by answering only the direct

question, e.g. "Do you happen to know when it is open?" - "Oh,

no, no. I haven't been there myself" (L. Jones).

h) A reliable way to be polite is to express a

communicative intention as a request to perform it. Such a

request can be formulated as a separate utterance, a part of an

utterance or a composite sentence, for instance: May I ask you

where you are staying? (C. Snow); Might I inquire if you are

the owner? (L. Jones); What are your in ideas so far, sir, if

you don't mind me asking? (K. Amis); I should be very much

obliged if you would tell me as exact as possible how Mrs. Haddo,

died (S. Maugham); Would it bother you if I asked you a

question about how you lost your job with Axminster? (D.


i) A gradual transition from an indirect speech act

complying with the politeness principle to an impolite direct

speech act with the same illocutionary force is shown in an

episode of the popular cartoon Shrek. After Shrek had rescued

Princess Fiona from the dragon, the girl asked him to remove his

helmet, so that he could kiss her: You did it! You rescued me!

The battle is over. You can remove your helmet now.

The italicized utterance is an indirect speech act (a

representative with the illocutionary force of a directive).

Shrek, however, is unwilling to put off his helmet: he does

not want the girl to see that he is an ogre. To make him obey

her, Fiona uses another indirect speech act: Why not remove your

helmet? and then a rather impolite directive: Remove it! Now!

2. Publicism

Indirect speech acts are widely used in publicistic works

when the speaker or the writer aims at convincing the

interlocutor of something. A quotation from an article published

by The Times dated June 12, 1999, exemplifies this:

The claim that the Earl of Oxford, or Bacon, or any other

grandee must have written Shakespeare seems to be born largely

of a snobbish conviction that a provincial grammar-school boy

could not have produced that corpus of world masterpieces. Yet

outstanding literary achievement is more likely to come from such

a background than any other.

With the exception of Byron and Shelley, all our greatest

writers have been middle-class, and most of them provincials. If

Marlowe, a Canterbury shoemakers son, could re-create the worlds

of Edward II and Tamburlaine, why should not a Stratford glovers

son depict courtly life at large? The argument that it would take

an aristocrat to know how royalty behaved and thought ignores the

imaginative power of well-read genius.

The journalists argument The claim seems to be born

largely of a snobbish conviction that a provincial grammar school

boy could not have produced that corpus of world masterpieces.

contains two speech acts. On the one hand, it is a representative

giving a negative, critical appraisal. On the other hand, it is

an indirect expressive (a protest).

The argument If Marlowe, a Canterbury shoemakers son,

could re-create the worlds of Edward II and Tamburlaine, why

should not a Stratford glovers son depict courtly life at

large? is another indirect speech act. Formally, it is a

question, but in essence it is an indirect statement (a


Another article in The Times of November 13, 1999 is

devoted to the safety of flights of private airplanes:

Their central, and only, point is not an argument but a

prejudice - that safety and private sector are incompatible. This

is obviously wrong, as the impressive history of this country's

airlines and airports makes plain.

The utterance It's not an argument, but a predjudice -

that safety and private sector are incompatible is a

representative, but on the other hand, the author protests

against the point of view taken by his opponents, and this

utterance can also be regarded as an indirect expressive.

Evidently, indirect speech acts influence the quality of

argumentation, and that is crucial for publicism. They amplify

the speakers impact upon the hearers feelings and emotions.

3. Advertising

Indirect speech acts are widely used in advertising.

Advertisements can perform various literal functions combining

representatives (information on the product), commissives (safety

or quality guarantee), expressives (admiration for the product),

etc. But the pragmatic focus of any advertisement is always a

directive: Buy it now!

For example, the advertisement: Youll see Tefal in

action! Purchasing the new model, you get a present! is a

directive disguised as a commissive (a promise). Often the

implication is biased from the product to its potential user,

like in the slogan: LOreal, Paris. Because Im worth it (a

directive camouflaged as a representative).

4. Anecdotes

Indirect speech acts are often the heart of an anecdote

[17]: Two businessmen made a fortune by means of forgery and were

doing their best to be considered aristocrats. They even had

their portraits painted by the most famous and expensive

artist. The portraits were first displayed at a grand rout. The

businessmen brought the most influential critic to the portraits

hoping to hear the words of admiration and compliments. The

critic stared at the portraits for a while, then shook his head

as if something important were missing and asked pointing at the

space between the portraits: And where is the Savior?

The implication of the question is unambiguous: Jesus

Christ between the two robbers. The critic made up a complicated

indirect speech act: he disguised an evaluative representative:

You are two scoundrels, of that I am sure as a question And

where is the Savior?

Anecdotes often play with a wrong understanding of the

speakers illocutionary point by the hearer, for example:

Someone knocks at the window of a peasants house at 3


- Hey, you need any firewood?

- No, go away, I am sleeping.

In the morning, the peasant saw that all the firewood

disappeared from his shed.

In this funny story the peasant took the question for an

offer, and his interlocutor (hardly by mistake) took the refusal

as the answer.






Understanding of indirect speech acts is not a mans

inborn ability. Younger children whose communicational skills are

not yet well developed perceive only one illocutionary force of a

speech act, the one deducible from the syntactic form of an

utterance. For instance, once my four-year-old son was carrying

home a paintbrush I just bought for him. On our way home he often

dropped it. I said: You let your brush fall a hundred times!

meaning a directive: Be more careful! The boy, however, took my

words literally and replied: Of course not, mom. I dropped it

only six times!

Here is another example of communicational immaturity. A

boy of seven phones to his mothers office:

- Id like to speak to Mrs. Jones, please.

- She is out. Please call back in a few minutes.

- OK.

The boy reacted to the utterance Please call back in a few

minutes as to a request while the communicative situation

required answering Thank you (for advice) instead of OK.

If the hearer does not recognize the speakers

communicative intentions, a communicative failure will follow.

For example, asking, Where is the department store? one may

hear: The department store is closed in a situation when one

needs the department store as an orienting point.

Quite often a question is understood as a reproach, e.g.

- Why didnt you invite him?

- Invite him yourself if you want to.

- I do not want to invite him. I am just asking.

Surprise can be taken for distrust:

- Does it really cost that much?

- Dont you believe me?

Sociolinguistic research shows that everywhere in the

civilized world women tend to use more indirect speech acts than

men. Educated people, regardless of their sex, prefer indirect

speech acts to direct ones. Correct understanding of indirect

speech acts by an adult is an index of his or her sanity [9,90].

On balance, the question How to do things with words?

cannot be answered easily and unambiguously: just build your

utterance in accordance with certain rules or use one of the

moulds, and you will avoid a communication failure.

A chasm of incomplete understanding always separates

communicants, even most intimate ones, and indirect speech acts

often make it deeper. Yet, only words can bridge the chasm

conducting the thought from one shore to the other. Every time

the bridge is to be built from scratch, and choosing linguistic

means, the interactants must take into account the distance, the

weather conditions, the previous mistakes, both their own and

other peoples, and the weight of the thought to be conveyed.

Finally, the thought is worded and set off, but we can only guess

what awaits it on the other shore. We are helpless there, and our

thought is now in the hearers power.


Correspondence between the syntactic form of an utterance

and its pragmatic function is not always 1:1. The same syntactic

form can express various communicative intentions. On the other

hand, to express a communicative intention we can use a variety

of linguistic means. Therefore, in speech there are many

constructions used to express not the meaning fixed by the system

of language, but a secondary meaning that is conventional or

appears in a particular context. Speech acts made up by means of

such constructions are indirect. In indirect speech acts, the

speaker conveys the non-literal as well as the literal meaning,

and an apparently simple utterance may, in its implications,

count for much more. Hence, it is very important to study not

only the structure of a grammatical or lexical unit and its

meaning in the system of language, but also the pragmatic context

shaping its functioning in communication.

A number of theories try to explain why we generate

indirect speech acts and how we discover them in each others

speech. The inference theory brought forward by John Searle

claims that we first perceive the literal meaning of the

utterance and find some indication that the literal meaning is

inadequate. Having done that, we derive the relevant indirect

force from the literal meaning and context.

Another line of explanation developed by Jerrold Sadock is

that indirect speech acts are expressions based on an idiomatic

meaning added to their literal meaning.

Jerry Morgan writes about two types of convention in

indirect speech acts: conventions of language and conventions of

usage. Conventions of usage express what Morgan calls "short-

circuited implicatures": implicatures that once were motivated by

explicit reasoning but which now do not have to be calculated

explicitly anymore.

According to the relevance theory developed by Sperber and

Wilson, the process of interpretation of direct speech acts does

not at all differ from the process of interpretation of indirect

speech acts. Furthermore, it is literal utterances that are often

marked and sound less natural than utterances with indirect


Speech act theories have treated illocutionary acts as the

products of single utterances based on single sentences with only

one illocutionary point - thus becoming a pragmatic extension to

sentence grammars. The contribution of the illocutions of

individual utterances to the understanding of topics and episodes

is not yet well documented.

Pragmatic research reveals that the main types of indirect

speech acts are found in all natural languages. Yet, some

indirect speech acts are specific for a group of languages or

even for a particular language. Conventional indirect speech acts

must always be taken into account when learning a foreign

language. They often make the communicative center of utterances

and sound much more natural than direct speech acts.

Indirect speech acts are widely used in everyday speech, in

fiction, and in publicistic works because they influence the

quality of argumentation and amplify the impact upon the hearers

emotions. Indirect speech acts are the driving force of

advertisements whose illocutionary point is always a directive:

"Buy it now!"

It has been found that indirect expressives, directives

and representatives compose the most numerous group of indirect

speech acts in modern English discourse.

The use of indirect speech acts in discourse has been

studied by a number of linguists, cognitive scientists, and

philosophers, including Searle [18], [19], [43], [44], [45];

Grice [4], [30]; Ballmer [23]; Kreckel [34]; Clark [27];

Partridge [40], Cohen [28], Pocheptsov [13], Romanov [16].

Yet, the research of indirect speech acts is still far from being


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