Indirect speech acts in modern English discourse. - ...

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.

3.1.         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 compliment.

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 foot?

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 now?

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 sentences.

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 account).

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.

3.3.         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 said.



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



Indirect speech acts


Do you have any


Seeks to establish preparatory condition for

transaction and thereby implies the intention to

buy on condition that Actifed is available.


Tablets or linctus?

Establishes a preparatory condition for the

transaction by offering a choice of product.


Packet of tablets,


Requests one of products offered, initiates

transaction. In this context, even without

please, the noun phrase alone will function as

a requestive.


That'll be $18.50.

A statement disguising a request for payment to

execute the transaction.



Agrees to contract of sale thereby fulfilling

t buyer's side of the bargain.


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 novel).

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 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, etc.

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.


6.1.         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?

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2009 .