When “Please” Becomes Unpleasant: Dynamism of Politeness Expressions

By Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo and Peter Kofi Afful.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The absolutist approach to politeness as pursued by Leech (1983) in his identification of politeness maxims, and Levinson and Brown (1987) in their discussions have been rejected by contextualists such as Gu (1990), Spencer-Oatey and Jiang (2003), Holmes (1995), Watts (2003), and Locher (2004). Fraser and Nolan (1981: 96), for instance, argue pertinently that ‘no sentence is inherently polite or impolite’. From the contextual and social models of politeness, this paper looks at the English expression ‘please’ and its place in politeness discourse. It looks at the use of this expression in actual speech situations in Ghana, supported by discourse interactions from other communities. It looks at the expression in relation to the totality of the interaction in which it occurs, specifically, at the reactions which this expression invokes, and establishes that ‘please’ is used for politeness and impoliteness, or for face-enhancement as well as face-threat. Finally, whilst agreeing with Gu (1990), Spencer-Oatey and Jiang (2003), Holmes (1995), Watts (2003), Locher (2004) and Fraser and Nolan (1981) on the need for contextual approach to politeness, we argue on the basis of the findings that there is the need to categorize expressions into the cognitively and the functionally polite or impolite, to the extent that the employment of an expression in a domain of politeness other than its natural or cognitive has implications for its nature and depth of politeness or impoliteness. On the basis of ‘please’, the paper proposes the recognition of three levels of uses of naturally or cognitively polite expressions–the politic (neutral or the formal), the polite, and the non-politic (impolite).

Keywords: (Im)politeness, Face, Sense, Context, Pramalingual

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 6, Issue 12, pp.57-68. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 793.660KB).

Prof. Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo

Associate Professor, Department of English Education, Faculty of Languages Education, University of Education, Winneba, Ghana

Prof. Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo holds M.Phil degrees in African literature and English from the University of Ghana, Legon and the University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, respectively. Prof. Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo has been teaching at the University of Education since 1996 and has been Head of the Department of Ghanaian Languages, Dean of the Faculty, and Head of the Department of English. Currently, Prof. Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo is on visiting professorship at the University of Cape Coast. Prof. Yaw Sekyi-Baidoo’s research and teaching areas include sociolinguisitcs, onomastics, discourse analysis and pragmatics, communicative use of English, stylistics, and reading.

Peter Kofi Afful

Lecturer, Department of English Education, Faculty of Languages Education, University of Education, Winneba, Winneba, Ghana

Peter Kofi Afful’s research areas include: discourse analysis and pragmatics, youth languages, reading, and the use of English. He currently teaches English and General Linguistics in the University of Education.


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