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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.
There is also a guide to mood in general on this site which covers some of the more theoretical aspects of of how language is used to express wishes and unreal states rather than indicating current reality.

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. Long may it last.
  6. Dogs are to be carried on the escalators.
  7. Don’t you dare talk to me like that!
  8. Let’s go.

All of these sentences are intended to affect the behaviour of others or to express a hope that the world were different.  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 or situations we cannot personally affect or change.  In this respect, it is not really an example of suasion but it belongs in this area.
However, it is in any case not always a straightforward matter to distinguish between optative statements addressed to hopes about the world at large and and hortative ones addressed to individuals or groups.
For example:
    I wish you wouldn't do that
is actually hortative (i.e., intended to persuade others to alter their behaviour) but
    I wish he wouldn't do that
is optative insofar as it is not addressed to the person involved (who may not even be present).
It's easy to see that changing the person of the pronoun from second to third (you to he / she / it / they) or vice versa (he /she / it / they to you) may make the utterance shift between hortative (you) and optative (he / she / it / they).

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 utterances 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 (even when it is clear that there is no possibility of its happening).
Conceptually, and for teaching purposes, it seems sensible to include it here.



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.

The imperative in English is a very simple form often taught very early in a learner's career but there are some constraints on its use and subtle ways to limit the presumption of authority as we saw above.

Meaning issues

  1. wish is followed by past forms because, by its nature, the verb is used to refer to hypothetical or unreal statements.  In this sense, it mirrors the use of unreal conditional forms such as
        If I were twenty years younger, I'd ask her to marry me
    A short poem is a useful way to help learners remember the forms:
        I wish I loved the Human Race;
        I wish I loved its silly face;
        I wish I liked the way it walks;
        I wish I liked the way it talks;
        And when I'm introduced to one,
        I wish I thought What Jolly Fun!

        Walter Alexander Raleigh, Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914
  2. the line between imperative and hortative statements is not clear cut.  So, for example:
        Have some more cake
    is usually hortative although it looks like an imperative
        Have some sympathy
    is imperative in meaning.
    For teaching purposes, it is very important that the illocutionary force of the forms is made clear.
  3. the use of modal auxiliary verbs is very variable in terms of the strength of hortation / imperative and is radically affected by intonation.
  4. the role relationship between speaker and hearer (i.e. the tenor of the discourse) 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 towards the end 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 auxiliary verb 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 auxiliary 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 short memory 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
requestives for a guide focusing on asking whether, asking for, asking to and asking in
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

Footnote on may:
A good example of the use of may as an optative modal auxiliary verb is in this song by Bob Dylan, Forever Young:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

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