Express yourself!

Posted by on March 13, 2012

When we say something that brings about a change in the world — whether in a relationship, a process, or in the status of something — the thing we say is often called a speech act. Speech acts are an important area in the study of pragmatics and they cover a wide range of things we do with language every day: warning, thanking, advising, agreeing, praising, and the like.

Many speech acts in English are signalled to the listener or reader by formulas, and you can find these throughout the Macmillan Dictionary. If you look at the entry at sure, for example, you’ll find a note that shows you various ways that people use to say they are sure about something. These often consist of formulas speakers use to begin an utterance, such as “I’m sure …”, “I’m positive …”, “I bet …”, “No doubt …,” and the like.

An interesting thing about many of these formulas is that they can often be used to convey a meaning very different from the one they’re usually used for; sometimes just the opposite. The context and the tone of a speaker’s voice may be the only clues that a formula is being used in a way that’s contrary to its normal use.

A good example of this is the common phrase, “Excuse me.” It can be used in a number of ways, such as to interrupt someone, to get their attention when you want to ask them something, or to apologize for some minor mistake or upset. The Macmillan Dictionary in fact has seven distinct senses for the polite ways that people use “Excuse me.” Beware, however, when you hear someone say “Excuse me,” with strong emphasis on the pronoun, or “Well, excuse me!” More often than not, the speaker is not being polite but is expressing some irritation with what someone else has said or done, as in the following example:

“You can’t park here because of the parade.”
“Well, excuse me, but I live on this street.”

This usage comes closest to the dictionary’s sense 6, “used for politely disagreeing with someone,” but the speaker’s tone will usually clue you up that politeness has been dispensed with. This kind of speech act is sometimes called an expressive: a statement in which the speaker expresses an attitude about a state of affairs.

You have probably seen or heard “Thank you very much” or “Thanks a lot” as formulas for expressing thanks. They do in fact serve this purpose, but they may also be used to indicate a speaker or writer who isn’t exactly thankful, as in these two examples:

The only thing worse than the “remember to vote!” e-mails are the “here’s the people you should be voting for” e-mails. Thank you very much but I’m capable of making my own decisions, I really don’t need you to do my thinking for me.

“You don’t seem interested in going out anymore. I think you’re just getting old.”
Thanks a lot, buddy.”

The informal expressions “Yeah!” and “Right!” can both be used to show that you agree with something or agree to do something, but be careful of “Yeah, right.” This expression is often used to express skepticism or cynicism about what someone has said:

“Don’t get angry with me; I’m trying to help.”
Yeah, right. Why didn’t you answer my last five texts?”

Here are a few other common formulas for expressing yourself that are often used in a way that’s contrary to their usual meaning:

Expression

usually means

might mean

Be my guest you’re welcome to do as you like I wish you would not do that
Boo-hoo someone is sad someone doesn’t care
Go right ahead you’re welcome to do as you like I wish you would not do that
I beg your pardon I’m sorry I’m indignant
Please please I can’t believe this (see the entry at puh-leeze)
You shouldn’t have I appreciate what you did You shouldn’t have done that
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Comments (4)
  • A wonderful post!That’s what we have to teach our students.Thumbs up!

    Posted by Alla on 22nd March, 2012
  • […] Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Orin Hargaves explained speech acts, and Stan Carey posted about nonsense terms (balderdash!), and on his own site, had some great […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 23rd March, 2012
  • The context and the speaker’s tone really convey it all… Tricky indeed, but always fascinating to reflect on it and learn from Macmillan Dictionary! Thanks very much Orin!

    Posted by Maria Costa on 26th March, 2012
  • This reminds me of Steve Martin’s catchphrase!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zANvYB93u2g

    Posted by Luke Thompson on 2nd April, 2012
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