Dec 132009

How About Some Nice by Your Pal Dave.

A lot of my students seem to think we make suggestions by saying, ‘I suggest…’ Similarly with proposals and recommendations, they seem to think ‘I propose…’ or ‘I recommend…’ is what we say. They’re perfectly logical. The only problem is of course, we’re not.

In practice we generally use those verbs to ‘talk about’ suggestions, rather than actually make them. So in speech data they seem to show up in contexts where we want to be explicit. We might use them to clarify something:

Are you suggesting that…?

Or to signal something we’re going talk about:

We’d like to propose a different solution…

Or we might use them to report what someone else has said.

They recommended we change the plans.

They often seem to crop up in conflict situations where somebody is trying to be precise and formally go on-record about what’s being said. But when we’re involved in friendly collaboration, more tentative expressions like ‘How about…? or ‘What if we…?’ or ‘Why don’t we..?’ are more likely to pop out of our mouths. (Pretending like other people have a choice when they don’t really seems to be a feature of anglo English.)

The phrases ‘I disagree’ and ‘I don’t agree’ are similar and they rarely come up in native speaker workplace conversation. My students, on the other hand, say them a lot, along with that another famous line: ‘I am not agree’. That one we react to because it’s ‘ungrammatical’. The rules are much clearer for written sentence grammar.

Getting that grammar wrong means someone doesn’t know the language. So if someone says ‘I am not agree’ we understand their English is dodgy and make allowances. The potential for relationship damage is limited. It’s when they get the social rules wrong that things get tricky. We think they might have ‘a difficult personality’ and they go on probation while we try to figure them out.

We seem to say ‘I disagree’ when we want to be explicit, perhaps to clarify when there’s a misunderstanding:

No, no. You don’t understand what I said. I disagree with that idea.

Or to report what someone else has said.

Toby doesn’t agree with us.

By way of contrast, we seem to accomplish agreement pretty easily with a quick ‘Good’, ‘Right’, ‘Yeah’ or whatever. There’s no potential for relationship damage there. It’s the disagreements that challenge us. So at the start of turns we might hesitate, (Errr… well…) claim partial agreement (Yes, but…), ask questions (How much will that cost?) or change the subject and suggest something completely different instead (So does anyone feel like a cup of coffee?)

If I were learning English, I think I’d want to be perceived as a decent and likeable sort of person and relational stuff like this would be pretty important. So how about it?  Is it time to rethink how we teach functions like these?

For some practical ideas on how to do this, see my posts on:
Scrapping the lists
Some list alternatives 1
Some list alternatives 2

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

 Posted by at 7:26 am

  13 Responses to “How about some nice?”

  1. “a quick ‘Good’, ‘Right’, ‘Yeah’ or whatever.”

    The whatever there is an etcetera-whatever, i think….

    …but it could be a “Whatever”, if you follow,
    which seems to be a useful non-agreement acceptance or something?

  2. I think those things are getting through to textbooks, but the problem yet again is that they are based on native speaker norms, sometimes ones that vary a lot from speaker to speaker, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a future English as a Lingua Franca has people saying “I agree” and never “Why don’t we…?” (and certainly not “Do you mind if I..?”)

  3. I’ll be amazed if, in a 100 years, ‘I’m agree’ is not the accepted form of agreement. I put it third in a list of inevitable changes – disappearance of 3rd person ‘s’, and the restriction of the present perfect to Oxbridge dons.
    In the meantime, I like your idea of thinking about how students want to be perceived when speaking English. So many of their intellectual capabilities are curbed by possessing only an incipient knowledge of English, that offering them some kind of social dignity in the form of a functional etiquette is very appealing.

  4. Oh yes, you’re quite right Chris. There are lots of useful whatevers so whatever whatever I meant, it could be read as that whatever or another whatever or whatever.
    Hey whatever…!

  5. Great to see you, Alex, and you make some great points.
    Now yes, textbooks are starting to incorporate some socilinguistic stuff, (hurrah) but I reckon there’s a long way to go and I should write another post about that…
    Re English as a Linguag Franca, I’m sure you’re right and I reckon ‘I propose..’ and ‘I recommend…’ must be pretty standard ELF forms.

  6. Oh well put Sputnik, and welcome. I am agree with you about I am agree! Can I add ‘articles’ to your future dinosaur list?
    I think two things that we can be sure will feature in ‘talk’ in a hundred years are ambiguity and indirectness. I reckon human beings are faced with too many competing politeness principles for them to fade away.

  7. When one replies “whatever”, it doesn’t signal agreement, but rather acquiescence. It means the speaker accedes to the (suggestion, request, command)but DOES NOT agree or support it. The tone of voice indicates the relative degree of disagreement, which could range from I-don’t-care-let’s-just-get-through-this nonchalance to I’ll-humor-you-this-time-you-ignorant-fool sarcasm.

  8. Oh welcome Brian, and many thanks for chipping in. Yes, ‘whatever’ has some interesting meanings.
    There’s an ‘any or everything’ meaning as in “Take whatever you want”
    There’s a ‘something of a similar type’ meaning as in – “You’ll find the salt, pepper, mustard and whatever here”. So that seems to be the one we use when we use when we’re listing stuff and can’t retrieve an item from our memory, or can’t be bothered to retrieve it, or we’re not too sure how accurate our memory is.
    ‘Whatever’ is also associated with expressing surprise in question forms, of course, as in ‘Whatever next!’ or ‘Whatever do you mean?’
    And then there’s the situation that you mention Brian, where we can’t resolve a dispute, so we use ‘whatever’ as a kind of bid to suspend arguing about it.
    I read a really excellent article somewhere about the etymology of ‘whatever’ and how its usage has changed over time as different meanings have emerged fallen in and out of fashion. But I can’t remember where it is now. I’m pretty sure it was freely available on the web and not a journal paper or anything. Does it ring any bells with anyone?

  9. […] And a lot gets repeated across classes. For example, my students often use performative verbs more than native speakers, so I’ll often find myself scheduling some explicit teaching about […]

  10. […] like ‘I don’t agree’, or ‘I propose we…’, are infrequent items in spoken English (more on that here). There are more frequent phrases we’d want to draw attention to first. And if we decide we want […]

  11. […] How about some nice Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 1 […]

  12. […] might also want to check out my posts on: How about some nice Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives […]

  13. […] might also want to check out my posts on: How about some nice Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives […]

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