Tag Archives: imperatives

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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Imperatives – Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Them

XX is the author of the following post on the syntax of imperative constructions in English. I love her enthusiasm for this subject, so I command you to enjoy her essay. Do it! — MLR

Syntactic theory attempts to find a consistent way to document the structures of human language: a relatively brave, exciting, and yet intimidating intellectual goal. As any student of linguistics will tell you, however, there still seem to be a large number of constructions that remain unexplained (which is understandable, as finding a syntactic model that accounts for any possible construction in any possible human language is obviously a little tricky). A few months ago, it occurred to me that imperative constructions in English worked in a way that seemed to run counter to previously established rules of syntactic theory, especially rules that are English-specific. As this initial curiosity eventually turned into a larger research project, I had the opportunity to find a way we can explain how and why imperatives in English are possible.

First, imperatives can be defined as constructions such as, “Wash the dishes,” “Please take a seat,” “Be on time tomorrow,” and “Don’t be a fool”, utterances that represent commands, requests, instructions, wishes, etc. Unlike other languages, English does not provide specific morphological markers for imperatives. Remember high school Spanish or French class when you had to conjugate the verb in a special way if you were speaking in the subjunctive or in the imperative? This change of mood is not shown through the verb, it seems, in English since the base form of the verb is used. In the example, “Be on time tomorrow”, the base form be is used; this is our proof that there has got to be something else going on in the construction that indicates to a native speaker when an utterance is an imperative and when it is not. If the indication is not provided in a morphological change, the only other option is that it exists in the syntactic structure.

So, what seems to be the big problem? Well, syntacticians have established an English-specific rule called the Extended Projection Principle (EPP), which basically says that every sentence needs a subject to be acceptable. With imperative constructions in English, it seems at first glance that either the subject might be optional or implied. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for someone studying, say, pragmatics (why do we care if context dictates conversational implicature, right?) but according to the rules of syntax we need to be able to explain these constructions within the established model that explains (hopefully) the structures of human language.

Using the most contemporary model Syntacticians have come up with (although it’s still not perfect, but the best we have so far), X-bar theory shows a precedent of using specific features to generate movement in the structure tree. For example, to explain how questions starting with wh-words (what, why, where, when, etc.), the [+wh] feature generates NP movement that complies with both the X-bar model and grammatical/acceptable wh-questions in English. For example, “What are you saying?” starts as “You are saying what?” and the [+wh] feature moves the what from the end of the structure to the beginning. Seeing this precedent in syntactic theory, I couldn’t help but wonder if imperatives might work in a similar way.

And, this boys and girls is where we find the magical, wonderful feature [+imp] generates movement within the structure! Here is an illustration that helps explain its mystical properties:

In the illustration on the right, we can see that the imperative “call me tomorrow,” works if we start with the verb in the V position. It moves to the T position, where the [+imp] feature moves it to the C position, which explains why the base form of the verb occurs first in the sentence. There is movement from the specifier position of the VP to the specifier position of the TP, which fills the subject position of the sentence (thus satisfying the EPP).

So, in order to comply with syntactic theory, imperatives must have an additional [+imp] feature to provide for the seemingly missing subject. The V –> T movement, T –> C movement, and VP –> TP movement satisfies the EPP by providing something in the subject position of the diagram. Since this amazing [+imp] feature explains how imperatives can work in English, we can now be one step closer to finding a consistent way to document the structures of human language. Amazing, right? Now we just have to hope that X-bar theory isn’t completely thrown out in the future… because then we’ll need to explain all of this all over again. :]

Of course, there are issues of theta grid requirements and how negated imperatives work in both semantic and syntactic theory… but we’ll just have to get into those later.


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