During our Romantic English month, Dan Clayton reported on some research which suggested that couples whose speech styles matched one another closely were likely to get on well. Dan agreed, but then went on to say ‘This isn’t exactly news to linguists’. He could have said: ‘Linguists know this already’ but it’s a well-known characteristic of British English that we often use politeness, understatement, and irony to express disagreement or criticism. The expression ‘not exactly’ is a favourite device in small talk. Instead of saying someone is stupid or old, we might say they are ‘not exactly the sharpest knife in the box’ or ‘not exactly in the first flush of youth’. In reality, Dan’s comment was quite critical: it’s a more indirect (and typically British) way of saying ‘now tell me something I don’t know!’.
This is something non-Brits need to be aware of, in order to avoid any cross-cultural misunderstanding. Our corpus is full of sentences like these:
It’s not exactly the fastest way to travel (=it’s very slow)
Radstock’s not exactly the most lively of places (=it’s really boring)
That wasn’t exactly the most helpful of responses (=it was totally unhelpful)
I’m not exactly what you’d call a spreadsheet power-user (=I’m completely useless with spreadsheets)
And notice that the last sentence is even more convoluted: the formula has extended to ‘not exactly what you’d call …’ . Linguists who specialize in what is known as ‘politeness theory‘ explain that, the bigger your request, the more complex the formulation: so we might say, very simply, ‘can I borrow your pen’, but, much more indirectly, ‘I don’t suppose there’s any possibility that you might lend me your car?’ Politeness theory is a subfield within the discipline of pragmatics, and a lot of the strategies we use in small talk have been analysed by experts in this area.
How far can dictionaries take account of this aspect of language? In printed dictionaries, it’s difficult to describe the phonological changes that often convey different meanings. If you say to a friend ‘I’ve had an awful day at work’, and she replies ‘Tell me about it‘, she could just be asking you to tell her all about your miserable day. But it’s more likely she is implying that she has had a horrible day too – the difference is in the way you say it. Online dictionaries open up the possibility of using multimedia to provide information of this type, and we’re likely to see more of this in the future. And access to conversational corpus data means we can give much better explanations of what people really mean when they use common expessions like actually or you know – each of these dictionary entries explains four distinct ways in which these useful (but deceptively difficult) devices are used in conversation.
Continuing with the indirectness theme, it can be confusing to learn that apparently apologetic expressions like I’m sorry or I’m afraid can be used in quite confrontational ways, to signal strong disagreement with what someone else has said or suggested, as examples like these show:
Well I’m sorry but that doesn’t seem like a fair deal to me.
She says it’s the truth but I’m afraid I still don’t buy it.
Even saying ‘I don’t know’ is sometimes a way of ‘softening’ an expression of strong disagreement: in reality, you do know exactly what you think! For more on the joys of pragmatics, have a look here, and keep following our small talk blogs.Email this Post