Benefits of indirect utterances

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Given the risks associated with pragmatic meaning and indirect utterances, why do we use pragmatics at all? Why don't we just literally, explicitly, and directly say what we mean?

It turns out there are several benefits to speaking indirectly. In this module we will review some of them (and you can probably think of others).

Creativity, novelty, and profundity

Probably one of the most obvious benefits is that pragmatics and indirectness can make language and communication more interesting. Poetry, jokes, and clever dialogue with witty comebacks all frequently rely on indirect meanings. One of the things that makes poetry and other forms of creative writing so powerful is that we can use one expression to mean several things at once.


Some languages (like, famously, Japanese) have politeness markers that are explicitly encoded into the grammar. But even languages that don't have these, such as English, can still use linguistic form to convey politeness. For example, Levinson (p. 43) notes that we can feel a clear difference between utterances like "I want to see you for a moment" versus "I wonder if I could possibly see you for a moment". Or, for a more extreme example, check out the below comic from Jorge Cham's Piled Higher and Deeper:

A comic. The title says \

There are two ways that pragmatically indirect utterances can contribute to politeness. First, there seems to be a pretty good generalization that more wordy and more indirect utterances (at least in the case of requests) are seen as more polite (see Thomas, chapter 6, for more information). Secondly, an indirect utterance gives the hearer more control over how to respond: they could choose to ignore certain parts that they don't want to respond to. In this way we can better understand why the guy in the previous module's example chose to say "You don't need to hang out with your boyfriend?" rather than directly asking "Do you have a boyfriend?" The direct question would put the woman on the spot to reply, whereas the indirect utterance allows her to answer or ignore the suggested question.


One of the major benefits of indirect utterances (and the one we'll discuss the most in this module) is the the ability to deny parts of them, i.e., to avoid committing yourself to having said something. By communicating something indirectly (e.g. through an implicature or presupposition), you can get your point across without having to admit that you actually said that thing. We saw examples of this in the "Generics" module: people can utter a generic statement to convey a strong claim without actually needing much evidence for it, and they'll be able to wave off lots of counterevidence.

Date invitations and similar expressions of romantic interest often take advantage of this. How often have you seen (in your real life or in movies and TV) someone asking someone else on a date, getting rebuffed, and then being like, "I didn't mean it as a date, I just mean having coffee"? This is pretty much exactly what happens in the below clip from The Office (and for the whole rest of the series, this man, Tim, keeps insisting that he only asked Dawn out for a drink "as friends"):

That "You don't need to hang out with your boyfriend?" example may also be motivated by this factor. By trying to figure out the woman's relationship status indirectly, rather than explicitly asking her, the man might be hoping to avoid the potential embarrassment of appearing to be interested in her if she's not also interested in him.

In the "Neg-raising" module I recounted a time when an acquaintance of mine said "I don't like Japanese people, I told her that was a rude thing to say, and she said something along the lines of "Hey, I didn't say I dislike them, I just said I don't like them!" I suspect that this may have also been a case of strategic use of deniability. In other words, maybe the utterance was sort of a way of "testing the waters" to see if I'm also an anti-Japanese bigot; if I gave her a supportive response like "Oh yeah, those Japanese people are the worst!" then she could have continued on saying other anti-Japanese stuff. But if I was not on board with anti-Japanese sentiment and objected to her utterance, she could still back out by claiming that she didn't mean what I thought she had meant.

Way back in the "Cooperative Principle" module, we discussed a legal case (from Zufferey et al., chapter 4) in which a guy used an implicature to lie. The guy was being accused of hiding money in Swiss bank accounts. When the trial lawyer asked him if he had any Swiss bank accounts, he said, "The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich." In other words, he clearly implicated that he had not had any Swiss bank accounts (since he said that the company had a Swiss bank account, but he did not say that he himself had any). That implicature was a lie: he actually had had a Swiss bank account. Later he was put on trial again for lying. In the end, he was found not guilty, because he never actually said that he didn't have a Swiss bank account. This is a pretty strong example of the benefits of pragmatic deniability—for this guy it was a get-out-of-jail-free card!

Finally, consider political controversies. Throughout this class we have discussed several examples of political controversies that revolved around pragmatics. Several examples I raised were statements by former US president Donald Trump (for instance, in the modules on illocutionary force and generics). In fact, Trump was [in]famously good at avoiding saying things explicitly; the vast majority of controversies about his remarks hinged on things he implicated (or communicated in other pragmatic ways), rather than things he explicitly uttered. It was often quite difficult to prove what he meant. Another widely discussed example is his "Second Amendment people" remarks: he suggested that if Hillary Clinton won the election then her political agenda could only be stopped by "Second Amendment people" (i.e., gun-rights activists—the Second Amendment to the US constitution is about people's right to have guns, so "Second Amendment people" refers to people who care a lot about guns and people's right to have guns), and there was substantial argument over whether he was making an implicature about someone assassinating her or making an implicature about the organizing power of gun-rights activists. The point is, even when he almost certainly did mean odious things, he usually stopped short of saying them.

Of course, indirect utterances aren't magic, and can't exonerate the speaker from all consequences. Trump himself was impeached twice for his indirect utterances! (First he was impeached for threatening to withhold aid to another country unless that country helped him win an election; he never explicitly threatened that, but when the president of the other country asked him for aid he said "I would like you to do us a favor, though...". And second, he was impeached for inciting a violent protest at the US capitol; again, he never explicitly told people to be violent, but he told them, among other things, "You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.") In other words, communicating something indirectly does not prevent you from suffering consequences for it. But even with these examples, the indirectness of the utterances was still beneficial to him: even though he got impeached for them, a substantial portion of the American electorate still supported (and continues to support) him, and argues that he did not do the things that he was impeached for doing. The indirectness of these utterances contributed to the "deniability".


I think all the abovementioned benefits of indirectness are actually fairly obvious. But there's another quite interesting and not-so-obvious one (discussed in more detail in Zufferey et al., chapter 4.6): pragmatically indirect utterances can be more persuasive than literal and direct ones!

To understand why, we need to first understand how people defend themselves from misinformation and manipulation. We live in a world in which we're constantly bombarded on all sides by messages meant to manipulate us. In the pragmatics sense, manipulation is when a speaker uses their communication to get some benefit for themself that they would not have gotten otherwise (e.g., advertisements and salespeople try to get us to buy their products, creepy dudes try to figure out if we are single so they can try to ask us out, and greedy billionaires try to avoid getting punished for tax evasion). Manipulation doesn't always hurt us (utterances that are helpful or neutral for us can still meet the pragmatic definition of "manipulation", as long as they bring about the desired benefit for the speaker), but we generally don't like being manipulated!

Because we don't like being manipulated, we all have developed some defense mechanisms to help avoid letting it happen to us and help us decide who to trust and what to believe. Pragmaticists call this set of defense mechanisms epistemic vigilance. The following (summarized from Zufferey et al., chapter 4.6) are a few aspects of epistemic vigilance:

Knowing everything you know by now about pragmatics, you should be able to see that pragmatically indirect utterances have all the above features! For example, implicatures are things that the listener figures out on their own (by reasoning about the Cooperative Principle) rather than things that the speaker explicitly says. Since they aren't explicitly asserted and since listeners work them out on their own, they may seem more persuasive and more trustworthy than things that are explicitly said.

This has even been confirmed empirically: Mazzarella and colleagues (2018) did an experiment and found that people trust a speaker who communicates something via an implicature more than they trust than one who communicates the same thing literally or via a presupposition.

Video summary

In-class activities

Let's reconsider the "You don't need to hang out with your boyfriend?" example from a different conceptual perspective. Above, we discussed it in terms of politeness (giving the woman a chance to avoid the question) and deniability (giving the man a chance to pretend he's not actually trying to hit on her). However, I'm not totally satisfied with these explanations, partly because they are kind of recursive: the very utterance he's trying to avoid (directly asking "Do you have a boyfriend?") itself seems to be an indirect utterance (on its literal meaning it seems like an innocuous question and there doesn't seem to be any reason a person would want to avoid it; the real reason the man wants to avoid asking it and the woman wants to avoid answering it is, of course, that this question has additional connotations!).

I think a better way to understand it may be available from conversation analysis (see Levinson, chapter 6, for much more detail). First, however, we need to review a few basic concepts.

A big part of conversation analysis is examining certain systematic sorts of sequences in conversation. Certain conversational actions tend to be followed (not necessarily immediately) by certain other ones; for example, greetings tend to be followed by greetings, requests tend to be followed by either assents or refusals, etc. Furthermore, some conversational actions are dispreferred; in particular, refusals are dispreferred. That doesn't mean people don't like them—there may be some people who like refusing things, and there are certainly some situations where you would much rather refuse than agree to something. Rather, the concept of preference in conversation analysis is linguistic: dispreferred actions like refusals tend to have certain linguistic features [even when people do really want to refuse] that preferred features don't. In particular, dispreferred utterances tend to be longer, in addition to some other features (for example, they often include rationales—if someone invites you to come over and you agree, you might just say "I'm on the way", but if you refuse, you might offer some reasons why you can't come).

Furthermore, some conversational sequences can set the stage for other conversational sequences, e.g. by checking to see if the conditions are in place for the next conversational sequence (for example, buying food from a street vendor is a sort of sequence ["One hot dog with everything, please" - "Here you go"] but it might often be preceded by a sequence to check that the conditions are in place for it ["Do you still have hot dogs?" - "Yeah"]). These are called pre-sequences. The beginning of a pre-sequence can even make part of the next sequence unnecessary, letting the people in the conversation skip straight to the good stuff ("Do you still have hot dogs?" - "Here you go").

If you are confused about pre-sequences, here's another, more detailed example. In this scene from the show Better Call Saul, Mike is getting a phone call from Stacey, his daughter-in-law, whose daughter (Mike's granddaughter) he sometimes babysits. In this conversation we can see some pre-sequences that lead to skipping parts of a sequence.

Stacey: Mike, hi. I'm sorry to bother you.
Mike: No bother, honey. What's up?
Stacey: I don't know what your work schedule is like these days. Pre-request A (1)
Mike: I'm still making my own hours. Pre-request A (2)
Stacey: I just got called in. Emily's busy, and... Pre-request B (1)
Mike: No problem. Request (2)
Stacey: Are you sure?
Mike: Positive. I'd be happy to watch her.

It's clear here that the exchange was building up to what would have been a request sequence, where Stacey asks Mike if he can babysit and Mike either accepts or declines. We see two pre-sequences building up to that. In the first (which I have labelled "Pre-request A", with "Pre-request A (1)" indicating how Stacey begins this pre-sequence and "Prerequest A (2)" indicating how Mike responds to it), Stacey is checking to see if Mike will actually be available to do what she wants to request (by saying "I don't know what your work schedule is like these days" she seems to be indirectly asking what his work schedule is—which is really just an indirect way of checking whether he will be available to babysit—, and by responding "I make my own hours" Mike is indirectly saying that he is available any time because his schedule is flexible). In the second (which I have labelled "Pre-request B"), Stacey is explaining why she has to make the request that she is about to make (she has to go to work, and the normal babysitter is not available); this is often a way of being polite (making a request of someone without giving any reason might be seen as impolite, but giving a reason like this can mitigate that potential impoliteness). Normally, we might think that Mike would respond to that pre-request directly (e.g. by saying "I understand" or something like that), and then Stacey would proceed on to make the request (by saying something like "Can you babysit today?"). But we see here that Mike just skips those steps and goes to directly responding to the request that Stacey hasn't even made yet (hence why I labelled Mike's utterance of "No problem" as "Request (2)"; it's not really a direct response to Stacey's pre-request, rather, it's actually the second part of a "request" sequence, even though the first part of the sequence was never actually spoken). The rest of the conversation makes it clear that Mike's utterance of "No problem" was indeed intended to be understood that way, i.e., as accepting Stacey's request to babysit (even though she never explicitly made the request, because Mike "jumped ahead" in the conversation). This is in fact a common effect of pre-sequences; if the conditions for some later sequence (like a request) are already met and that is made clear from the pre-sequence, then the speakers can often just skip straight through part of that sequence; whereas if the conditions are not met, then they can avoid getting into the sequence at all (e.g., if in "pre-sequence A" Mike had said his work schedule is really busy, Stacey might have just decided not to make the request at all, so they could both avoid awkwardness (Mike would avoid the uncomfortable situation of having to say "no", and Stacey would avoid the uncomfortable situation of having someone say "no" to her).

With the concept of sequences, pre-sequences, and dispreferred actions, I think we can pretty clearly see what was going on in the "You don't need to hang out with your boyfriend?" utterance and the woman's response to it ("No need"). I assume that the guy's ultimate goal was to ask the woman out on a serious date or do some other sort of thing to express romantic interest in her. That would be a certain sort of conversational sequence, where his invitation to a date (or expression of romantic interest) could be followed by her acceptance or refusal. Refusing is a "dispreferred" response, in the linguistic sense (even if she might psychologically and emotionally prefer to refuse him, her refusal would probably bear the linguistic features of a dispreferred response).

Thus, before getting into that sequence (which is a risky sequence, because it brings with it the chance of ending in a refusal, which is uncomfortable for everyone), he first tries to start a pre-sequence. Assuming the man considers the woman's being single to be a pre-condition for the next sequence (i.e., that he won't ask her on a serious date if she has a boyfriend), then this pre-sequence is a way to "test the waters", and abort the next sequence if it turns out the necessary conditions are not in place. It's also a chance to see if she plays along; basically, by [indirectly] asking if she has a boyfriend, he's sort of inviting her to join this pre-sequence, and if she doesn't do so then he can probably guess that she's not going to be interested in his romantic advances and thus he can abort before going on to the next sequence and leading them both into a dispreferred action. In this way, the indirect utterance is a pre-sequence see whether or not it's safe to go on to the next sequence.

From this perspective, the woman's response ("No need") also seems to share the same goals. Presumably the woman could recognize what the man's utterance is a pre-sequence for. She might not have a boyfriend, but she knows that saying that in the context of this pre-sequence might be understood as giving the man the go-ahead to proceed to the asking-out-for-a-date sequence. If she already knows she's not interested in that, then presumably she also wants to avoid having to do the dispreferred action of rejecting, just like the man wants to avoid having to receive it. So, by just saying "No need", without saying that she doesn't have a boyfriend, she can derail the pre-sequence there, before it goes on to the asking-out sequence and the inevitable refusal. From this sense, both the man and the woman are motivated by a shared conversational goal: avoiding a sequence that would result in a dispreferred action.

That lengthy explanation was just a prelude to the actual discussion topic. For this discussion, explain this mini version of conversation analysis to the class, and then ask them to figure out at least one example of an indirect utterance (can be something from another module, or some other example students have shared earlier in the semester) that they can analyze using these conversation analysis concepts. This may work better if you give them some suggestions (that means you'll have to prepare some suggestions beforehand).

⟵ The risks and costs of indirectness
What is grammar ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-11-15. CC-BY-4.0.