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Concourse 2

Responding to suasion


Much of what follows assumes that you have followed the guide to suasion (particularly to hortative and imperative statements) or are familiar with those two terms and their meaning.
Lots of course materials and teaching guides chop this area up into misty concepts such as suggesting, requesting, demanding, agreeing and declining.  That is not the line taken here for reasons which should become clear.  We are concerned with looking for commonalities and patterns.


Three basic response types

There are three essential ways to respond to something like Shall we go now? or Please don't tell him the answer.
Think what these three ways are and then click here for a short discussion.


What was the question?

Before we can select the language in which to respond, we have to have some way of understanding the type of suasion we have been confronted with.  There are three sorts here.  Can you classify them?

  1. You ought to try the fish here.
    You shouldn't really say things like that.
  2. Let's stop now.
    How about getting something to eat?
  3. Get out!
    Don't drink the water.

Click here when you have an answer.

If you have followed the guide to suasion, you will be aware, of course, that the power relationship between the speaker and the listener and the intonation patterns the speaker uses are both critical to understanding this.
A statement such as Let's finish now from a teacher or other in authority actually becomes an imperative or simply a statement of fact.  Between equals, it is a true cohortative.
(If you aren't sure what an initiation might be, you need to have a look at the section on this in the guide to speaking skills.)
Context is everything in understanding the function of language.



For the purposes of this guide, we'll use four of the styles suggested by Joos (1961).  There is a guide to style on this site, but briefly:

  1. Frozen style describes things like public notices and citations.  They have their own way of saying things and include, e.g.,
    No smoking
    Students are not to wait here.
    Passengers are not permitted beyond this point.
  2. Formal style often occurs in writing or in prepared speech.  E.g.,
    Please remember that fishing is not permitted.
  3. Consultative style is that which often occurs in professional settings such as encounters between doctors and patients, teachers and students, service encounters, bosses and employees etc.  E.g.,
    Fishing's not allowed in the marina, by the way.
    You should give up the cigarettes.
    The project is to be handed in on Thursday.
  4. Casual style occurs between equals in informal settings and often requires a good deal of shared information.  E.g.,
    You can't fish here, pal.
    Give over.
    Let me have a minute.

The ability to recognise the style of the initial statement is of course essential if a speaker is to respond appropriately.

What are the possible response types to the fishing statements above?
Click here when you have some thoughts.


Adjacency pairs

adjacency pairs

Adjacency is a concept fundamental to the teaching of functional language.  Adjacency pairs include, for example,

and so on.

There is, however, a problem with simply teaching adjacency pairs as if only one response were possible.  In reality, especially in casual style, two or three types of response can arise from the initial speech act.  For example, one can respond to a request for information by giving it (preferred), declaring ignorance (dispreferred) or by offering to find out (temporising, also dispreferred).  Most functions work like this.
There is a guide to adjacency pairs linked in the list at the end.

Here we are dealing with suasion so we'll focus on the three response types for each function.  Like this:

response types

This is, of course, all perfectly teachable when it's broken down like this and we can choose the exponents of each function to suit the level of our learners.  Teaching
    I will, thanks
as a positive response to an imperative-form exhortation is not too challenging and, moving up the levels, we can focus on, e.g.:
    Thanks for the suggestion
    I certainly will; it looks utterly delicious
and so on.
In all cases, it is simple enough to teach the forms of preferred responses because they need no elaboration, but there's a catch.


Softening dispreferred responses

Both refusal and temporisation are dispreferred responses and when our response is dispreferred, we habitually soften it by:

  1. giving a reason
  2. apologising
  3. making a countering statement

and frequently by doing all three together.

The way we do it is often to employ a modal auxiliary verb or other modal expression and often that is one which expresses dynamic modality (ability or willingness) or epistemic modality (the speaker's view of the truth of a proposition).

exhortations Can you give me a hand with this?
I'd like you to write a short report on that.
How about including a plan of what is suggested?

I can't right now; I'm a bit too busy, I'm afraid.  Sorry.
I might be able to do it a bit later.  Would that be OK?
I may get to that but thanks for the idea.
The first of these expresses dynamic modality
The other two express epistemic modality
cohortations Let's get out of here.
How about we ask for a meeting?
Can we move on to listing the reasons?

No, let's stay.
Why do you want to do that?
How about doing that later and getting this finished now?
The first of these responses is a flat refusal but the other two are forms of temporisation.
They are all dispreferred, of course.
The verb let is often analysed as a marginal modal auxiliary verb (for more, see the guides to modality linked in the list of related guides at the end)
imperatives You have to hold the meeting tomorrow.
Take all this over to the bank, will you?
Don't tell anyone I've parked here.

I really don't think that's the right thing to do.  It would be better to wait a little.
I'll do it as soon as I can but I've got a lot on my plate right now.
I'm afraid I can't do that.  It's more than my job's worth.
The first two responses here are temporisations and the last one is a flat refusal to cooperate with the imperative.
They are all dispreferred responses.
There is more on this site concerning will and would linked in the list of related guides at the end

You can see in these examples that speakers, particularly of English, usually feel constrained to:

In all these cases, it is also customary, but less obligatory, to include an apology formula such as:
    I'm afraid ...
    I'm sorry, but ...
    It's a pity that ...
    ... I hope you don't mind



Teaching the functions



This is not the place, even it were possible, to list all the possible exponents of the functions of responding to suasion.  There are, however, some commonalities:

  1. Preferred responses, i.e., positive ones, generally begin with an acknowledgement of what has been said and are followed by some kind of commitment.  For example,
    1. Exhortations:
      1. Can you give me a hand? → Sure.  How can I help?
      2. Would you open the window? → Of course.  This one?  Is that OK?
    2. Cohortations:
      1. What about going to the cinema? → That's a good idea.  I'll check what's on.
      2. Let's eat out. → Fine.  Chinese?
    3. Imperatives:
      1. Pass me that frying pan, please. → Sure.  Here you are.
      2. You ought to write to him. → I know, I know.  I'll do it this evening.
  2. Dispreferred responses, as we have seen above, generally come in at least two parts: the response followed by a reason or a counter proposal (often + apology).


Introducing the concepts

There are two obvious approaches:

  1. Via a dialogue or set of mini dialogues such as:
    A: Hi.  Can you do something for me?
    B: Probably.  What is it?
    A: I need a hand with getting a bed upstairs at my mother's house and I can't manage on my own.
    B: I can't help this morning but this afternoon is OK.  Is that alright?
    A: Yes, that's fine.

  2. Via an email exchange in the same vein.  E.g.,
    Dear Fred,
    I need to ask a favour and hope you can help.  I've had to take my car to the garage and need to get to the airport on Thursday for a 9 o'clock flight and was wondering whether you could take me there.

    Dear John,
    That's fine, of course I can help but I'll need to be back in London for work so will it be OK if I drop you off a bit earlier than you need to be there?


Recognising the concepts

  1. Simple matching exercises can help raise awareness.  Which language exponents you choose will, of course, be a question of the level of your learners.  For example,
    1. Matching the type of suasion to its function (learners draw the arrows).  Note that the role relationships are made clear.  That is important.
      responding exercise
    2. Matching suasion to response is also productive:
      exercise 2
    3. Raising awareness of the three types of response:
      exercise 3


  1. Controlled practice might include filling gaps in a dialogue (having read or listened to it in full), like this:
    A: Hi.  ________ you do __________________?
    B: __________________.  What is it?
    A: ____________________ with getting a bed upstairs at my mother's house and _____________ on my own.
    B: _____________ this morning but this afternoon __________.  ________________?
    A: ______________ .

    This can be made as simple or as challenging as you choose.
  2. Dialogue reordering exercises also work well as controlled practice because they focus clearly on appropriate responses to particular initiations:
    A: Yes that's fine.
    A: The boss needs the report today.
    A: Will you be able to help?
    A: I know, but this is important.
    B: Is this afternoon OK?
    B: Doesn't she always?
    B: Yes, probably, but not this morning.
    B: No problem.
  3. Less controlled practice can involve learners constructing dialogues based on a format you supply.  For example:
    Between the manager and the employee:
    • Greet.
      • Greet.
    • Ask for cooperation.
      • Apologise and explain why you can't help.
    • Explain why it's important (use a passive).  Use an imperative.
      • Say that you understand and will cooperate tomorrow.
    • Accept the explanation and agree a time.
      • Change the time a little but agree.
  4. Then the learners can go on to practise role playing the situations but make sure context and role relationships are absolutely clear or it will be time wasted.  For example:
    • Ask for your neighbour's help removing a tree from the garden.
      Agree to help your neighbour but definitely not today.
    • Suggest something to do this evening to a friend.
      Disagree with your friend but suggest an alternative.
      Reach an agreement.
    • Give an order to a difficult employee by making the order sound like a request.
      Refuse to cooperate and explain why you think it's a stupid idea.


Look carefully at materials in coursebooks which cover areas such as suggesting, demanding and asking for help.
By suggesting, they usually mean cohortation, by demanding, they usually mean using imperative forms and imperative modal auxiliary verbs and by asking for help, they often mean exhortation.
The problem arises, of course, that they use the concepts too vaguely and the language they present doesn't always reflect the function.  Handle with care.

There's no test for any of this but there is one linked to the background guide to suasion and hortation.

Related guides
suasion the guide to the area in general
style for more on a key area summarised briefly above
adjacency pairs for the guide which includes a link to a list
semantics for a general guide to making meaning
types of modality for more on dynamic, epistemic, deontic and alethic modality

Joos, M, 1961, The Five Clocks: a linguistic excursion into the five styles of English usage, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.