Friday, March 2, 2012

Clark: "Responding to Indirect Speech Acts" (1979)

I haven't read all of this (quite long) paper, but it's intriguing because it employs a quite unconventional methodology: Herbert Clark makes inferences about people's processing of indirect speech acts by looking at how they respond to them verbally, in particular whether they respond to the literal meaning, the conveyed meaning, or both.

The method is this: You decide on a stimulus questions, for instance Could you tell what time it is?; then you look up a dozen shops in the phone directory and call them; you ask them the question, and you record the exact wording of their response. Nice and simple.

The result that comes out of this exercise is that people frequently respond to both the literal and the derived meaning of a query, in that order. So for instance, you might ask someone Could you tell me what time it is? and that person might respond Yes, it's four o'clock.

Clark's conclusion from this data is that both the literal and the derived meaning of the question must enter the hearer's mind. I'm not sure whether that actually follows from the data (there are other competing explanations), but the observation that people actually say Yes is indeed worth taking seriously for a psycholinguistic theory.

Parrot Responses

One of the reasons that Clark has to doubt his own conclusion is that people in fact also respond Yes when the response to the literal request is in fact No. For instance, you may ask me Would you mind telling me what time it is?, and I may respond Yes, it's four o'clock. Only a very small minority responds with a No (p. 447-48).

This of course undermines Clark's use of the data slightly, since it may imply that people only respond Yes as a matter of verbal habit or perhaps to convey a more general sense of acceptance or affirmation—and not because they actually process the literal meaning of the request.

Clark himself explains the problem away by expanding the Gricean two-stage theory into a three-stage theory: He supposes that the question is gradually broken down according to the following progression:
  1. Would you mind telling me what time it is?
  2. Will you tell me what time it is?
  3. Tell me what time it is!
In this way, he can explain the Yes as a response to an intermediate byproduct of the sentence processing (stage 2), while the other part of the answer is a response to the final product (stage 3).

That doesn't seem quite right—but OK, it's a theory.

A Reanalysis By Gibbs

Raymond Gibbs explains the same data by assuming that people include the Yes because it "is conventionally thought of as being polite" rather because they interpret the question literally as well as figuratively (Poetics of Mind, p. 89).

His support for this claim comes from an experiment in which he forced subjects into a literal reading of a question of the form Can't you ... ? This turns out to be difficult, and people take longer time to do this than to read the same question when it functions as an indirect request.

This data is quite dubious, both because the sentences are quite odd (Can't you be friendly?) and because the stories are quite badly written and don't unequivocally exclude an indirect request reading of the question in the so-called "literal" context.

However, Gibbs follows up with the following comment:
In general, people are biased toward the conventional interpretations of sentences even when these conventional meanings are nonliteral or figurative. Certain sentence forms, such as Can you … ? and May I … ?, conventionally seem to be used as indirect requests. Listeners' familiarity with these sentence forms, along with the context, helps them immediately comprehend the indirect meaning of these indirect requests. People may not automatically compute both the literal and indirect meanings of indirect speech acts. (Poetics of Mind, p. 91)
This seems more reasonable and in fact brings him much closer to the keyword theory of Cacciari and Tabossi (cf. Idioms (1995), chapters 2 and 11).

Conventionality and Frequency

The intuition that Gibbs has about the frequencies is not entirely unreasonable, although the story becomes a little bit more complex when we look at actual empirical frequencies. I've done a quick count based on the MICASE corpus and found the following estimates:

Sentence form   Literal   Indirect    Unclear   Other
Can you …? 17 17 12 9
Could you …? 12 23 13 18
May I …? 0 13 0 6
Would you mind …? 0 9 0 0

The numbers in the two first rows are based on a search in the "highly interactive" section of the corpus, and the numbers in the two last rows are based on a search in the entire corpus.

The phrase can you is so common in the corpus that I just picked 55 occurrences at random and categorized those. All other numbers are based on exhaustive search within the ranges specified above.

The category "Unclear" covers cases where both a question reading and a request reading are compatible with the phrase, for instance:
  • can you remember that?
  • can you cut it up so that everybody gets a piece?
  • can you predict you know what it's gonna be?
The category "Other" covers less interesting search noise like i wanna finish this in May. i wanna finish in the set of May I …? sentences.

It's interesting that there are in fact a relatively large overlap in the direct and the indirect function of the sentences. These are the cases where there is a actual way out for the hearer of the request, such as Could you say anything about that? The existence of such real ambiguities are of course what motivates the use of indirect speech acts as politeness strategies in the first place.

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