That’s not exactly what I meant, actually

Posted by on July 11, 2011

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.

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Comments (10)
  • This not exactly eyebrow-raising to an American English-speaker (you see what I did there)…

    In all seriousness, one of the things I try to get across to my English learners is that we have lots of forms of indirectness in American English. Something I’m curious about is whether there’s really any corpus-based or other evidence that distancing or softening is really as vastly more common in British English as BE speakers are fond of claiming. It’s true that “quite” doesn’t appear as often in US corpora (for various usages), but…

    Anyway, just curious, and I’m not claiming that you’ve made any such claim here!

    Posted by Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds on 11th July, 2011
  • Good point, Clarissa, I think all this is primarily relevant to speakers of other languages, who may sometimes by mystified by this preference for understatement and indirectness (which is not common to all cultures). But you’re right that there’s a somewhat lazy tendency (mea culpa) to see this as characteristically British. I’m not aware of any comparative corpus-based research on this, but I just did a crude count using British and American corpus data, and – to cut (or make) a long story short – the combined count for ‘not exactly’ and ‘*n’t exactly’ (isn’t, wasn’t etc) suggests this expression occurs just over 10 times per million words in British texts, and almost 15 per million in American texts. So (though this isn’t exactly scientific) if anything, it’s more common among American speakers! In fact I suspect there are a lot of variables – regional distribution (in the UK, northerners are stereotypically more ‘direct’), idiolectal preferences, and so on.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 11th July, 2011
  • Oh terrific post, Michael. Thank you!

    Another couple of phrases sprang to mind where the meaning is sometimes confrontational: “So are you saying…?” “So do you mean…?”

    In most course books they appear as phrases you can use to check someone understands you. And of course you can use them that way and in lots of conversations among non-native speakers, they are used that way. Jolly useful phrases in fact.

    But native speakers often use them to challenge – i.e. I disagree with what you’re saying so I’m asking this question to help you and others see the error of your ways.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 12th July, 2011
  • Oh I’ve just seen Clarissa’s comment and your cool research Michael and I want to respond again!

    Clarissa, as a Brit living in the US, I have to say that I have often wondered the same thing. Where do Americans get their reputation for directness from? They seem to be just as indirect as me, and more so sometimes.

    Sweeping generalization coming: I think Brits employ understatement more and I think people tend to frame their ideas more positively in the US. It would be lovely to check that in the corpus, but not easy because it’s probably manifesting more at a discourse level. Quite a challenge for the corpus researcher. Any ideas, Michael.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 12th July, 2011
  • Vicki – you asked ‘Any ideas, Michael?’. Nothing useful, I’m afraid. I think you’re right that this would involve a comparative study of corpus data at quite a detailed level. Without that, all we have is our hunches, received stereotypes, and anecdotal evidence. And I bet there are regional differences too, within the two countries – e.g. between Boston and Texas, or Surrey and Manchester. A good PhD topic for someone.
    (PS your opener ‘I have to say…’ is itself full of implicatures. This is a whole area where dictionaries need to do more.)

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 13th July, 2011
  • I believe that more than anything else, one must read heaps of books, or even better, listen to audiobooks, to understand the underlying layers of a language or be able to read between the lines. It worked for me and even though I will never be able to match British sense of humour or proficiency in irony and other subtleties when using English language myself, I will, in most cases, sense it when I hear it. It is only a matter of experience with it and if one cannot obtain it directly, then books, films and radio plays, etc. is the second best choice I would recommend to all learners of a foreign language.

    Posted by Pavla Brenova on 19th July, 2011
  • […] Linguistic politeness theory. […]

    Posted by Link love: language (33) « Sentence first on 29th July, 2011
  • I’m glad to hear you say that, Vicki! I’ve been wondering if it’s just that I’m naturally more indirect than other people, or my family or the regions I grew up in or the people I hang out with! (I have a lot of Minnesotan friends who have a lot of cultural pride in their special local “indirect” rudeness, which to me seems nearly identical to “Southern hospitality,” British understatement, and a lot of general American usage. I try not to say so, though. Bless their hearts. ;))

    At any rate, that’s very interesting, Michael! I know those phrase certainly flow out of my mouth a lot–possibly too much!

    Softeners, distancing, and well-chosen vagueness (both in speaking and for academic papers) are really things that I need to help my students with, so it’s good to think about these things.

    (Sorry for the very late comment–new job and all.)

    Posted by Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds on 29th July, 2011
  • […] links to further reading: Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, […]

    Posted by Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant « Sentence first on 4th November, 2011
  • We discussed this post with my students on February,14!

    Posted by Alla on 21st February, 2012
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