Research Seminars

Research seminars

The Magic Words: Please and Thank You in American and British English

M. Lynne Murphy (University of Sussex)

Wednesday 16th January 2019

Various corpus studies have found that please and thank* (i.e. thanks or thank you) occur in inverse proportions in American and British English, with British using please at around twice the rate of Americans and Americans thanking up to twice as much as Britons. Given such a severe difference, we have to wonder: do these words perform the same functions in the two countries?

This talk presents the results of three corpus studies. Two (with Rachele De Felice of University College London) examine please and thank* in US and UK corporate emails from the 1990s–early 2000s. Because the corpora are speech-act tagged, we were able to look at both the presence and absence of please in requests and to analyse which types of impositions attract please in the two corporate cultures. For thank* we analysed (among other things) its use as a marker of gratitude versus its use as a request marker, especially in US English. The third study looks at usage of please in the GloWBE corpus of web-based English, and considers its full range of usage: as a sincere request marker, but also as an expression of exasperation/disbelief, as a tool of mock politeness, etc.

Different rates of usage reflect the different functions and meanings the words have in the two cultures, but also perhaps, more generally, different values for formulaicness in politeness marking, recalling Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1840 observation that American manners are  “neither so tutored nor so uniform” as the British but “they are frequently more sincere”.

About the speaker:
M. Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Semantic Relations and the Lexicon (Cambridge UP, 2003), Lexical Meaning (Cambridge UP, 2010) and The Prodigal Tongue: The Love–Hate Relationship between American and British English (Penguin, 2018).