Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 24

Politeness Strategies

What's on this page:

Politeness Formulae
The Politeness Principle
        The Politeness Principle: Table
Texts to Analyse

Politeness Formulae

You should be quite familiar with politeness formulae. They do not form themselves into a formal linguistic category. In the extract from the D.H. Lawrence short story 'The Daughters of the Vicar', we see the polite use of directives in the grammatical form of interrogatives. Here are some examples:

 'Do you mind lifting him on to a chair, Louisa,' said Mary hastily.

 '...Why doesn't she [Mary] come down to eat?' asked Mrs Lindley.

You should also be familiar with the use of certain 'polite' lexical items such as the addition of the appropriate vocative to one's utterance or set of utterances to an addressee who is of a higher status (such as 'Sir', 'Your Excellency', etc.), or the appending of such lexical items as 'please' or 'much obliged' to one's utterances if one expects a favour from one's addressee. In addition, some forms of the subjunctive, as you may know, may also be used instead of overt declaratives in order to make the utterance more polite. For example, 'could you do me a favour' is usually regarded as more polite than 'can you do me a favour' (although the latter itself is polite in its use of an interrogative grammatical form that linguistically merely requires one to give a yes/no answer, when actually a directive that probably requires the listener to do an action is intended).

In relation to this aspect of politeness in language use, you may want to ask, in stylistic analysis, whether the use of such lexical items, formulae or routines (not all of which are mentioned above) is purely ritualistic, or whether there is an element of sincerity to it.

Back to index


One of the reasons for the pragmatic adoption of politeness, whether it be through politeness formulae (above) or the politeness principle (below) is to safeguard the other person's face. The other person usually has a need to be respected, and face here refers to his ability to be present in a social environment without any feelings of embarrassment or being out of place.1 However, his face may be threatened by something said by the speaker, who may be deliberately or unintentionally making him feel embarrassed or out of place. In such a case, she may be described as engaging in a Face Threatening Act towards him. Face Threatening Acts result in Negative Politeness, whereas the attempt to avoid them in order to make the listener comfortable or welcome, results in Positive Politeness. For a detailed discussion and literature review on face and politeness, see Liisa Vilkki's ?Politeness, Face and Facework: Current Issues?.

Back to index

Politeness Principle

However, politeness in language may not be limited to such rather obvious instances, but may actually be more pervasive than is often assumed. Geoffrey Leech recognises this, and regards what he calls the politeness principle as one of the fundamental pragmatic principles that one usually observes when one communicates in language. Before one goes into the politeness principle itself, one must bear in mind the speech act classification given by John Searle, and the Gricean conversational maxims, which we did in the previous workshop. One difference of terminology between Searle and Leech is Leech's use of the term assertive for Searle's representative, and impositive for Searle's directive.

Politeness Principle: Table

A description of the six maxims of the politeness principle as they are formulated by Leech,[2] are indicated below.

Maxim Where Found Description
1. The tact maxim In impositives and commisives The speaker[3] minimizes the cost (and correspondingly maximizes the benefit) to the listener .
2. The generosity maxim In impositives and commissives. The speaker minimizes the benefit (and correspondingly maximizes the cost) to herself.
3. The approbation maxim In expressives and assertives. The speaker minimizes dispraise (and correspondingly maximizes praise) of the listener.
4. The modesty maxim. In expressives and assertives. The speaker minimizes praise (and correspondingly maximizes dispraise) of herself.
5. The agreement maxim. In assertives. The speaker minimizes disagreement (and correspondingly maximizes agreement) between herself and the listener.
6. The sympathy maxim. In assertives. The speaker minimizes antipathy (and correspondingly maximizes sympathy) between herself and the listener.

Quite clearly, Leech places more importance on the maxim of manner than what Grice himself has done. In fact, his politeness principle provides the raison d'être for this particular maxim, and why it sometimes causes the breaking of the other maxims of the cooperative principle.

[1] Following the practice of a previous handout, I treat the speaker as female, and the listener as male. Back to earlier position in the text
[2] In his Principles of Pragmatics (London: Longman, 1983): see especially chapters 5 and 6. Back to earlier position in the text
[3] Again, following the practice above, the speaker is treated as female, and the listener as male.

Back to index

Texts to Analyse

Extract from D.H. Lawrence's Daughters of the Vicar.
Extract from Walter Scott's Quentin Durward.

Click here for the notes for the previous workshop.

Back to Homepage: EL3221.

Last revised: 18 May 2017
© Ismail S. Talib 1995-2017.