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Concourse 2

Suasion and Hortation


There is also a guide to semantics which covers some of the differences between sentence meaning and utterance meaning.  Here we are concerned with utterance meaning.

Here are some examples of what this guide is about:

  1. I wish it would rain.
  2. If only it would rain.
  3. Leave me alone, dammit!
  4. You shall leave now.
  5. Dogs are to be carried on the escalators.
  6. Don’t you dare talk to me like that!
  7. Let’s go.

All of these sentences are intended to affect the behaviour of others.  They advise, oblige or suggest at variable levels of intensity.  A mouse trap is designed to affect the behaviour of mice.  We can do this linguistically, too.

You may not be familiar with the term suasion; few are, to be honest.  It was defined by Wilkins as:

the category of utterance designed to affect the behaviour of others
(Wilkins, 1976: 46)

Other analyses speak of hortatory sentences.  That's the line taken here.
(Lots of course materials and teaching guides chop this area up into misty concepts such as suggesting, requesting and demanding.  That is too vague for our purposes.)

Hortative derives from the Latin hortatorius meaning encouraging or cheering (think gladiators, Ben Hur and chariot races and you have the idea).
In some languages (such as Japanese and early European languages like Ancient Greek) a special grammatical tense form or modal category is reserved for what is known as hortative sentences.  However, most modern languages have lost the special case reserved for such things.  These days, we prefer just to talk about the function and the word for it is suasion – i.e., persuading and dissuading.
(The topic of suasion gets a section to itself in the Council of Europe publications which are available on the web:
Waystage 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Threshold 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
You may like to look there for more linguistic realisations of some of the following.)


Three main divisions

The divisions set out here are not the only possible way to analyse this area but, for teaching purposes, they are helpful because they represent some universal concepts.  How languages express the concepts varies dramatically, of course, but they all do it somehow.


1. The optative

The optative expresses wishes and hopes.  Usually, the optative is directed at things we cannot personally affect or change.  In this respect, it is not really an example of suasion but it belongs in this area.  English does this in a number of ways.  Can you think of two ways to express wishes and hopes in English?
Click here when you have made a note.


2. The hortative

The hortative is the name given to sentences which attempt to persuade others to do something.  There are two essential ways to do this:

  1. We encourage someone else to do something.  This is called the exhortative.
  2. We try to get someone to cooperate with us in doing something.  This is called the cohortative.

Can you think of a few of the ways we do this in English?  Click here when you have a note.


3. The imperative

The imperative is the form we use to oblige someone else to do something, and it also comes in four main flavours.
Can you think of two ways we oblige other people to do, or not to do, things in English?
Click here when you have a note.

The summary

As was stated above, the optative really doesn't fall neatly into the area of suasion but, in English at least, similar forms are used and the language is intended to affect the behaviour of someone or something other than the speaker.  Conceptually, and for teaching purposes, it seems sensible to include it here.

summary of suasion in English


Teaching suasion

structural issues

The important issue is to look carefully at the forms of the various realisations of the functions.  There is something of a mishmash.

  1. wish and hope are followed by would clauses, with or without a connecting that.  Tense structures with wish, in particular, can be complex and include the use of the subjunctive.
  2. if only can be followed by a would clause (with or without that) and is also followed by a subjunctive form.
  3. let's, shall we and why don't we are followed by the bare infinitive but how about and what about are frequently followed by a gerund.
  4. many of the grammatical realisations are rare or only formal (or both).

It makes sense, especially at lower levels, therefore, carefully to select realisations which have parallel forms and to teach the area piecemeal.  Trying to introduce too many forms and too many levels of intensity will confuse and disorientate your learners.

meaning issues

  1. the line between imperative and hortative statements is not clear cut.
  2. the use of modal auxiliary verbs is very variable in terms of the strength of hortation / imperative and is radically affected by intonation.
  3. the role relationship between speaker and hearer is a key issue.  For example, between equals a statement such as You have to try harder may be exhortatory but between a boss and an employee, it becomes an imperative.

Setting a clear context for any presentation or practice is, therefore, even more important than usual.

pronunciation issues

Allied to the meaning and context concerns is the use of intonation and stress.  For example:

  1. Falling intonation on Why don't we do it? may indicate an imperative but rising intonation is more likely to indicate a cohortative.
  2. Stressing the modal will normally increase its intensity.

It's important that the role of pronunciation is given prominence in teaching this area or you risk your learners sounding imperative when they mean to be hortative and vice versa.

A very rough rule of thumb regarding level is:

  optative hortative imperative
A1 hope + present tense
if only + would
the imperative with rising intonation
commoner modal auxiliary verbs (should, ought to, must)
the imperative with falling intonation
B1 if only + subjunctive
wish and its tense complexities
less common modal auxiliaries (have to etc.)
softening with just, kindly etc.
modal verbs of obligation and the effect of stress and intonation
C1 odd subjunctives
the use of may
imperatives as exhortatives and the effect of stress and intonation the role of irony and sarcasm to make the hortative imperative

There's a test.

Related guides
will and would where you will find more on this verb which causes a good deal of confusion
responding to suasion for more positive, negative and temporising responses to suasion
causatives for a guide to a related area which is not considered at all here
semantics for a general guide to making meaning
mood a short guide to the area explaining indicative, subjunctive and imperative moods
types of modality for more on dynamic, epistemic, deontic and alethic modality

Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Waystage 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Threshold 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wilkins, DA, 1976, Notional Syllabuses, London: Oxford University Press