I hereby request that you be direct


At a dinner I was at recently, one participant remarked that a roommate would continually make requests indirectly, e.g. “Do you think you’ll do the dishes?” “I wonder if we should do some cleaning this weekend.” [language changed to protect the innocent]. She expressed some frustration with that sort of talk, wishing that the roommate would “be direct” and just say

> Can you please do the dishes?

In case anyone was wondering if, maybe, somehow, _can you X_ was still only indirectly a request.

A debate that (from what I understand) raged throughout the 1970s and a bit into the 80s, surrounded the idea of the indirect speech act. (Perhaps even putting it in that way shows bias) The basic idea is that

> I wonder if you might lend me that copy of _Star Trek: First Contact_

Can convey an intention similar (but not identical) to that of

> (I request/order/… you to) Lend me that copy of _Star Trek: First Contact_

Where the first sentence is a more indirect way of doing a command or request: it’s an “indirect speech act.” Depending on your view of how language worked in context (most people in this particular business were still just thinking up discourses in their heads, not looking at actual instances of interaction), people would interpret such indirect speech acts in different ways. But the general idea was that although there might have been some “literal” meaning of sentences like _I wonder if …_, people would somehow calculate an implicated meaning, namely that the speaker was actually making a request, not just remarking on their cognitive state.

A much-analyzed example of an indirect speech act is the formula _can you (please) X?_ Jerry Morgan argued in 1978 that certain types of utterances that looked like indirect speech acts actually involved “short-circuited implicature.” That is, even though one can take the “literal” meaning of _can you X_ (‘are you capable of X’) and calculate the proper implicature (‘please X’), people don’t do this. The implicature calculation has been short-circuited, and it’s basically just an idiom. An interesting bit of data adduced in discussing this idiom involved the word _please_:

> Can you please pass the salt?
> ??? Are you able to please pass the salt?
> * This dish isn’t very salty please.

That is, one might say that _please_ is only licensed when the surrounding sentence is “literally” a request.

What is certainly clear, at least to the dinner participant, is that _can you please X_ is not a roundabout way of requesting anything: it’s quite direct, with perhaps only politeness distinguishing it from commands in the form of imperatives (_do X!_). It would have been, I think, much more interesting if she had given _can you do the dishes_ as the direct alternative. That would show that even without the cue that comes from _please_, _can you X_ is for all intents and purposes completely short-circuited.

2 Comments so far

  1. Alex on June 2nd, 2009

    save to bookmark)

  2. Polprav on October 14th, 2009

    Hello from Russia)