Tag Archives: pragmatics

Function Words — How do they Make You Feel?

If you recall, I summarized an article about function word use & personality in a recent blog entry. Since then I’ve thought of a few more things to add to this topic. The first is a paper taking a look at the affective use of demonstrative this & second is a paper which spends some time talking about the impact of brain damage on the acquisition & production of function words in children. I suppose you may first want to take a look at Pronouns & Personality again, but I’ll rehash the gist for you below.

  • In order to participate in conversations over half full of function words (including pronouns) which provide little content, speakers need to be acutely aware of their environment & social milieu.
  • This means that the ability to use function words is a marker for basic social skills.
  • There are individual differences in usage of function words (including pronouns).
  • These differences are associated with personality traits & psychological states.
First, almost immediately after publishing this entry, I thought of the paper I’d read a while back by Potts & Schwarz (2009) called Affective This. This paper was interesting purely by being a corpus study in experimental pragmatics, but their findings also provide compelling evidence for the association between function words & expression of shared mental states. You might have guessed this from the title of the journal article — affective suggesting emotion & this being the function word of interest.
When considering emotionally charged language, function words like this & that aren’t among the first to come to mind. Especially considering that we have words designed explicitly to convey emotion (e.g. bastard, amazing, wow, etc.). However, even before considering the Potts & Schwarz paper, we have an idea that there’s more to these little words than meets the eye. Variation across speakers & contexts does seem to have some link to personality traits & psychological states.
So Potts & Schwarz chose to focus their attention on a comparison between proximal & distal demonstratives, this & that respectively. They sought to use corpus evidence to confirm the thought that this suggests a close, shared sentiment (solidarity) whereas that conveys a contrasting emotion. The idea is that these two senses arise from the “core” spatio-temporal meaning of these demonstratives. So while this & that exist primarily to orient a referent in space & time, their meanings have been extended to express affective closeness or distance. Finally, heading a noun (commonly a proper noun) with a demonstrative seems to suggest an agreement between speakers on the evaluative claims in an utterance.
The authors summarize the following characteristics of demonstrative-heading:
a. The speaker presumes that the hearer can identify the referent of A.
b. The predication of the referent A is evaluative.
c. The evaluative predication is uncontroversial.
d. The speaker intends to evoke solidarity with the hearer.
To test these effects of demonstrative-heading, the authors turn to quantitative corpus evidence, which is a relatively new technique in experimental pragmatics as I understand it. They looked at use of affective this in hotel & product reviews & their associated “star ratings” on Tripadvisor & Amazon to determine whether or not its use was a sign of solidarity. Indeed they found a u-shaped distributional frequency of this across star ratings suggesting an emotional use. That is, this is used with less frequency in “lukewarm” 3-star reviews & in greater frequency is more “heated” 1- & 5-star reviews. They found the same u-shaped distribution with exclamatory words like wow, absolutely, & the exclamation mark.
On the other hand, they found an “anti-exclamatory” effect for demonstrative that & suggest it to have an “anti-solidarity” effect. Take a look at their sentences demonstrating this:
a. How’s that throat?
b. How’s that porkulus working out?
c. How’s that “hope” and “change” working out for you?
d. How’s that $787 billion stimulus working out?
Now this paper only examined the use of this & that (& still mostly just this), yet it it’s clear that these content-free function words can do a lot to express emotional closeness. In the case of this, function words do seem to have the ability to orient a speaker not only physically, but also in an emotional sense. Their research offers more evidence for the idea that use of function words necessitate an awareness of one’s social & environmental setting. To be able to express solidarity with a discourse partner requires an understanding of where they are at in their mind — are they likely to find your evaluative claims uncontroversial, are they familiar with your referent, etc.?
Second, & the thing that made me decide that it would be worthwhile to publish a follow-up entry, is a paper I just finished reading by Bates & Roe (2001) which summarizes literature on language development in children with unilateral brain injuries. Some of the past research they look at concludes some pretty intriguing things about the way acquisition & use of function words figures into children’s language development. Now this isn’t the impetus behind the paper, but it does spend a good amount of time addressing the issue.
In one study that they review (Bates et al., 1997), they find that children with damage to their right-hemisphere produce a disproportionately high number of function words relative to their overall vocabulary as compared with normal children. This pattern of function word use is associated with slower grammar development in later stages of language acquisition. These children tend to use frozen expressions, an example of which given by the authors is “I wan dat.”  This style of linguistic expression is called “holistic style.”
There are other children who use relatively fewer function words than is normal & instead use telegraphic utterances like “Mommy sock.” This style of linguistic expression is called “analytic style.
The authors note that the terms “holistic” & “analytic” are often attributed to the right- & left-hemispheres respectively & for this reason, one might expect that children exhibiting an overproduction of function words (“holistic style”) would be more likely to have left-hemisphere damage. We would assume that children would be relying on their intact, “holistic” right-hemisphere to acquire & produce language, but evidence runs to the contrary. The authors of the 1997 study conclude that children with damage to their right-hemisphere rely on the greater abilities of the left-hemisphere to analyze acoustic input & memory & actually end up storing & using entire frozen sound segments. This is compared to an anglophone’s use of the the word gesundheit which is understood holistically, but not structurally or semantically in the way a German would. Consequently, children with right-hemisphere damage end up using far more function words than normal children.
I’m sure there’s a lot more research on the acquisition & production of function words in children, but I did find it interesting to learn that brain damage can lead to individual differences in function word use that contradict expectations based on what we know about right- & left-hemisphere specialization in adults. Once again it goes to show that function words are more important to us than we may think. Fascinating!
Megan L. Risdal

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Megan & Mike Fox Drink Beer & Talk about Linguistics. Do You Too?

I’m in the process of moving from Minnesota to Wisconsin & I’m just beginning a new full-time job so I won’t be having a lot of time to keep up with blog entries I’m afraid. Fortunately, I look forward to getting involved in various academic pursuits because I’m sure they’ll inspire great future entries. Additionally, I’m really kicking things into gear WRT applying to graduate programs. This all wouldn’t normally be too much for me to handle, but I still do get very worn out thanks to my still-healing body. I’m a bit worried that beginning a 40-hr/wk work schedule will exhaust me & put me in a lot of pain. Can you believe I’m not allowed to take aspirin for another 3 months? Anyway, enough about my personal life. Here’s an entry I wrote on ellipsis & coherence. — MLR

First, consider the following two examples:


a. Sandy walks and she chews gum.

b. Jerry does too, but not at the same time.


a. Sandy walks and Bill chews gum.

b. *Jerry does too, but not at the same time.

The site of VP ellipsis is marked by the stranded auxiliary does in both (1b) and (2b). In (1a), Sandy and she are most easily interpreted as being coindexed – the reason for this will be explained later – and the implied meaning of (1b) is that Jerry walks and chews gum, but he does not do both at the same time. The meaning of (2a) is straightforward, but (2b) is less easily interpretable; it is not clear whether Jerry walks and chews gum, or does only one or the other. Only but not at the same time necessitates that he do both, but this interpretation is not resolvable from the VP ellipsis site alone. For both (1) and (2), the VP ellipsis is resolved either at the syntactic or the semantic level of representation by borrowing something from its antecedent VP, but I will argue that a semantic approach better explains the VP ellipses.

A syntactic approach seems improbable for several reasons. A resolution of the VP ellipsis in (1b) at the syntactic level requires that an appropriate constituent be copied from (1a); however, walks and she chews gum is not a constituent structure and is therefore not replaceable by the auxiliary verb do. Similarly, walks and Bill chews gum of (2a) is not a syntactic constituent and cannot be pasted into the VP ellipsis of (2b).

A semantic explanation of the VP ellipsis in (1) and (2) seems to work much better. Returning to the assumption that Sandy and she are coindexed in (1a), it is easy to copy the semantic meaning from (1a) to (1b) to get a felicitous meaning. However, if Sandy and she do not refer to the same entity in the case of a sloppy interpretation, a problem arises, and (1b) is no longer felicitous; in fact, under these circumstances, (1) will resemble (2). For example, see (3):


a. Sandy walks and hei chews gum.

b. *Jerryj does too, but not at the same time.

It seems then that the infelicitous nature of (2b) stems from the ambiguity of having two entities in the antecedent phrase. That is to say, the VP ellipsis in (2b) and (3b) is irresolvable semantically because its antecedent causes ambiguity in attempting to establish the correct anaphoric reference. It is not clear what Jerry does too.

Both (1) and (2) involve resemble relations with parallel structures, which Kehler argues should implicate a syntactic parallelism at the VP ellipsis site. However, as we have seen, sentence (1b) is perfectly felicitous without having a syntactically parallels structure and the VP ellipsis is instead better understood semantically. Additionally, Frazier and Clifton argue that parallel clauses with contrastive objects as seen in (2b) do not “[capture] the effects of parallelism” (pg.337). To further illustrate this point, compare the following contrastive and non-contrastive parallel structures:


a. Sandy walks and she chews gum. (non-contrastive)

b. Sandy walks and Bill chews gum. (contrastive)

c. Sandy walks and chews gum (non-contrastive)

An interesting difference between the contrastive and non-contrastive sentences is that (4a) can be collapsed into (4c), whereas (4b) cannot be collapsed in the same way. This could be a potential explanation for why sentences like (2b) are infelicitous – they represent a semantic collapsing of a contrastive structure that is in its nature not collapsible into a single VP ellipsis. Therefore, Frazier and Clifton seem to have established a framework better suited to understanding VP ellipsis in examples like the ones examined here.

Megan L. Risdal


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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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“Excuse me” as Discourse Marker

Enjoy this guest post by Paula Hagen! — MLR

Similar to Megan’s entry about the use of ‘bastard’ as a discourse marker, I looked into the phrase ‘excuse me’ to see if anything interesting was happening there. All of my examples came from a combination of spoken and written English, all transcribed into the Corpus of Contemporary American English and personally selected by me to find different examples of this discourse marker. In the class that we were in, we were working off of Fraser’s paper about expressive meaning. He outlines two main dividing points in interpreting sentence meaning: content meaning and pragmatic meaning. Simply put, I realized that when something like [1] is uttered, the phrase carries content meaning. In this sentence, the content of what the verb excuse literally means is taken into account when interpreting the entire sentence.

[1] Would you please excuse me? Nature calls.

When this discourse marker carries pragmatic meaning, however, is when things start to get a little bit more intriguing. Fraser outlines three different subcategories of pragmatic meaning: basic pragmatic markers, commentary pragmatic markers, and parallel pragmatic markers. In an example like [2], we can see that the phrase is used when the speaker has made a mistake and is attempting to quickly correct him/herself.

[2] You know what, Chicago – – excuse me, Illinois instituted a recall measure and now it’s starting to move.

We can also (possibly) assume that the phrase is used to signify that the hearer of the utterance may be in a position in which s/he would know that this slip of the tongue would have been a mistake (although this may be debatable, depending on the context). In this case I have decided that the phrase is being used as a commentary pragmatic marker, as it encodes a message that comments on the message itself.

In a sentence in which the speaker is signifying that s/he wants the attention of the other person, as in [3], it seems to me that the phrase is being used as a basic pragmatic marker, signaling illocutionary force that the speaker intends something specific (in this case, to get the attention of the other person).

[3] Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice how good you are with her.

Of course, in a different context [3] might signify content meaning instead: a situation in which the speaker literally means that s/he needs to be excused because the following statement might be a little rude, unexpected, and/or taboo.

In sentences like [4] and [5], I found that the phrase is functioning almost like an idiom, in which the surface meaning is not taken into account as much as the phrase functions in a different way during a set of discourse.

[4] Because he wanted to teach Americans how to be charitable. Excuse me? Americans don’t need a lesson on charity.

[5] Do you go by Bethany or just Beth? … Excuse me? What?

In these cases, the phrase signifies one of two things:  either the speaker literally did not hear what he other person said and is communicating that s/he needs the utterance to be repeated, for the sake of clarification, or that the speaker is communicating that what was just said is something to be thought of as… unbelievable or baffling. In [4] we see this kind of usage, as the entire quote is one man talking in front of an audience on a talk show. The phrase is expressing that he thinks the previously mentioned information is baffling – and so using excuse me as a sort of rhetorical device. To get back to Fraser’s subcategories of pragmatic meaning, I feel as though the phrase of used as a parallel pragmatic marker, as they encode their own message that is separate from something basic and/or parallel.

The last interesting example found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is [6], in which the speaker is expressing sarcasm (also see Megan’s previous entry about Gricean connections in the use of sarcasm)

[6] You’re the damn therapist – oh, excuse me, psychiatrist!

This was a particular favorite of mine, as it is interesting that the phrase can convey such a clear and specific expression of sarcasm (it is also important to note that the quote originally came from a novel, recorded in the corpus). There is clearly something happening here where a native speaker can automatically understand the meaning behind this sentence, instead of thinking that the speaker may have (like the other examples before) made an honest mistake in saying therapist instead of psychiatrist. Although this was interesting, I felt like this where I started to fall short as far as being able to explain what, semantically and pragmatically, might be happening here.

It seems to me that this last sarcastic use of the discourse marker starts to open up a lot of questions for us… what do you all think? Is it possible that this last example sentence signifies an entirely different kind of pragmatic meaning that has not yet been defined? Uh oh, do I DARE go there?!            :]

Paula Hagen


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You Bastard!

For an assignment in my experimental pragmatics seminar last spring, we had to take a close look at the function(s) of a particular pragmatic marker. Being the potty-mouth that I am, I was pretty happy to have selected a slip of paper with the word bastard on it. To make things more interesting, I looked specifically at you bastard . The samples I use are from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). In sentences like (1) and (2), Fraser (1990) would argue that you bastard is functioning as a parallel pragmatic marker:

(1)         I hope you’re happy, you bastard.

(2)         Get away from her, you bastard!

In both sentences you bastard does not change the respective truth functions – a requisite feature of pragmatic markers. With or without you bastard, the same propositional content is encoded. You bastard, does, however encode information at the pragmatic level in sentences like (1) and (2). Fraser (1990) would argue that you bastard behaves as a parallel pragmatic marker; it encodes a message separate from the propositional content (pg. 387). For example, in sentence (2) the speaker wishes to express something in addition to I hope you’re happy by saying you bastard. From the other examples available on COCA, you bastard seems to emphasize that the message is intended directly for the person being addressed as you bastard. Supporting this notion, many of the sentences are in fact imperatival in nature as in (2).

While it is clear that you bastard is a parallel pragmatic marker, bastard alone is more difficult to interpret. Judging from examples available on COCA, in most cases it appears to act as a part of an NP which in turn leads it to influence the propositional content of the utterance. See sentences (3) and (4), for instance:

(3)         She could hardly move her legs, wanting only to turn and throttle the bastard for interrupting her evening.

(4)         You probably still think this bastard saved your life.

In (3) and (4), bastard does not appear in sentence-initial position which also indicates that it is unlikely to be a pragmatic marker. For these reasons, bastard does not appear to function as a pragmatic marker at all in these examples.

So what are the functions of you bastard as a parallel pragmatic marker? Though it may seem obvious, the addition of you bastard in sentences like (1) and (2) shows the speaker’s opinion about their listener – namely, it expresses the speaker’s belief, separate from the main message, that the listener is a bastard. Interestingly, this finding contradicts what Fraser (1990) claims about pragmatic markers; he argues that pragmatic markers do not retain content meaning (1990, pg. 393). However, Schiffrin (1987) and Potts and Schwarz (2010) maintain that pragmatic markers do keep their core meaning even after having been grammaticalized.

In the case of you bastard, I think it is very clear that, though it is supposedly functioning as a pragmatic marker, it does exercise its original core meaning. After all, if parallel pragmatic markers communicate some complete message in addition to the one found in the propositional content of the utterance, the simplest explanation is that the complete message contained within the pragmatic marker is likely to be derived from its core meaning.

However, there are some pieces of evidence that might run contrary to the assumption that you bastard as a parallel pragmatic marker has some core meaning. For example, you bastard is used pejoratively in most cases, of course, but in others it is used in an almost affectionate or endearing way. See for example sentence (5) from COCA:

(5)         You bastard! Of course you had to hire the prettiest one! I laugh.

From the extended context of sentence (5), it is obvious that the speaker does not consider the listener to be a bastard in its usual sense. Here, you bastard is being used to communicate sentiments that contradict those predicted by its core meaning. I would argue that, by being grammaticalized as a pragmatic marker, you bastard has lost its precise meaning, but retains its strong sense of emotional force. In the same way that affective this is found in the most positive and the most negative online product reviews and less frequently in neutral ones (Potts and Schwarz, 2010), you bastard can be used in opposite but equally affectively impactful ways.

What do you think, you bastards?

Megan L. Risdal

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