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:
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
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
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 impeachedtwice
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
We tend to prefer our own opinions over opinions that other people express (obviously).
We tend to trust a conclusion more strongly if we came to that conclusion on our own.
We tend to be less "epistemically vigilant" towards (i.e., we tend to lower our defenses
against) information that people aren't asserting and information that isn't being
presented to us as an argument for changing our opinions. (In fact, explicitly telling
someone they should change their opinion often
just makes them hold onto it even more tightly.)
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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).