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Review of  Thanking Formulae in English

Reviewer: Wei Ren
Book Title: Thanking Formulae in English
Book Author: Sabine Jautz
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.165

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This monograph by Sabine Jautz is rooted in variational pragmatics (Schneider & Barron 2008) and investigates the use of thanking formulae in spoken British and New Zealand English. As explained by the author, quite a few studies have examined the use of expressions of gratitude in one language (particularly in English), or compared it in different languages, or investigated non-native speakers’ use against native speakers’. On the contrary, little research has been carried out to explore thanking formulae in different varieties of one language. Thus, Jautz’s study contributes to the existing literature on variational pragmatics. The introduction (Chapter 1) briefly sets up the background of the study and introduces the data for the present research: parts of the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Wellington Corpus of Spoken New Zealand English (WSC).

In Chapter 2, the author firstly introduces linguistic research on thanking formulae, including the definition of thanking formulae and their forms and functions. As the author notes: “Classically, thanking formulae are used to express a speaker’s psychological state towards some state of affairs or some person” (p. 6). Pragmatic aspects of the use of thanking formulae and cross-cultural variation are also reviewed. The chapter then focuses on three theories of politeness, viz. the framework proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), Leech (1983) and Watts (2003), before it presents a linguistic characterization of British and New Zealand English. Finally, the chapter provides information on the development and characteristics of radio talk.

Chapter 3 begins with a very brief review of data collection methods typically used in pragmatics research, including Discourse Completion Tasks and role-plays, and the advantages of using corpus data to investigate pragmatic phenomena. It then presents the research design of the present study and the corpora under investigation, followed by an explanation of how the search terms are determined. Finally, Jautz illustrates the aspects under investigation in the present study: how the form of thanking formulae is examined, how the functions of thanking formulae are determined, and how the three models of politeness are operationalized.

Chapter 4 is the major body of the book, which presents findings related to the complete data set. However, it is rather long in that it represents 44% of the book and contains 128 pages. Firstly, the chapter focuses on aspects concerning the formal realizations of expressions of gratitude from British and New Zealand English: overall frequencies, common syntactic realizations, the use of optional elements (including naming of a benefactor, reasons for the expression of gratitude, and intensifiers), and the position of thanking formulae in conversations as a whole. Compared to the data from New Zealand, the British data contained more (and more different) expressions of gratitude. The British also use optional elements more frequently than New Zealanders. Secondly, it explores the functions of the thanking formulae, such as organizing the ongoing discourse, serving the phatic communion, responding to material goods and services, responding to immaterial goods and interpersonal support, and joking/ironic use of thanking formulae. It has been observed that organizing the ongoing discourse is of paramount importance in British English whereas New Zealanders pay more attention to interpersonal relations. Furthermore, the chapter examines whether claims regarding (the illocution of) thanking in the politeness theories proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), Leech (1983), and Watts (2003) can be verified by the thanking formulae under investigation in the present study. Finally, the social status between the speakers and the addressees are focused on to shed light on who (high status or low status) expresses their gratitude to whom in which social position. In the British data, superiors employ thanking formulae more frequently than inferiors. By contrast, New Zealanders address their expression of gratitude similarly to superiors, inferiors and equals. The author also applies the cultural dimensions of workplace values proposed by Hofstede (2001) to the linguistic data in the present study. The chapter concludes with a summary of the similarities and differences found between British and New Zealand English.

Chapter 5 investigates the subcorpora of radio texts comprised in the data sets from the BNC and the WSC on their own in order to check whether genre has an influence on the use of thanking formulae. The chapter is presented in a similar way to Chapter 4 in terms of content and structure. It firstly examines the form of thanking formulae in radio texts. Secondly, the functions served by the thanking formulae are focused on. Next, the status of thanking formulae in the three politeness frameworks is discussed. Furthermore, the roles of host/interviewer and caller/interviewee are examined to check whether the relative power of the interlocutors has a special influence on the use of thanking formulae in interviews or phone-ins. Finally the chapter concludes with a summary of findings in this particular genre analysis.

Chapter 6 concludes the study by summarizing the most important findings (under variational and genre analysis) and providing suggestions for further research. The author calls for more variational pragmatic studies on other national and/or subnational varieties of English and other languages, and more studies on the influence of other macro- and micro-factors.


In cross-cultural or intercultural pragmatics research, the focus has been predominantly on pragmatic variation between or across different languages under the influence of micro-social factors (i.e., social status, social distance and degree of imposition). Relatively little attention has been paid to the effect of macro-social factors, such as region, gender, ethnicity, age and social class, on different varieties of a language, either at the national or the subnational level (Barron & Schneider 2009). In light of this research gap, Schneider and Barron (2008) have established a new sub-field of pragmatics, variational pragmatics. As Barron and Schneider indicate, “pragmatic similarities may occur across languages, while pragmatic differences may occur across varieties of the same language” (2009: 425). Jautz’s investigation into thanking formulae in British and New Zealand English has provided further evidence for the rationale and necessity of variational pragmatics research. It contributes to the field of variational pragmatics by exploring the use of thanking formulae in British and New Zealand English. As pointed out by the author, more pragmatic studies are needed to examine the varieties of pluricentric languages, particularly non Indo-European languages (e.g., Lin et al. 2012; Ren et al. 2013).

This book has many strong points. Firstly, the present study combines pragmatic approaches and corpus linguistic methodology to offer several perspectives on the forms and functions of thanking formulae. It showcases how corpus linguistic data can be employed in pragmatics research by adopting a form-based or lexical approach. Secondly, it not only illustrates similarities and differences of thanking formulae between British and New Zealand English, but also highlights the genre-specific characteristics of radio phone-ins or interviews. Thirdly, it explores comprehensively the functions of thanking formulae and checks the status of thanking formulae against the claims proposed by different models of politeness. Fourthly, it not only offers quantitative data but also provides many pertinent qualitative analyses.

However, there are also some weaknesses in the present study. Firstly, the author states that the present study examines one genre in detail (i.e., radio phone-ins) and compares it to thanking formulae in other genres. However, it only compares the radio phone-ins against the complete data set. It would be insightful if the author also compares the radio phone-ins against other genres. Secondly, a number of thanking formulae cannot be assigned to any macro-functions analyzed in the present study: 10.43% in BNC and 20.14% in WSC. The large proportion of ‘unclear cases’ may influence the comparisons of other categories. As acknowledged by the author, the reasons for such problems are manifold: incomplete transcripts of conversations, insufficient context, doubtful assignments of speaker codes, and no access to audio files for disambiguation (p. 140). These are not only problems in the present study, but a general disadvantage of employing corpus linguistic data in pragmatics research. Thirdly, when there is no statistical difference, at times it is not very clear when the author argues that two figures are “almost equal” or when a usage is “more frequent” in one variety than in the other. For example, “46.94% vs. 51.85%” is analyzed as “almost equally often” (p. 95), whereas “46.52%” is argued as “more frequent” than “42.77%” (p. 96). In addition, it is confusing when the author states “There are comparatively more polite cases in the New Zealand data set” (p. 189) while the data of New Zealand is 1.68% but that of British English is 1.70%. Fourthly, it appears that coding of the functions of thanking formulae has not been verified by a second coder to check the inter-rater reliability. It might be helpful to to estimate inter-rater reliability for checking the consistency and accuracy of coding. Finally, Chapter 4 is unusually long (128 pages consisting of 44% of the whole book). It is clear that the book presents variational analysis in Chapter 4 and genre analysis in Chapter 5. However, it might be better to present findings in other ways to have a more balanced structure.

To sum up, despite the few weaknesses indicated above, the book makes important contributions to the field of variational pragmatics. It adds to the rather limited body of studies on varieties of English other than British and American English, in this case New Zealand English. It demonstrates a way to combine pragmatics research and corpus linguistics. In addition, it comprehensively explores thanking formulae and verifies the models of politeness against its findings, which makes the study unique in the field of pragmatics research. This book is recommended for researchers and students at the graduate level who are interested in pragmatics, sociolinguistics and politeness theories.


Barron, Anne and Schneider, Klaus P. (2009). Variational pragmatics: Studying the impact of social factors on language use in interaction. Intercultural Pragmatics 6(4): 425-552.

Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hofstede, Geert. (2001). Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values. (2nd ed.). London: SAGE.

Leech, Geoffrey. (1983). Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman.

Lin, Chih-Ying, Woodfield, Helen, and Ren, Wei. (2012). Compliments in Taiwan and mainland Chinese: The influence of region and compliment topic. Journal of Pragmatics 44: 1486-1502.

Ren, Wei, Lin, Chih-Ying, and Woodfield, Helen. (2013). Variational pragmatics in Chinese: Some insights from an empirical study. In Istvan Kecskes & Jesus Romero-Trillo (Eds.), Research trends in intercultural pragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 283-314.

Schneider, Klaus P. and Barron, Anne. (2008). Variational pragmatics : A focus on regional varieties in pluricentric languages. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Watts, Richard. (2003). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wei Ren is currently a postdoc researcher at the National Key Research Center for Linguistics & Applied Linguistics at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and a lecturer at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. His research interests include L2 Pragmatics and Cross-Cultural Pragmatics. His recent publications include papers in Applied Linguistics, Journal of Pragmatics and Research Trends in Intercultural Pragmatics (Mouton de Gruyter).