Whimperatives: The Wimpy Imperative (Indirection in Speech Act Theory)

Would you be so kind as to read this delightful entry on the subject of whimperatives written by XX? — MLR

In English it seems to me that we all have a certain subconscious understanding of what a polite request is versus an impolite one. For some reason we think [a] is more polite (and therefore might be more effective, depending on the context and people involved) than [b].

[a] Could you wash the dishes?

[b] Wash the dishes.

Of course any judgments one might make about the politeness, effectiveness, and/or passive-aggressiveness of any given utterance is going to be totally subject to context. Imagine, for example, [c] coming from a shy roommate who doesn’t want to seem too… demanding or imposing.

[c] Those dishes in the sink have been… uhm… sitting there for a while…. Yeahhh.

The idea of using non-imperative constructions to express imperatival statements was discussed by Sadock (1974). He called these whimperatives, specific kinds of indirect speech acts which are attempts to get the hearer to perform a specified action in the world. Sadock argues that there exists an inherent illocutionary ambiguity, in that the hearer may be able to see two interpretations of the utterance – one as an imperatival request, and one as either a question that seeks for information or as a simple declarative statement. The “Could you [VP]…?”, “You’d better [VP]…” and/or “Is it possible for you to [VP]…?” are all examples he argues are indeed ambiguous in application. Remember that annoying teacher in elementary school that tried so hard to teach us the difference between can and may?

–          Can I go to the bathroom?

–          I don’t know, can you?

In this example the annoying elementary school teacher is taking advantage of the fact that there exists a second possible interpretation of the question. This might be proof, then, that the whimperative in this scenario is ambiguous. However, according to the context of said scenario, we already do have the understanding that the child is asking for permission to go to the bathroom (the indirection version of the imperative ‘Give me permission to go to the bathroom’) and so I am not totally convinced that this type of whimperative can be ambiguous. On the other hand, think about the statement in [d]:

[d] It’s freezing in here.

Out of any kind of context, we might not even interpret this to be imperatival. Does the speaker just wish to express information about the temperature of the room? Or does the speaker wish you to close the window? Examples like these show us how incredibly important context is to interpreting whimperatives (among other things in language as well).

Holmberg (1979), however, argues against this inherent ambiguity, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m taking his side. His argument revolves around the idea that whimperatives can sometimes be ambiguous, but sometimes not, depending on which ‘category’ they fall under.

Category A: “It’s freezing in here.” / “Those dishes are dirty.”

Category B: “Could you close the window?” / “Could you wash the dishes?”

Category A includes a sentence like [d], in which interpretation requires a certain amount of contextual background about the situation at hand. In other words, we need to know some additional information in order to make sense of the illocutionary force (if there is any). Category B includes sentences like [a], in which we can understand the imperatival intent of the utterance without additional pragmatic information.

This is a fancy way of explaining, in essence, why that one elementary school teacher made us all so frustrated. If the illocutionary intent of the utterance is clear, it breaks down the direction of the discourse to purposely ignore what is obvious to both the speakers involved. Imagine we are sitting down to dinner and I ask “Is there any salt?” I severely doubt you are going to answer that with a simple yes if there is salt on the table. The answer is understood to be the action of passing the salt to me.

Looking at indirection in speech act theory has been an interest of mine for the past few months, and continues to be a strong focus for research in the future. So far, it seems to me that the more I look into the complexities of pragmatics, the more gray area I start to uncover. Overall, while it is difficult to find a scientific way to talk about something that is not very scientific at all, I can’t help but get excited to be able to look into this mysterious type of indirection in speech acts. Especially when we start to wonder things like what makes something more or less polite, more or less effective, and maybe even more or less manipulative – we can see how subtle and complex language in context can be. This is more so a blessing than a curse for an aspiring linguist.  :]



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