Analysing Implicatures (classroom activity)


Reading time: 4 minutes


This is the second of two posts with ideas for developing understanding of ‘implicature’ (discussed in a previous research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’ ).

These activities apply the notion of implicature in analysing texts and understanding some of their effects. This could support students interested in:

  • Implicatures across literary and non-literary material (Making Connections, spec section 4.3).
  • Exploring interaction (Exploring Conflict, spec section 4.2).

First: identifying and exploring implicatures in texts

Ask students to look at any text and identify some of its implicatures.

They should also make a note of thoughts which might be about implicatures, but which they are not sure of. These will be a basis for later discussion.

Students begin working individually and then work in pairs or small groups to compare answers. Comparing notes will almost always lead individual students to have new thoughts about the text.


  1. Find a text or use a set one from Exploring Conflict (spec section 4.2) and make a note of as many possible implicatures of the text as you can.
  2. Compare your list with other students, considering each possible implicature and commenting to what extent you are sure it is an implicature.
  3. Try to sort the implicatures into types: which ones are stronger? which ones are weaker? Which ones leave you unsure about whether or not they were intended?
  4. Consider who might be intending to communicate each of these implicatures:
    • is it the author of the text?
    • a narrator?
    • characters?
    • somebody else?
    • are there any you are not sure about?
  5. Now focus on one fairly strong implicature of the text. Suggest further lines of reasoning so that you might derive a wider range of weaker implicatures starting from it.
  6. Discussion: “to what extent do you think what you have been doing contributes to (or counts as) developing a fuller interpretation of the text?”

Then: comparing texts

Following on from the previous task, this compares texts and how many stronger or weaker implicatures they give rise to.

Any texts could be compared, but one idea would be to start with two texts, including one which clearly gives rise to a wider range of weaker implicatures. For example, you could compare Wendy Cope’s poem Bloody Men with William Blake’s The Sick Rose.

Students can repeat this activity to explore further texts, or compare two parts of the same text. Consider the ‘gun’ simile at the beginning of Seamus Heaney’s Digging and the ‘dig’ metaphor at the end. This example is discussed in a previous digest post, ‘Implicatures and literary texts’.


  1. Select your texts.
  2. List some strong implicatures of each text.
  3. List some weaker implicatures of each text.
  4. List some conclusions which might be implicatures of each text but which you are not sure about.
  5. Now compare the two texts to consider: which one has a greater number of stronger implicatures and which one more weaker one?
  6. Discussion: “what does this suggest about the two texts?”

Finally: rewriting

This task develops understanding by intervention, i.e. by rewriting texts to give rise to more or fewer stronger and weaker implicatures. This can support students thinking about their own re-writing as part of Writing About Society (spec section 4.2.2).

  1. Revisit a text from the previous task.
  2. Make a note of some strong implicatures of this text.
  3. Make a note of some weaker implicatures.
  4. Comment on your overall impression of the text with regard to how many stronger and how many weaker implicatures it suggests.
  5. Now rewrite some passages to change the status of particular assumptions, i.e. either to make some weaker implicatures stronger or to make some stronger implicatures weaker.
  6. Look at a different text and compare it with the one you have been working on.
  7. Suggest some rewrites to one or both texts to make them more like each other.
  8. Discussion: “what does this suggest about the texts you have been looking at?”

Applying These Ideas to NEA

A student who has worked through these will have developed their understanding of implicatures and how they can vary across texts. They will also have developed their understanding of how to create and edit texts while thinking about the implicatures they are likely to generate. This can be useful for the NEA, and help students generate their own data for comparison with their chosen literary text.

Understanding Implicatures (classroom activity)


Reading time: 7 minutes


This is the first of two posts with ideas for developing understanding of ‘implicature’ (discussed in the previous research digest on implicature and literary texts), including the ideas that implicatures can be stronger or weaker and that texts vary with regard to how many implicatures they suggest. It mainly targets the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA).

The ideas suggest how texts can be compared in terms of the kinds of implicatures they are likely to give rise to. So they could form the basis of comparison between a literary text and a non-literary text.

If students have been working on particular pragmatic theories, e.g. on Grice’s approach or relevance theory, they can apply their understanding of how these approaches would explain the derivation of particular implicatures. However, these activities show how the notion of ‘implicature’ can be used in analysing texts even without focusing directly on particular theoretical approaches.


The term ‘implicature’ was coined by the philosopher Paul Grice to refer to indirectly communicated assumptions, e.g. to the assumption Bella communicates here that she is planning to read Scott’s new book:

Andy:                Are you going to read Scott’s new book when it’s out?
Bella:                I read everything he writes.

The first set of activities here contains tasks to help students focus on what implicatures are and what kinds of implicatures utterances can convey. The activities in Part 2, which will be posted separately, aim to develop understanding of specific texts by exploring some of their implicatures. While the examples presented below have been chosen to illustrate particular ideas, the activities could focus on examples taken from texts created by students.

Understanding Implicatures

In introducing implicature, it’s important to start with some fairly straightforward examples like the one above about Bella planning to read Scott’s book. A good starting point is simply to present a number of examples and ask students to identify possible implicatures.

a) Identifying implicatures

Students are asked here to look at the final utterances in these exchanges and to identify an implicature which they think the speaker is likely to communicate.

(Andy is asking Bella about an essay which she has been struggling with for a long time)
Andy:                How’s the essay going?
Bella:                Lovely weather just now, isn’t it?

‘Three for two’
(In a shop, Bella has taken two tins of beans to the counter and is about to pay for them)
Assistant:        They’re three for two just now.

‘Good worker?’
(Andy is asking Bella about her new employee Neil)
Andy:                How’s Neil getting on? Is he a good worker?
Bella:                Well, he always arrives in good time.

When using examples like this, it’s important to clarify that these have underspecified contexts, meaning interpretations might vary depending on other aspects of the context. Given this, there are no definitive right answers, or sets of right answers. Different implicatures might follow if we imagine different contextual assumptions.

b) Different implicatures

Having established that students have a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, this task then considers how implicatures vary depending on particular contextual assumptions.

If students haven’t all made the same suggestions for the examples above, they can begin to explore this by considering what would make different implicatures more or less likely. If students generally agree about implicatures in the previous examples, consider instances where further contextual assumptions are needed to work out the speaker’s intended to implication (with no contextual gloss).

Here, instructions  should make clear that Bella’s individual responses could be understood differently depending on the contextual assumptions available to Andy. Students are then asked to make two suggestions about possible implicatures and to identify contextual assumptions which would make each one likely.

Andy:                Do you know if Scott’s going to Ellen’s party?
Bella:                Jake’s going.

Andy:                Would you like a coffee?
Bella:                Coffee would keep me awake.

Andy:                Do you fancy seeing that new Crocodile film with me?
Bella:                It’s a horror film.

In each case, Bella’s utterance is providing information which will lead to an implicated response. To see what kind of answer she intends, we need to know a bit more. The most likely assumptions we will think of are: whether Scott likes or tries to avoid Jake, whether Bella wants to stay awake or not, and whether Bella likes or hates horror films.

Students can explore this and other examples, considering how different sets of contextual assumptions make particular implicatures more or less likely. These could form the basis of some data generation for NEA.

c) Stronger and weaker implicatures

Having established a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, these tasks ask students to consider two ideas mentioned in the research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’: first, that utterances typically convey more than one implicature; second that we can be more or less sure that certain implicatures are intended, i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’.

A good starting point is to ask students to look at one of the previous examples and consider other implicatures which might be conveyed at the same time as an implicature they have already discussed. This should work for any of the ‘party’, ‘coffee’ or ‘crocodile’ examples. They might, for example, assume one interpretation of the party response, e.g. that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going.

Further implicatures?

If we assume that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going, what other conclusions might we draw from this?

Possible answers include: that Scott does not like Jake, that anyone who would like Scott to come to their events should not invite Jake, that Scott might have a negative attitude to anyone who likes Jake, speculations about why Scott does not like Jake, and so on.

Students can then move on to consider other things which Bella might suggest by indicating that she likes or hates horror films. This might include assumptions about relative closeness to others based on their attitude to horror films, or other things which the refusal or acceptance of an offer of coffee might suggest (note that this is likely to raise the idea that an invitation for coffee can be a disguised sexual invitation; in my classes, this often leads to discussion of the phrase ‘netflix and chill’).

The aim of this discussion is to establish:

a. that utterances typically have more than one implicature

b. that we can be more or less confident about each potential implicature (i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’)

c. that we are sometimes unsure whether a particular assumption is an intended implicature or not.

Students can then go on to consider other examples (again possibly forming the basis of some data generation for the NEA), and experiment with them by imagining different possible utterances which would make particular implicatures stronger or weaker, e.g. Bella might have said ‘I hate horror films’ in response to the question about Crocodile.


Here are some sources to help with understanding implicature and these activities:

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. An accessible introduction to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. An introduction to relevance theory which also discusses Grice’s work and the idea that implicatures can be stronger or weaker.

Clark, Billy. 2016. Pragmatics. In Marcello Giovanelli and Dan Clayton (eds.) Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom. Routledge, London: 64-76. Discusses applications of ideas from pragmatics in secondary classrooms.

Implicature and literary texts (research digest)


Reading time: 9 minutes

Poetic effects

This post digests Adrian Pilkington’s influential paper on ‘poetic effects’, which shows how ideas from pragmatics can be used in exploring literary texts and in accounting for literary interpretations. The paper refers to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’.

Pilkington focuses on the notion of ‘implicature’, originating in the work of H. Paul Grice. Grice coined the term to refer to what we indirectly communicate. We can illustrate this using an exchange discussed in the paper by Pilkington:

Alan:                    Drink?

Beth:                    I’m a Mormon.

Implicature:     Beth does not want an alcoholic drink.

Here Beth directly communicates that she is a Mormon and indirectly communicates (‘implicates’) that she does not want an alcoholic drink. This follows as long as Alan access the following contextual assumption:

Mormons do not drink alcoholic drinks.

Grice developed an approach which aimed to explain how implicatures are communicated. Pilkington’s paper focuses on more recent ideas, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in their work on relevance theory. They suggest that utterances typically communicate a range of implicatures with varying amounts of evidence for each one. While Grice’s approach would have focused on the implicature that Beth does not want an alcoholic drink, Pilkington points out that Beth’s utterance also makes it possible to infer further conclusions, including:


Beth does not want to drink other alcoholic drinks.

Beth does not drink coffee.

Beth does not smoke.

Beth might practise polygamy.

These depend on Alan accessing and using the assumptions that Mormons don’t drink coffee, don’t smoke, and that they can be more likely to practise polygamy. There are other possible conclusions which Alan might arrive at (depending on whether appropriate contextual assumptions occur to him) and which he is likely to be less sure of, such as:

Possible implicatures:

I will not have much in common with Beth.

Beth might be offended by my way of living.

These are weaker implicatures than those about coffee, smoking and marriage, which are in turn less strong than the implicature that Beth would not like an alcoholic drink. In fact, it might be hard for Alan to decide whether Beth intends to convey an assumption about her attitude to Alan’s way of life at all. Two key ideas developed within relevance theory are: first, that implicatures can be stronger or weaker; second, that there is not always a clear distinction between intentionally communicated implicatures and conclusions for which the addressee is wholly responsible.

Pilkington goes on to consider how weak implicatures can contribute to what have been termed ‘poetic effects’, which are often thought of as vague, impressionistic and hard to capture. Relevance theorists have suggested that poetic effects involve the communication of a relatively wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington discusses the effects of repetition in the Biblical utterance:

Oh Absalom, my son my son!

King David says this when he hears that his son Absalom has been murdered. The repetition encourages thoughts about David’s relationship with his son and his emotions on hearing of his son’s death. Pilkington suggests that this repetition gives rise to poetic effects because we can access a wide range of assumptions about their relationship, how it might feel for David to have lost his son, and so on. By contrast, repetitions such as the following will seem pointless or ridiculous in most contexts because we cannot access such a rich set of possible implicatures:

Oh Anna, my colleague, my colleague!

The pubs have closed, closed.

The relevance-theoretic account suggests that poetic effects arise when an utterance communicates a rich set of weak implicatures.

Pilkington’s discussion of ‘Digging’ focuses in particular on the ending of the poem. He suggests that this gives rise to a fairly wide range of implicatures because the rest of the poem has made this possible. The poem is ‘spoken’ by a poet (who clearly has a lot in common with Heaney himself) sitting at a table near a window and writing. The poem begins:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Outside, his father is digging in the garden. The poem leaps back in time to when his father was younger and digging in potato fields. His father ‘could handle a spade’ and comes from a long line of men who dug the land. The poem contrasts the father with the poet who has not joined in this tradition. The poem ends back at the window:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

What inferences do readers make at the end of the poem? Pilkington focuses on the key metaphor evoked by the use of dig as something the poet will do with a pen. He suggests that the earlier mention of the father and his digging in potato fields, along with other contextual assumptions, make it possible for us to access a wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington cannot come close to listing all of the possibilities but he lists a small set as a starting point, including these:

Digging is how the poet’s forefathers earned their living

Digging is an activity with a long tradition in the community.

Digging involves hard work.

Digging involves intense concentration.

Digging is a manly occupation.

Digging is a worthy occupation.

Digging involves taking things from below the surface.

For each one, he suggests, we can go on to think about ways in which writing poetry is similar or different to the kind of digging his father was engaged in. This poem is successful because the effort involved in thinking about the broad range of implicatures it suggests is rewarded by the relatively rich interpretations this leads to. He also considers how deriving this set of weak implicatures might lead to emotional responses and to what extent this approach might account for more broadly aesthetic experiences.

A key feature of the paper is that it shows how ideas from pragmatics are useful in accounting for literary interpretations and in exploring literary texts. Exploring the implicatures of texts is a fairly accessible way of beginning to explore texts and interpretations of texts more fully.

This is a digest of the following article:

Pilkington, Adrian. 1992. Poetic Effects. Lingua 87.1: 29-51.

You can read ‘Digging’ and hear Seamus Heaney reading it at the Poetry Foundation website here.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use the ideas in this paper in the following ways to develop understanding of pragmatics and literary texts:

  1. The notion that implicatures can be stronger or weaker is a key notion in relevance theory. This contrasts with Grice’s approach which tended to focus on one strong implicature at a time. Students can explore this contrast by looking at short texts and analysing them in three stages:

a. identify one strong implicature of the text

b. make a list of other implicatures which might follow from the same text

c. for each implicature, identify contextual assumptions which give rise to the implicature

This activity could lead to broader discussion of what kinds of texts are more likely to be read for a wider range of weaker implicatures and which are more likely to be read for a narrower range of stronger ones (see activity 4 below).

  1. Students can develop their own spoken and written communication by rewriting utterances to adjust the likelihood of particular inferences being made by hearers or readers of their utterances. This might also focus on the extent to which different versions give rise to stronger or weaker implicatures. They could explicitly explore the effect of this in their recreative writing (Writing about society, A level; People and places, AS level)’
  1. Students can explore the novel and poems they are studying (Imagined worlds and Poetic voices A level; Views and voices, AS level) by making a list of possible implicatures which they think the text suggests and organising them into stronger or weaker implicatures. Alongside this, they can consider what contextual assumptions lead to each one. Which conclusions depend only on assumptions derived from the text? Which derive from more general contextual assumptions? Do some of them depend on knowledge about the author? Or the context in which the text was produced?
  1. Students can aim to develop richer or shallower interpretations of particular texts across the specification and on the NEA (Making Connections, A-level) by focusing to a greater or lesser degree on stronger or weaker implicatures. A fairly shallow interpretation of a text might focus mainly on ‘what happens’ in the text. A richer one would focus on broader themes, the psychology of characters, the emotional impact on audiences, and so on. Students can reflect on this explicitly by comparing different kinds of interpretations of texts and different kinds of reading practices. What would a very shallow interpretation of a particular text look like? What would a much richer one look like? Are there texts which are more likely to give rise to richer interpretations than others?
  1. Students can also compare different parts of particular texts and alternative possible versions of the same text. This might inform the study of any text on the AS and A level specifications. Pilkington suggests that the connection between the pen and a gun at the start of ‘Digging’ (where the pen rests ‘snug as a gun’) does not lead very far and so has a much less rich interpretation than the notion of the pen as something to dig with at the end. Students could explore this in greater detail, listing possible implicatures of both parts. Alternatively, they might consider other utterances which lead to weaker interpretations. Pilkington suggests, for example, that the simple sentence ‘The poet digs with his pen’ would be far less evocative or interesting than Heaney’s poem. Students could discuss why this is so.

Reading suggestions

There has been a huge amount of work on pragmatics since Grice developed his ideas over 50 years ago (his key texts began to be shared in the 1960s and published in the 1970s but some of the work predates this). Here are some sources on pragmatics in general, on relevance theory in particular, and on pragmatics and literary interpretation.

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

An accessible introduction to pragmatics, covering Grice’s approach and other approaches developed from that, including discussion of relevance theory.

Blakemore, Diane. 1992. Understanding Utterances. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

An accessible introductory textbook presenting a relevance-theoretic approach to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

A more comprehensive accessible account of relevance theory, including discussion of how it developed from the work of Grice.

Dan Sperber’s website, here.

This site provides access to downloadable versions of a wide range of work by Sperber, including work with Deirdre Wilson.

Relevance Theory Online Bibliographic Service, here.

This site gathers all academic sources which discuss or apply ideas from relevance theory. This is probably not the most helpful place to find sources when beginning to study pragmatics but it is interesting to see just how much work has been published on this approach to pragmatics.

Pilkington, Adrian. 2000. Poetic Effects. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

A book-length study of poetic effects from the perspective of relevance theory. Develops further the ideas in the paper discussed in this digest, including the limits of how far this approach can go in accounting for emotional and affective responses to literary and artistic works.

Chapman, Siobhan and Billy Clark (eds.) 2014. Pragmatic Literary Stylistics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

A collection of chapters applying ideas from pragmatics in accounting for interpretations of literary texts. It includes an introduction with general comments on different approaches to pragmatics and their relevance in approaches to literary texts.


Politeness and impoliteness (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 3 minutes

This reading list is designed to guide teachers towards further reading related to the digest on Jonathan Culpeper’s article ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show The Weakest Link.

There has been a large amount of work on politeness and impoliteness since Brown and Levinson’s influential work which made use of Erving Goffman’s ideas about ‘face’. As indicated in the digest article posted here previously, more recent work has included new ideas about the nature of face, about the pervasiveness of ‘facework’ (seeing questions about face as relevant to all interaction rather than only in certain utterances or behaviours) and in considering impoliteness as well as politeness. This last development has led to the use of the term ‘im/politeness’ by many researchers.

There is a considerable literature on politeness and impoliteness, added to regularly by publications in journals such as the Journal of Pragmatics, Language and Literature, Pragmatics, Pragmatics and Society, and the specialised Journal of Politeness Research. This vast literature can look daunting. Here are some suggestions for places where you can begin to find out more about recent developments.

  1. Impoliteness: Using and understanding the language of offence

An accessible website on impoliteness, made possible by an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) fellowship. It contains helpful definitions and a large bibliography.

  1. Politeness by Richard J. Watts

Richard J. Watts. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A useful discussion of work which developed in the years following Brown and Levinson’s important work in this area. An engaging survey of a range of ideas about politeness and impoliteness as realised in social interaction.

  1. Gender and Politeness by Sara Mills

Sara Mills. 2003. Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

An accessible discussion of how ideas about politeness interact with gender in language and communication. The discussion also makes use of the notion of ‘community of practice’, originating in the work of the cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, which focuses on how people work together around particular tasks and how working together contributes to the construction of identities and understanding of ourselves and others.

  1. Power and Politeness in the Workplace by Janet Holmes and Maria Stubbe

Janet Holmes and Maria Stubbe. 2015. Power and Politeness in the Workplace, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

This book considers how behaviour and interaction construct power and politeness in work environments, exploring a number of strategies we use to do this. The book suggests a number of ways of exploring this, some of them lending themselves to interesting classroom activities. Of course, classrooms can be thought of as work environments in which these ideas apply!

  1. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence by Jonathan Culpeper

Jonathan Culpeper. 2011. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

An easy-to-read overview of work on impoliteness, covering a wide range of contexts and behaviours, based on naturally occurring examples.

  1. Impoliteness in Interaction by Derek Bousfield

Derek Bousfield. 2008. Impoliteness in Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

This is an important publication in the development of work on impoliteness. It develops some key ideas in extending ideas about politeness to consider impoliteness as well. It is written in a lively and accessible style.

Impoliteness and Entertainment (research digest)


Reading time: 8 minutes

Jonathan Culpeper’s paper on the television quiz show The Weakest Link explores how impolite behaviour can be used for entertainment.

The Weakest Link ran in the UK from 2000 to 2012. Culpeper describes it as an ‘exploitative’ show ‘designed to humiliate contestants, not to support or celebrate them as is often the case in standard shows’. The show is designed to maximise the potential for impoliteness (unlike ‘standard’ quiz shows such as University Challenge and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? where hosts are supportive to contestants).

One of the most culturally salient features of the show was the extremely impolite persona of the presenter Anne Robinson. Culpeper points out a number of ways in which this persona (distinguishing it from the ‘real’ Anne Robinson) is impolite to contestants. The focus of the show is on identifying ‘weak links’, ie contestants who are performing poorly. Between rounds of questions, each contestant identifies one other who they think has been performing poorly and the contestant with the most nominations has to leave. Robinson discusses nominations with some of the contestants and is impolite to them while doing so. Culpeper discusses several ways in which she is impolite. These include utterances which imply negative judgments about the contestants and their jobs, mimicry and prosody. Discussion of prosody can focus on pitch, rhythm, tempo, volume and voice quality. Here, Culpeper focuses in particular on pitch movement and stress placement.

In this exchange, Robinson mimics a contestant called Danny:

Danny:  a little bit harsh Anne, I live in Solihull now so I’ve moved up

AR:         what was wrong with Liverpool

Danny:   eer

AR:         eeh

Danny’s pronunciation of the filler eer includes a vowel articulated closer to the front of the mouth than would be produced by a speaker of something approximating ‘Received Pronunciation (RP)’. Robinson responds with an even more fronted vowel. As is often the case with mimicry, Robinson exaggerates features she mimics.

Another example appears in her chat with a contestant called Jay:

Jay:       the Australian army trained me

AR:       oh. is that why you go up in all your sentences

Jay:       yes

Robinson asks Jay whether his Australian training explains his use of what is sometimes described as ‘uptalk’ and mimics this by producing marked high rising tones centred on the words up and sentences. Again, her mimicry exaggerates the contestant’s manner of speaking. In fact, Culpeper points out that Jay’s speech does not provide much evidence of uptalk. This does not detract, though, from the opportunity to mimic him.

Robinson uses prosody to be impolite here:

AR:          Shaun, you’re a traffic management operative

Shaun:    that’s correct

AR:          okay, what do you actually do

Shaun:    er put traffic cones in in the road

AR:          you don’t

Shaun:    I do

AR:           well what an interesting person you turned out to be

Robinson begins her interaction with Shaun by quoting what we assume is his own description of his job. She then asks him “what do you actually do?” prompting him to use a more everyday description of the relatively mundane task of putting traffic cones in the road. As Culpeper points out, we might assume that Robinson’s utterance “you don’t” is sarcastic even without hearing how she says it. The prosody plays a significant role since it is a form often taken to be ironic. As Culpeper points out, the prosody is also consistent with surprise so contextual assumptions play a role in recognising this (and other) sarcasm.

Robinson’s prosody falls throughout the utterance “well, what an interesting person you turned out to be” in a way which ‘resembles a staircase going down’ and so ‘seems to signal boredom’. The earlier utterance (“you don’t”) had prosody consistent with surprise associated with something we assume to be mundane. Here, words which suggest interest are accompanied by prosody suggesting boredom.

These features, and others discussed in the paper, contribute to attacks on the ‘face’ of the contestants. The notion of ‘face’ is key to work on politeness. Culpeper refers here to Helen Spencer-Oatey’s (2002) update of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) ideas on this. She suggests a distinction between ‘quality face’ and ‘social identity face’:

Quality Face:

refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to evaluate us positively in terms of our personal qualities, eg our confidence, abilities, appearance, etc.’

Social Identity Face:

refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to acknowledge and uphold our social identities and roles, eg as group leader, valued customer, close friend’

Quality face is attacked by features which suggest the contestants are unimportant and have negative qualities. Social identity face is attacked by negative attitudes to their accents or jobs.

Culpeper also considers the idea that our understanding that Robinson is performing a role for the purposes of entertainment might mean that this is not really impolite after all. However, there is clear evidence that contestants do take offence. For example, Danny laughs nervously and looks down after his pronunciation of eer is mocked and another contestant smiles and exhales after a negative implication about his job. Culpeper suggests a distinction between impoliteness which is ‘sanctioned’ and impoliteness which is ‘neutralised’, concluding that the impoliteness here is sanctioned but not neutralised.

Culpeper’s discussion reveals a number of ways in which we can attack each other’s face. This approach can be applied in analysing a wide range of texts and interactions.

This is a digest of the following article: Culpeper, Jonathan. (2005). ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link.Journal of Politeness Research 1, 35-72.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Culpeper’s paper discusses other uses of prosody. In particular, he discusses the main catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” Classroom discussion could focus on this utterance and consider the contribution to impoliteness of its prosodic form. This might lead on to discussion of other prosodic forms and how they contribute to meanings. Clips and episodes of The Weakest Link are available on the internet. One entire programme is currently available at: This could support students with potential topic areas for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A-level).
  1. Culpeper’s paper could be used to explore ways in which work on politeness has developed since the work of Brown and Levinson (1987), including in the focus on impoliteness as well as politeness. Again, students could explore some of these developments looking at different types of non-literary material for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A level). One specific area to focus on could be Spencer-Oatey’s new proposals about the notion of face, intended to replace Brown and Levinson’s account which focused on ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’. For Brown and Levinson, positive face was about a positive consistent self-image, about this image being appreciated by others, and about wanting our own wants to be desirable to others. Negative face was seen as being about our actions being unimpeded by others. Students could explore the extent to which Spencer-Oatey’s ideas can map on to these two notions. (Culpeper suggests that Spencer-Oatey’s new notions account for aspects of positive face and that ideas about negative face map onto a different notion proposed by Spencer-Oatey: the notion of ‘sociality rights’, which are about ‘entitlements’ that we claim in interactions with others).
  1. A natural next step would be to look at other kinds of interactions and explore ways in which we aim to be polite or impolite in interacting with others. The ideas developed by Culpeper and others could be explored in any kind of interaction. Students might begin by considering examples from their own interactions, including in classroom discourse. Another possibility would be to look at current quiz shows and other television programmes. Culpeper mentions an example where impoliteness is implicated in an exchange between the hosts Ant and Dec on the programme Pop Idol:

Ant:         Our judges have been accused of being ill-informed, opinionated and rude.

Dec:         We’d like to set the record straight: our judges are not ill-informed.

In discussing other examples, students might consider how other approaches they have considered are relevant here. Dec’s utterance here could be explained with reference to how pragmatic theories account for implicit communication.

  1. Ideas about politeness and impoliteness can also be useful in looking at literary texts on the AQA specifications. For example, students could look at ways in which speakers in the poetry of Donne or Browning use politeness strategies (Poetic voices, A- level; Views and voices, AS) and/or at how characters in prose interact (Imagined worlds, A- level; Views and voices, AS). Another very natural application would be to consider ways in which conflict of various types is constructed and understood (this could include exploration and comparison of conflict used to create tension and conflict used to create humour). A good starting point would be to look at interactions between characters in drama (Dramatic encounters, A-level), noting ways in which they aim to protect or attack the face of others and what the effects of these strategies might be.