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Review of  Politeness through the Prism of Requests, Apologies and Refusals

Reviewer: Leila Khabbazi-Oskouei
Book Title: Politeness through the Prism of Requests, Apologies and Refusals
Book Author: Milica Savić
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.541

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book “Politeness through the Prism of Requests, Apologies and Refusals: a Case of Advanced Serbian EFL Learners” by Milica Savić is based on the author’s PhD thesis. The aim of the study is to examine advanced Serbian EFL learners’ pragmalinguistic awareness by exploring their perception and production of the three speech acts of requests, apologies and refusals by focusing on the participants’ pragmatic comprehension, sociopragmatic knowledge, metapragmatic awareness and their use of intonation in realizing speech acts. Savić emphasizes the necessity of learning L2 pragmatics for students majoring in English and studying to be language professionals. In this volume, Savić explores the linguistic means that future teachers have at their disposal to cope with different social situations and their awareness of the various contextual factors that influence language use.

The book consists of seven chapters. In the first chapter, “Introduction”, the author lays out the purpose and structure of the book. Savić cites the aim of the book as to examine several aspects of advanced Serbian EFL learners’ pragmatic competence in order to highlight specific challenging areas that need to be addressed more adequately in university-level instruction.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the major Anglo-Saxon politeness theories, including the traditional as well as the postmodern discursive approaches. The author first discusses the traditional theories of Lakoff’s (1973) Politeness Rule, Leech’s (1983, 2005) Politeness Principle, Brown and Levinson’s (1978) Universal Model of Politeness, Fraser and Nolen’s (1981) Conversational Contract, Janney and Arndt’s (1992/2005) Interpersonal Supportiveness and Spencer-Oatey’s (2000, 2008) Rapport Management. Eelen’s (2001) criticism of these theories is then presented. In sum, Eelen argues that these theories are biased towards one end of the politeness-impoliteness, speaker-hearer and production-perception continua and suggests that an evaluation-centred model would solve the problems. Eelen’s critical review of the politeness theories has been a starting point for some postmodern approaches. Watt’s (2003) Politic Behaviour is one of the postmodern theories that uses a new discursive approach to politeness. Savić believes that although postmodern theories challenge all the tenets of the traditional theories, they still need to be elaborated in order to provide a solid support for politeness research.

Chapter 3 focuses on the three speech acts of requests, apologies and refusals. First, a brief overview of early research on speech acts is presented. Then, a preview of the general characteristics and the most commonly used classification systems of requests, apologies and refusals is presented with a focus on EFL learners and English native speaker speech act perception. Towards the end of the chapter, intonation and its interface with pragmatics in L2 speech acts are addressed. In this regard, the Autosegmental-metrical (AM) approach which the author employs as the theoretical model for studying intonation in the study is discussed.

In Chapter 4, the methodology of the study is set out. Savić uses a “mixed method” approach, employing both qualitative and quantitative procedures in order to address several aspects of Serbian EFL learners’ pragmatic competence. She uses two frameworks for the study: Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory for the quantitative part of the study and constructivism for the qualitative part. The quantitative part of the study is carried out employing a contextual rating questionnaire accompanied by a listening task and the oral discourse completion task (DCT) or closed role-play. The qualitative component is carried out employing the semistructured interview format, or the general interview guide approach, and the verbal protocol. The participants in this study include 10 native speakers of American English (NS), 15 advanced Serbian EFL learners and 118 Year 3 and 4 students at the English Department, University of Niš.

The results of the research are presented in Chapter 5. The chapter opens with the speech act production data: the choice of the speech act, the language strategies and the influence of the P (social power) and D (social distance) variables on language strategy choice for each of the three speech acts. Following is a summary of the findings:

There are points of similarity and difference between learner and NS requests. NS and learners opted for the same repertoire of request strategies except for the two Supportive moves of Imposition minimizer (e.g. Would you give me a lift, but only if you’re going my way?) and Getting a precommitment (e.g. Could you do me a favour?) which were used only by the learners. There were also significant differences in the frequency of use of Head act subtype (e.g. I’d like to borrow your notes), Syntactic modification (e.g. Might be better if you were to leave now) and Lexical/phrasal downgraders (e.g. I’m afraid you’re going to have to move your car).

Both groups of NS and learners used the same range of ‘major’ apology strategies and there were few differences in the frequency of their use. However, the learners used the following less commonly employed strategies more frequently: Denial of responsibility (e.g. It wasn’t my fault), ‘Please’ in IFIDs (Illocutionary force indicating device), Humour (e.g. If you think that’s a mistake, you ought to see our fried chicken!) and Offer of repair (e.g. I’ll pay for the damage).

The researcher finds refusals to be a source of considerable difficulties on the pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic levels. The occurrence of refusals in –P scenarios in the NS data was significantly higher than in the learners’ responses. Savić relates this to the sociopragmatic difference between the American and Serbian perceptions of friendship. The researcher also finds out that NS use the negative form of the modal ‘can’ (a more mitigated form of refusal) in –P –D scenarios, but in the learners’ group the Direct refusal form did not seem to be influenced by contextual variables. She maintains that many of the utterances of the learners were pragmatically inappropriate in terms of form or content or both.

The second part of Chapter 5 addresses the issue of intonation in the NS’s and learners’ speech acts. NS’s and learners’ use of the three intonational features of pitch range, pitch accent tone choice and boundary tone choice is examined. The learners’ pitch range in requests was found to be narrower than the NSs’ in whole turns, Head acts and two Head act substrategies. In the case of apologies, the learners’ performance with respect to the pitch range, pitch mean, pitch accent tone and boundary tone choice in IFILs was similar to the NS. As for refusals, the researcher finds the amount of data insufficient to reach a definite conclusion.

Towards the end of the chapter the results of the perception part of the study which focuses on advanced Serbian EFL learners’ metapragmatic assessment is presented. It examines their ability to assess the P and D contextual variables in the three speech acts, based on the linguistic form of the speech acts. It also looks at the linguistic devices the participants considered relevant when drawing inferences about the context.

Chapter 6 focuses on the analysis and discussion of the data. In this chapter each research question is discussed followed by a comparison of the present study with the results of the previous studies. The research questions are grouped into two categories: speech act production and speech act perception. The production data are discussed in relation to the learners’ choice of speech acts, the language strategies used by the NSs and learners, and the influence of the P and D contextual variables on the choice of strategies. Some aspects of the learners’ intonation-pitch range, pitch mean, pitch accent and boundary tone choice are analyzed and compared in both groups. The perception part of the research focuses on the ability to assess the P and D contextual variables based on the linguistic form of the message, as well as on the linguistic cues they relied on in the metapragmatic assessment task.

Chapter 7 includes the conclusion, pedagogical implications and limitations of the study.


The volume provides a very comprehensive preview of the research carried out on (im)politeness and speech acts. In this regard, both traditional and postmodern approaches to (im)politeness, including their strengths and drawbacks, are fully discussed. However, the need for more examples is apparent in Chapter 2. The literature review on speech acts also provides an excellent summary of the general characteristics and classification systems of requests, apologies and refusals. Both of these discussions can be very informative for postgraduates and researchers interested in this area.

The book could be of interest to researchers, English language teachers and teacher trainers involved in the field of interlanguage pragmatics. The results of the research can particularly be of interest to teachers of English who teach to Slavic-speaking learners.

One of the interesting points regarding this volume is the researcher’s attempt to explore learners’ use of intonation in speech acts, an aspect which is rarely looked into in interlanguage pragmatics studies. Although the writer does not claim to have conducted a thorough examination of prosody, she points out the significance of prosodic features as aspects of the speech acts affected by contextual features.


Brown, P. and Levinson, S. C. 1987. Politeness. Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1978)

Eelen, G. 2001. A Critique of politeness theories. Manchester, Northampton MA: St. Jerome Publishing.

Fraser, B. and Nolen, W. 1981. “The Association of deference with linguistic form”. International journal of the Sociology of language 27: 93-111.

Janney, R. and Arndt, H. 2005. “Intracultural tact versus intercultural tact”. In Politeness in language: Studies in its history, theory and practice. (Second revised and expanded edition), edited by R. Watts, S. Ide and K. Ehlich, 21-41. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. (Original book published 1992)

Lakoff, R. 1973. “The logic of politeness; Or, minding your P’s and Q’s”. In Papers from the ninth regional meeting of the Chicago linguistic society, edited by C. Corum, T. C. Smith-Stark, A. Weiser. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Leech, G. 1983. Explorations in semantics and pragmatics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Leech, G. 2005. “Politeness: Is there an East-West divide?” Language learning 39(3): 397-413.

Spencer-Oatey, H. 2008. “Face, (im)politeness and Rapport”. In culturally speaking: Culture, communication and politeness theory (Second edition), edited by H. Spencer-Oatey, 11-47. London, New York: Continuum. (Original work published 2000)
I finished my PhD in language and linguistics at the University of East Anglia/UK. The title of my thesis is 'Interactional Variation in English and Persian: A Comparative Analysis of Metadsicourse Features in Magazine Editorials'. It focuses on comparing and contrasting the use of interactional devices in English and Persian, and discussing the similarities and differences in the light of the cultural expectations and political settings in some British and Iranian news magazine editorials. My first thesis-driven paper ‘Propositional or Non-propositional, That is the Question: A New Approach to Analyzing Interpersonal Metadiscourse in Editorials’ was published in the Journal of Pragmatics in 2013. I am interested in the following subject areas: intercultural pragmatics, the expression of interactional metadiscourse in the media, particularly the press, patterns of cross-cultural variation in British and Iranian discourse.

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ISBN-13: 9781443854573
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