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Clarity versus politeness in written communication

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 23 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik



1 Introduction

2 Clarity versus Politeness
2.1 Grice’s Cooperative Principle (CP)
2.2 Lakoff’s model of Pragmatic Competence
2.3 Leech’s Politeness Principle (PP)
2.4 Brown and Levinson’s Politeness Theory

3 Analysis of various letters

4 Conclusion

5 References

1 Introduction

The following paper seeks to be an empirical approach to the usage of clear and polite expressions in written communication. The material concerned are think- aloud-protocols, so-called TAPs, and respective letters written by students in their Hauptstudium who got the task to write to an imaginary guest professor and record their thoughts while doing this. The letters were first written in English (L2) and afterwards in German (L1) but since the main concept of politeness is very similar in these two languages and a detailed analysis of cultural differences would reach beyond the scope of this paper only the English letters are concerned here.

The students were supposed to remind the professor of correcting their termpaper early because the credit was neeeded for the registration to their final exams. Obviously, this task requires to deal with the conflict between polite behaviour and a precise presentation of facts. As it will be shown it is on the one hand often not easy to be friendly and polite when one simultaneously wants to get an important message across. On the other hand there is the danger of creating a negative impression if one exaggerates politeness. Since I am one of the students who had to write an imaginary letter and especially since I already had to write similar letters in reality and am likely to have to do it again I am really interested in the study of politeness. The close relation between theory and practice here makes the topic very attractive.

32 letters were written and afterwards ranked into a quality scale ranging from high top to deep low. From each of these categories at least one letter will be picked out for a detailed analysis. The paper is based on the theoretical background of three different models of politeness by Lakoff, Leech and Brown and Levinson which have in common that they are all linked somehow to Grice’s Cooperative Principle while Brown and Levinson’s approach seems to be the most elaborate one. The four Gricean maxims have to be adhered to in a communicative act for the sake of clarity but as it will be shown they are often violated in favour of polite speech. All of these models can be criticized more or less but since the purpose of this paper is a strong focus on the empirical part those criticisms will not be taken into consideration here.

2 Clarity versus Politeness

As all of the politeness theories introduced here refer to Grice’s Cooperative Principle and as “The major politeness theories are all slightly different appropriations of Grice’s Cooperative Principle” (Lindblom 2001: 1613) it shall be insinuated first.

2.1 Grice’s Cooperative Principle (CP)

The CP ( cf. Grice 1975: 45f.) consists of four maxims which might compete with one another. The first maxim is concerned with quantity and says that one should be as informative as it is necessary for one’s purposes. In the case of our letters this means that all important pieces of information like a short self-introduction, the name of the seminar and the paper as well as the respective dates have to be contained. The more informative the letter is the less work has the professor. The following examples show the difference:

1) “I wrote a termpaper six weeks ago for your seminar course” (cf. text 32:2) versus
2) “my name is XY and I’ve taken your course on English Literature last semester. I have handed in a termpaper on ‘Shakespeare’s Major Works’ which I need for a graded Schein.” (cf. text 16: 2f.).

The latter example nearly answers all the questions which might come up to the professor’s mind. Perhaps the name of the university and the date of delivery might be added whereas the former example is much less informative and therefore causes the professor some trouble because he has to find out the facts himself.

The second maxim definitely is the most important one because it is concerned with quality. It postulates that nothing which is untrue must be said. Moreover, one should not say anything of which one is not sure. This together simply means that one must not deliberately tell lies. At first glance, of course, nobody has written lies in the letters. But having a closer look at the respective TAPs there are some interesting cases where it is at least considered to write something which is at best a supposition:

3) „– hm – ich könnt so tun (.) als hätt er es schon korriGIERT, | weil ich ja davon ausgehe, weil er’s mir ja versprochen hat (.) und hätte nur vergessen es mir zuzusenden (.) – das ist nämlich dann peinlich für den and net für mich | (.7) – macht man sowas? | – in verzweifelten Situationen?“ (cf. 17: 310ff.).

The student is aware of the doubtfulness of such a supposition but considers to write it down in order to save his or her face. What that means will be explained later on. Without wanting to impute something to the students it seems that they often wrote flattering compliments to the professor for the sake of being polite and not necessarily of being honest. This already shows that clarity and politeness can easily conflict with one another.

The third maxim is concerned with relevance. In the case of our letters the postulation to make relevant contributions is similar to the maxim of quantity. For example, it is relevant to tell the professor our full name while it is unnecessary to tell him our whole family background. In a conversation however, the maxim of relevance plays a great role in connection with conversational goals (cf. Leech 1983: 94).

The fourth and last maxim is concerned with manner which means that one should be as clear, short and precise as possible. Grice considers this maxim less important than the others and different in that way that it is “relating what is said but, rather, to HOW what is said to be said” (Grice 1975: 46). The maxim of manner is highly in conflict with politeness because it is obvious that it needs a certain number of words to convey politeness which are actually superfluous if one only wants to convey a clear message. Especially TAP 11 shows this conflict very nicely:

4) “Wie sag ich’n dem das jetzt? I would kindly ask you to? (19) oder is das zu schleimig?... hm, ich kann doch jetzt nicht sagen as soon as possible (.1) soll er aber!“ (cf. 11: 400-510).

Obviously, there are cases where politeness seems to be more important than clarity. This is especially true if one wants a favour from somebody else to be done. Of course, there are also cases where it is the other way around, e.g. there is no use to be polite if one wants to warn somebody of an impending danger. But such cases are not relevant to this paper. The CP does not include politeness maxims in any way but Grice himself notes that politeness should somehow be taken into consideration (cf. Grice 1975: 47).

2.2 Lakoff’s model of Pragmatic Competence

Lakoff was one of the first to take politeness seriously into account. She developed a model of pragmatic competence which consists of various politeness rules. These rules split up into two major branches, namely the overarching rules of being clear and being polite. The first branch comprises the rules of conversation consisting of four subrules which are Grice’s maxims of the CP discussed above. Thus, Lakoff interprets clarity also somehow as a matter of politeness (cf. Lakoff 1973: 305) which is in so far convincing as everybody would agree that for example lying is rude. The second branch represents specific rules of politeness which consist of the three subrules Don’t impose, Give options and Make A feel good - be friendly. Lakoff was well aware of the fact that in many cases the rules of politeness contradict the rules of clarity and concluded perhaps somewhat unsatisfying to a linguist ”When Clarity conflicts with Politeness in most cases (but not all) Politeness supersedes.” (Lakoff 1973: 297). In a later work Lakoff ranks the three politeness rules into the scale of formal, informal and intimate politeness (cf. Watts 2003: 60f.). All three categories can be found in the written letters:

5) formal politeness: Don’t impose: “I’m very sorry to bother you and hope I don’t cause you any problems, taking your time.” (text 24: 11).

6) informal politeness: Give options: “Would you please be so kind as to let me know as soon as possible whether you can make it to send me the Schein by 21 November?” (text 13: 7).

7) intimate politeness: Make A feel good - be friendly: “I really enjoyed your lecture on ‘Working in a Speechlab’. It really widened my understanding on the topic.” (text 25: 2).



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Philipps-Universität Marburg – Institution für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Clarity Hauptseminar Writing English Second Language” politeness grice leech levin



Titel: Clarity versus politeness in written communication