LINGUIST List 23.124

Fri Jan 06 2012

Review: Pragmatics; Discourse Analysis: Yus (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 06-Jan-2012
From: Daria Dayter <>
Subject: Cyberpragmatics
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AUTHOR: Francisco YusTITLE: CyberpragmaticsSUBTITLE: Internet-mediated communication in contextSERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 213PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

Daria Dayter, English Linguistics, University of Bayreuth, Germany


This book builds on and consolidates extensive earlier work by the author incognitive pragmatic analyses of Internet-mediated communication. In this8-chapter volume, Francisco Yus first presents his theoretical framework andthen proceeds to apply it to various genres of computer-mediated communication(CMC). The analysis covers synchronous (e.g. chatrooms, Internet Relay Chat,instant messaging), as well as asynchronous internet genres (e.g. email, blogs,Twitter), along with such concomitant topics as politeness on the Web and thepresentation of identity.

The title of the book is elucidated in the Introduction (pp. xi-xiv):Cyberpragmatics, a term coined by the author himself, refers to the approachthat applies cognitive pragmatics to Internet interactions. Consequently,Chapter 1 (pp. 1-20) ''Pragmatics, context and relevance,'' presents a concisereview of Sperber and Wilson's (1986) Relevance Theory, which is the maintheoretical framework of the volume. The author devotes particular attention totying the traditional notions of the theory to the behaviours of Internet users,e.g., multitasking (p. 12), oralisation of typed text (p. 17), or strategies ofdealing with excess information (p. 20). Ultimately, he formulates the objectiveof cyberpragmatics as a quest to determine “to what extent these qualities ofcyber-media [special placement on oral/written, visual/verbal andsynchronous/asynchronous continua -- reviewer's note] affect the estimation ofrelevance'' (p. 16).

As the title “The presentation of self in everyday web use'' prompts, the secondchapter (pp. 21-44) resonates with the seminal analysis of multilayer identityby Erving Goffman (1959). Here, the author traces the complexity of interweavingvirtual and offline identities by using two graphic models: the Two TrianglesModel (p. 23), which weighs against each other the various aspects of physicaland virtual identity; and the Faceted Identity Model, which represents severalpossible combinations of the two (p. 38). Furthermore, Yus points out thetendency towards hybridisation of physical-virtual interactions and arrives atthe conclusion that “there are many possible combinations between physical andvirtual sources of identity, and for many Internet users the virtual sources maybe a valid (rather than added) alternative to the physical ones, and they mayeven overcome the latter'' (p. 40).

In the third chapter (pp. 45-92), the author convincingly adapts RelevanceTheory to the analysis of Web environments, which is the main thrust of thebook. Three perspectives are named for a cognitive pragmatic analysis of CMC:from the author's point of view, from the textual point of view, and from thereader's point of view (pp. 46-49). One main point that is brought up is thediscussion of excessive information available online (labelled 'infoxication' byYus) and its effects on the estimation of relevance. Yus states that on theInternet, one can find “surprising balances of cognitive effects and mentaleffort when the content of a web page is processed'' (p. 63). An example of sucha situation is a popular website where users can watch cheddar cheese rot inreal time, when a low number of cognitive effects and low mental effortnevertheless result in eventual positive relevance. Finally, to explicatedifferent expectations of relevance on- and offline, the transfer of a printednewspaper into an online form is discussed.

Chapters 4-6 describe the main web genres: blogs, social networking services(SNS) and Twitter (pp. 93-149), synchronous media such as chatrooms (pp.151-218), and e-mail (pp. 219-254). In Chapter 4, Yus applies the threeperspectives of cognitive pragmatic analysis to asynchronous web environments.In the case of blogs, an additional perspective proves to be pertinent to thecognitive pragmatic description of this genre -- interaction between bloggersand readers. Interaction is also a cornerstone of the subsequent examination ofuser's identity adjustment on SNS; through a circular scheme, Yus demonstrateshow profiles and (mutually) manifest information interreact in a step-by-stepprocess of formation of a faceted identity (p. 120). Touching on the problems ofoversharing and context collapse common among young users of SNS, the authorrecognises these as a consequence of the underlying intentionality of makingmanifest information about oneself -- namely, the enjoyment provided byrecognition of the size and quality of one's network (p. 122). The chaptercloses with an overview of Twitter, a microblog that appears to represent one ofthe above mentioned “surprising balances” that attracts users despite the highcost of processing and low relevance of most tweets.

Chapter 5 investigates how the process of utterance interpretation, fromunderstanding an explicature to deriving an implicature based on contextualinformation, is aided by special strategies in a context-poor environment oftext-based 'virtual conversation.' Yus argues that this poverty is not always alimitation, but rather an advantage, sparing the user “the challenge ofcontrolling the interrelation of verbal and nonverbal information'' (p. 156).Thus, in text-based chatrooms or instant messenger the user exudes lessinformation than in face-to-face communication, and can choose how muchinformation about him/herself to communicate ostensively. When users wish tocompensate for the absent audio and video channels in online conversation, a setof strategies is available to them: written text oralisation by means oftypographic innovation (e.g. phonematic repetition, homophone or prosodicspellings, abbreviations, etc.), emoticons, and stage direction. By looking at anumber of interactions, the author establishes that although users register thedifference between a neutral and a more intense emotion expressed throughtypographic innovation, they do not distinguish between various degrees ofemotional intensity which could hypothetically be expressed through differentamounts of creative text use, e.g., letters repeated five versus ten times (pp.180-188). Finally, the reader is introduced to a new member in the family ofchats, the 3D chat. Yus concludes that even if a virtual conversation iscomplemented by a 3D avatar that can perform nonverbal behaviour, the situationis radically different from a face-to-face conversation since all nonverbalinformation is intentionally ostensively communicated and not unintentionallyexuded (p. 213).

Chapter 6 continues the investigation of internet-mediated interaction byfocusing on three subtypes of the e-mail genre: private email, newsgroups, ande-mail distribution lists. The author once again reviews the syntheticoral-written quality of CMC by following the four dimensions of analysis byBaron (1998), i.e., social dynamics, format, grammar, and style. While manycreative strategies for text oralisation are found in e-mail as well, informantsstill largely perceive it as a more formal medium than SNS, chatrooms, orinstant messenger, suitable for communication with superiors. Yus observes that''[o]ne of the most interesting pragmatic features of e-mail is that it is anostensive technological medium'' (p. 238) and thus ''the arrival of an e-mailcarries the presumption of its eventual relevance'' (p. 239). The interpretationof an e-mail depends on a number of features carrying contextual cues thatinfluence estimations of relevance: who the sender and the addressee are, thee-mail address, the subject line, the body of the message (e.g. quotingtechniques), and the signature. The analysis of examples predominantly drawnfrom earlier studies on the topic proves that users ''clearly play with theexpectation of relevance which, at a subsequent stage, the recipient expects tobe confirmed by reading the message itself'' (p. 245).

Chapter 7 (pp. 255-285) supplements the pragmatic analysis with a look atpoliteness on the Net. Relying largely on maxim-based (Lakoff 1973, Leech 1983)approaches to politeness, the author invokes the concept of 'netiquette' andproceeds to describe various situations leading to its transgression. Inrelation to the well-known practice of flaming (i.e. hostile and insultinginteractions), Yus cites the twofold distinction between unmotivated andmotivated rudeness (Kasper 1990) and contrasts flaming with simplenon-observance of netiquette. Several examples, which are similar to otherchapters drawn from earlier studies on the subject, lead the author to concludethat ''on the Internet, the reduced quantity and quality of [...] contextualassumptions entail a hyper-reliance on purely textual attributes for theexpressions of politeness'' (p. 269). A recap of Brown and Levinson's (1978)Politeness Theory, which introduces several studies of face in CMC, is followedby an attempt to couple Relevance Theory and cognitive approaches to politeness(e.g. Escandell Vidal 1996, 1998). In the end, it is hypothesised thatpoliteness norms on the Net exhibit a tendency towards an Anglo-Saxon patterndue to the increasing pressure of English as the lingua franca of the Web (p. 270).

In his final chapter, Yus returns to his initial statement that the inferentialprocedure for utterance interpretation is the same on- and offline. However, inretrospect, the statement is qualified by the insight that the availability ofcontextual information and the attributes of the utterance (or message) caninfluence the evaluation of interpretation, and that these features certainlydiffer in virtual and physical environments. Introducing avenues for futureresearch, the author emphasises the importance of future studies that focus oninformation presentation via mobile phones. Finally, it is claimed thatcyberpragmatics ''should provide an answer to the puzzle of cognitivesatisfaction that often defies the equation of 'cognitive effects againstprocessing effort' predicted by relevance theory'' (p. 295).


This monograph appeals to linguists interested in computer-mediated discourseanalysis, language on the internet, and pragmatic approaches to new media. Dueto a somewhat dense writing style, the volume is certainly not an 'easy read'for a broad audience, or an appropriate main text for a seminar. However, thefirst chapter is recommended to students as a clear and concise introduction toRelevance Theory.

In the Introduction, the author states that this book is the consolidating stageof his work on a particular analytical approach. Indeed, the survey of earlierwork on the subject, by the author himself and by other scholars, comprises asignificant part of the monograph. This is especially noticeable in Chapters4-6, where each Web genre is first described at length (the necessity of thisstep is arguable for well-known genres such as email, blogs, or chat) and latermultiple classifications and feature sets by many different analysts are cited.Illustrative examples in these sections also largely come from other studies,with the exception of Twitter analysis, which is based on the author's own(Spanish) dataset. While the exhaustive bibliography is extremely useful toanyone who wishes to gain an overview of the field, a reader with a backgroundin CMC studies would welcome a stronger focus on the subject proper, as found inChapters 2 or 3. These brilliant chapters marry a relevance theoreticalframework to text-based computer- mediated discourse and constitute aninteresting and insightful contribution to the field. Despite the criticism,however, the first part of the volume also is by no means merely derivative.Although he builds upon the work of many scholars, Yus asks questions rarelyposed and thus adds a perspective on CMC that complements the establishedaccounts by danah boyd (2006, 2008), Susan Herring (2007, 2008), Nancy Baym(2010), and others.

The only substantial criticism can be levelled at Chapter 7 ''Politeness on theNet.'' With little attention devoted to internet discourse, the chapter mostlyrecaps well-known politeness theories. When discussing internet discourse, theauthor frequently adopts a simplified view of politeness on the Web. Somecontentious claims are made concerning the status of “flaming,” indiscriminatelyclassified as “rudeness” (p. 265), or the important role played by 'netiquette'rules (pp. 256-258, 265). Surprisingly, contemporary work on politeness by Watts(2010) and Locher (2010) is almost completely ignored in favour of widelycriticised maxim-based theories. Finally, the closing statement about theadoption of Anglo-Saxon politeness as a global internet norm calls for moreempirical data to support it.

Overall, Cyberpragmatics is a worthy member of the well-established Pragmatics &Beyond series by John Benjamins Publishers. While some disparate pragmaticstudies of CMC do exist (Kouper 2009, Ho 2010, Vásquez 2011, etc.), this is thefirst monograph solely devoted to the topic. A multitude of theoretical andpractical studies reviewed throughout the book make it useful for researchersdealing with CMC. Despite minor drawbacks, the book is interesting and rich incontent throughout, and boasts discernment of deeper workings of humancommunication on the Web as well as a comprehensive review of existing literature.


Baron, Naomi. 1998. Letters by phone or speech by other means: The linguisticsof email. Language and Communication 18: 133-170.

Baym, Nancy. 2010. Personal connections in the digital age. Malden, MA: PolityPress.

boyd, danah. 2006. Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: writing communityinto being on social network sites. First Monday 11(12).

boyd, danah. 2008. Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networkedpublics. PhD Dissertation. University of California-Berkeley, School ofInformation.

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. 1978. Politeness: Some universals inlanguage use. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Escandell Vidal, Victoria. 1996. Towards a cognitive approach to politeness.Language Sciences 18 (3-4): 629-650.

Escandell Vidal, Victoria. 1998. Politeness: A relevant issue for relevancetheory. Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 11: 45-57.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York:Anchor Books.

Herring, Susan. 2007. A faceted classification scheme for computer-mediateddiscourse. LanguageInternet 7: article 1.

Lakoff, Robin. 1973. The logic of politeness; or, minding your P's and Q's. Papersfrom the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago:Chicago Linguistic Society: 292--305.

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

Locher, Miriam, ed. 2010. Special issue on ''Politeness and impoliteness incomputer-mediated communication'', 1, Berlin 2010 (=Journal of Politeness Research).

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and cognition.Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Vásquez, Camilla. 2011. Complaints online: The case of TripAdvisor. Journal ofPragmatics 43: 1707-1717.

Watts, Richard. 2010. Theorising linguistic politeness phenomena. Paperpresented at Fifth International Symposium on Politeness, Basel. (25 December, 2011.)


Daria Dayter received her first degree from the Russian Christian Academy for the Humanities, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and her M.A. from the University of Bayreuth, Germany. She is a research assistant in the English Linguistics department, University of Bayreuth, Germany. At the moment she is working on a PhD project on pragmatic aspects of microblogging and 'pragmatic poverty' in other forms of text-based communication. Her research interests include language in the internet, computer-mediated communication, youth language, and politeness theory.

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