Apr 142017

Pragmatics is a relatively young branch of linguistics and it’s the study of how more meaning gets conveyed than with just the words spoken. It’s the study of secret or hidden meanings, if you like. But my favourite definition of pragmatics is it’s the study of how we don’t say what we mean.

And that’s often true. We’ll say one thing when we mean another. Here’s a video where we look at how we make indirect requests. We look at some common ambiguous English phrases and explore the social benefits that ambiguity can bring.

 Posted by at 9:01 pm
Aug 022012

If  human beings communicated like most ELT course book characters, the world would be a much simpler place. There’d be next to no hedging or vague language or ambiguity or politeness strategies. Everything would be very literal. We wouldn’t have to consider issues like context, culture, power or gender and how they might affect meaning. In fact we’d just have to focus on getting our grammar and vocabulary right. That’s how course books generally work. If the grammar and vocabulary is correct, the message gets understood.

What a curious world it would be. No differing interpretations. No shades of grey.

I’m not having a go at ELT course books here. A good syllabus needs to transform the sprawling messiness of  the English language and make it into something managable and learnable.  To some extent writers have to simplify. Taking a black and white perspective on communication is one way to do that. And it’s easier to include the answers in the back of a book if there’s only one correct alternative.

But I do think we have to be aware of it and compensate. We shouldn’t be implying that if the grammar and vocabulary is correct, all will be well. It’s just not true. Human beings are often indirect, and they often have good reasons for being ambiguous. So rather than presenting models of language that ignore ambiguity, I suggest we present examples that explore it.

And that’s what the lesson below is about. It’s based on some research that readers of this blog kindly helped me with some time back. Click on the picture below to start the program. Hope you and your students enjoy it and find it useful.










To see the original research question: click here. Please comment or hit the ‘like’ button and let me know what you and your students think of it.

What’s your take? Should ambiguity be explored in the ELT classroom and if so why and how?


 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jun 112009

Many, many thanks to the 100+ folks who kindly answered my research question.  (And thanks also for the funny comments I received in the process, which gave us a good giggle)

So we made our numbers! Yay!

I owe y’all an explanation and importantly, the results!

The background

When you’re learning a language, it’s sometimes hard to follow what’s going on, not because you don’t understand the words, but because people don’t say what they mean. The thing is there’s sometimes a social requirement to be indirect and I’d like to find ways to help students of English cope with this.

I was looking for a quick and simple way to illustrate the issue. For inspiration I turned to misunderstandings that were known to have occurred between non-native speakers of English (NNSs) and native speakers (NSs) and wrote this conversation:


In my scenario/story, when the conversation ended ‘A’ thought their brother-in-law was to be hired. ‘B’ thought ‘no way’. I had tried to create a situation where people would feel that both A and B had contributed to the misunderstanding.

A publishing deadline loomed and time was pressing. I had no suitable class to try my new conversation out on, but luckily a good friend offered to take it into a lesson the next day. (Thanks John and Target English) The students didn’t have a recording but they had a written version of the conversation and they were all pretty much in agreement – ‘B’  had not been clear enough. ‘A’ was NOT responsible for the misunderstanding.

I doubted native English speakers would feel so certain. We needed a quick answer, so to find out, I recorded the dialogue with my American husband – twice – switching the A and B roles.

The research question

I recorded two versions of the conversation with my husband – one where he played role A and one where I played role A. I emailed the first version of the recording ( Brother-in-law_listening) to friends, family and their contacts along with this question:


The results began coming in. Now of course some friends recognized the voices of my husband and myself in the recording:

Happy to help out, “Valerie.”  My answer is “a.”  No offense to Jay, of course!

b – And tell Jay I know a good attorney in Philadelphia!

So the results have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I had asked people for a simple ‘A’ or ‘B’ answer, but many sent their reasoning along as well. For example:

Jay’s fault for not listening. Even if he didn’t understand her tone (very clear), there’s nothing positive in her words. ‘I understand’ is not enough.

He heard what he wanted to hear

Answer ‘A’ Men never listen!

The absence of a clear “no” does not mean Jay can assume a clear “yes”. 

Valerie sounds a bit tired and fed-up, but this does not necessarily mean that she wouldn’t hire him.

Valerie should have made more effort to be direct in saying no.

b) She kept saying yes she understood!

Many people commented that it was a hard decision and that they felt both A and B were partly to blame. There are quite a few editors, writers and publishers in my address book. Not knowing I’d been striving for ambiguity, they were especially apologetic about having mixed feelings.

The simple answer to the question MOSTLY responsible is a for not listening / picking up on b’s intonation – but b certainly didn’t help the situation! Sorry not to be more straightforward.

Not an easy choice though!! So I’m not sure whether we’ve helped ….

Was it the right answer!!?

Quite a few people commented that the conversation itself was interesting

An interesting exercise and audio clip!

That was a very interesting conversation…

(I could probably write tomes about this, but I wont!)

One person however, felt it was unnatural:

I think the answer is ‚B’ – and I don’t think the way she’s talking is anywhere near what a native speaker would say.

She later clarified for me:

Yes, the main problem was her intonation – apart from that I don’t think people really say things like that to each other do they?

Curiously one friend wanted to change the story line, and say Jay didn’t misunderstand.

But really I dont think there is a misunderstanding going on just yet. There is just a slight clash of attitudes towards the problem which has not been defined well enough.

This happened once again when I later sent out the audio of the other conversation, where the roles were reversed.

Personally I don’t think there was a misunderstanding. I don’t think Valerie ever assumed that Jay would be hiring her b-i-l nor do I think that Jay thought she thought that.

I told both these friends that they should go make up their own story if they wanted it to end differently. I don’t think either of them bought that one. 🙂

Not surprisingly, a couple of friends doing PhDs in pragmatics had the most difficulty restricting themselves to an A/B answer.  One finally gave me her answer after 5  paragraphs. Another waited till I’d thanked him for his answer, and then admitted how hard it had been to keep quiet.

I was itching to comment on it, but your instructions were so clear … I wrote and deleted my comments three times 🙂

But, finally, here are the results:


111 NSs responded and 3 people said they didn’t know. However in contrast to John’s students’ perceptions, most NSs felt A (Jay in this case) was mostly to blame for not listening.


So there was ambiguity. Phew!  And there was also a lovely mix of US/UK responses. I had 57 Brits, 47 Americans and 4 other NS varieties.


So slightly more Americans than Brits seemed to think B (Valerie) had been clear enough. But the difference was small, so it doesn’t look like there’s a conclusive US/UK difference here to me.

Gender-wise, the difference seems more marked. There were 48 males and 60 females.


So women were swinging pretty much 50:50 and it was the men who seemed more likely to criticize the male in the conversation. This raises other  questions:


The results for US males were particularly marked. There were only 15 of them in the study and 13 (87%) of them thought Jay was most responsible. Might American males be particularly sensitive to a need to listen? Well, who’d have thought!


Like many respondents, I feel both parties had a hand in this misunderstanding. Valerie was adopting strategies many of us use when confronted with a tricky situation – prevaricate, delay…  When Jay suggested she hired his brother-in-law, she could have said no. But I think that would probably have required explanation, which could have resulted in a put down for Jay. If you state baldly what you mean, you may make yourself clear, but you may also damage your standing. Putting people down reflects badly on the person doing the putting down.

To me, there seem to be two possible approaches to dealing with the communication problems illustrated here.

  • train everyone to be more direct – assertiveness training-style
  • train everyone to be alert, clarify, check and ask

Personally speaking, I favour the latter, for the reasons above.

Raising awareness is a first step in that task. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect many English learners will think, much as John’s class did, that Valerie was to blame here for not being clear enough. Statistics that demonstrate NSs feel differently is a powerful way to alert them to the fact that it’s not cut and dried.

I think that often we have a tendency to suggest that there is a zero-one answer as regards meaning in the classroom. The implication is that if the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are correct, people will express what they mean, and that’s what their listeners will understand. But in reality life’s not that simple.

The statistics that you’ve contributed to will help us to illustrate more shades of grey, and promote the idea that things need checking and clarifying.

Where to now?

After I’d got 100+ responses on the first conversation, I posted another audio recording we’d made in which we’d reversed roles. So this time it was Valerie who expected her brother-in-law to be hired.

The words were the same, but obviously our voices and intonation aren’t. Nevertheless I hoped it will provide some sort of check on US/UK and gender differences.  Again I asked native speakers who was to blame for the misunderstanding.


The results of the second study are in and they confirm the gender bias. They suggest that we do indeed tend to hold our own sex to higher standards. So when misunderstandings occur, women are more likely to blame women and men are more likely to blame men.

Of course ultimately apportioning blame isn’t helpful. The goal has to be to:

  • 1. be alert and anticipate possible misunderstandings before they arise.
  • 2. check, clarify and prevent misunderstandings.

Language teaching materials tend to take a black and white perspective on interactions. Direct communication is favoured and ambiguity is frowned on. There’s generally one answer that’s correct and more often than not, it’s the one with the correct form. The implication is that if the grammar and vocabulary is correct, all will be well.

The problem with this is human beings aren’t always direct, and they often have good reasons for being ambiguous. So rather than presenting models of language that ignore ambiguity, I think we need to explore it.

To return to the original research question: click here.

For some lesson materials that resulted from the research: click here.


 Posted by at 12:50 am
Jun 042009

In June 2009 I put out this request to friends and blog readers:

I’ve just added a research section to this blog. If you are a native English speaker with a couple of minutes to spare, could you listen to a conversation and answer a question for me?

Could you:
1. read the scenario below
2. click on the audio link below and listen to a short conversation
3. email me back – either ‘1′ or ‘2′ in answer to the question, and tell me your native variety of English eg. British, American, Canadian, Australian…

The scenario:
Jay and Valerie had a conversation about a website project. At the end of the conversation, Jay thought Valerie would probably hire his brother-in-law as a web developer. Valerie had no intention of hiring Jay’s brother-in-law, so there was a misunderstanding.

The Conversation:


The Question:
Who do you think was mostly responsible for this misunderstanding:
1. Jay (for not listening)?
2. Valerie (for not saying ‘no’ clearly enough)?
Please don’t feel you have to provide more explanation – a simple ‘1 or ‘2′ answer is all we need.

I’ll explain what I’m up to and report on the results later. Many thanks!


You might like to listen to the recording and answer the question yourself before you read the results.

Click here for the explanation and results

 Posted by at 6:15 pm