phrases whose literal meaning...

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Sun Nov 3 20:21:34 UTC 2002

When the grammatical form of  a sentence does not match up with the
"intent" such a form usually carries, people in pragmatics refer to
it as an "indirect speech act" or, simply "indirectness." For
example, The interrogative "Is it cold in here?" could actually be a
"request" or "command," the latter having direct expression in "Shut
the window you bozo!" (Well, the 'you bozo' part could be a little

There are many more "intents" or "speech acts") than there are
grammatical forms, so this mismatch (or indirectness) is inevitable.
On the other hand, Brown and Levinson, in their famous "Politeness,"
explored the idea that much language indirectness comes from self-
and other-face-protection. "Do you have a dollar?" is less direct
(and does not threaten the speaker's or hearer's "face") than "Gimme
a dollar."

Note that a "speech act joke" (perhaps the lowest form of humor) can
be accomplished (if the word "accomplishment" can be used in such a
case) one's pretending interpreting a grammatical question directly

"Do you have a dollar?"
"Well, will you loan me a dollar."
"Oh. Did you want me to loan you a dollar?"


>>At 11:14 AM -0500 11/3/02, James A. Landau wrote:
>>My daughter needs to know the term to be applied to phrases whose literal
>>meaning is one thing but which are universally interpreted as something else.
>>  Her examples are "How do you do?" which literally asks "How are you?" but is
>>used merely as "Hello"; and one from Hebrew, "mazel tov" which literally
>>means "good luck" but is universally used as "congratulations".
>Aside from "idiom" and perhaps "expression"  I don't think there's a
>term for this, but I have a few good examples:
>"Break a leg" --  (in theater; = Good luck!)
>German: "Hals- und Beinbruch!"  (literally: Neck and leg break!) i.e.
>You should break your neck and leg.  = Good luck!  (This German
>expression is probably the source of English "Break a leg!")
>"Kick the bucket" ( = die)
>     Also, a lady from South America told me that she had a job in
>Florida, and her boss had to leave the store for an hour or so.  As
>he left, he told his employee that she should "hold down the fort."
>The lady is very conscientious
>and wanted very much to carry out her boss' order, but even though
>she understood each individual word ("hold," "down," "fort"), she had
>no idea what the boss wanted her to do.
>    She was very nervous the whole time, since the boss might be upset
>upon his return that she had not held down the fort, whatever that
>meant. Of course, everything turned out fine, but she still vividly
>remembered the incident and her discomfort when she told me the story
>some years later.
>Gerald Cohen

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics and Languages
740 Wells Hall A
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027 USA
Office - (517) 353-0740
Fax - (517) 432-2736

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