professor i dansk sprog & litteratur
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firstname.lastname@example.org Bagsværd, den 14. September 2006
Speech Act Switching Idioms
Per definition, there is a difference between an idiom’s face meaning (traditionally called literal meaning, see Brink 2006)
and its actual meaning. (Well, in a few cases an idiom’s face meaning does not give much sense, fx Eng. to go bananas and by and
by. Here we can at the most talk of a face meaning skeleton.) The difference between the face and the actual meaning varies. I
have investigated some of those hundreds of cases where the gap is so huge that it is a question of two different speech acts.
An example: When will you ever grow old? the face meaning of which is an innocent question, but the actual meaning of which
is a sharp criticism.
Expression = Sign (with a meaning) for something which the sender takes responsibility for. (The meaning
may be a meaning contribution to a manifestation or a whole manifestation, and the expression may be verbal, non-
verbal, established, or unestablished.) ”The fuckfinger”. You saw his. Green letters. Beat it!
Established = Already remembered/stored by the sender. Nursery school.
Unestablished = Not already remembered/stored by the sender, but improvised. Nursery thoughts.
Morpheme = Verbal expression containing only one verbal expression. Clarinet.
Word = A group of morphemes referring to each other which can only have their actual semantic relation by
standing side by side, although, possibly, separated by other such morphemes. Or a single morpheme not
entering such a group. – The common feature, then, is continuity. Greyhound. Now.
(This is slightly wrong regarding Danish, cf. amerikansk olie ’castor oil’, but very much wrong regarding English,
cf. gold digger in 2 words in a fixed, continuous order. The world will have to wait for my solution.)
Polyverbal expression = Expression consisting of two or more words. Grow old. Grow tulips.
(Established) phrase = Established polyverbal expression (together with established one word utterance). The whole
world. Adam and Eve. Go to hell! Thanks!
(I am aware that phrase in English, although also established in this meaning, is closely associated with the
Chomskyan meaning. Nevertheless I prefer link (cf. Satzglied) for the grammatical concept.)
Face meaning = The meaning which an expression (including a single word) has to a person knowing all the rules
of a language except the actual meaning variety of that particular expression. ’Kiss my behind!’ ’To be in the
uncomplicated street’ ’Fly having sth to do with butter’.
Actual meaning = Meaning (as opposed to face meaning). ’What you say is totally irrelevant!’ ’To have no difficulties’.
Predictable meaning = The meaning which follows, according to the rules, from the meaning and syntax of the
components of an expression. Cheaper. To steal a potato. A big cigar.
Idiom = Established phrase with unpredictable meaning. Go bananas. Shut up!
Metaphorical idiom = Idiom with an implicit comparison. Steam it up!
Collocation = Established phrase with a predictable meaning. The whole world. Adam and Eve.
Closed collocation = Collocation which excludes a synonymous expression produced according to all other language
rules. To put on one’s clothes (**to take on one’s clothes)
Open collocation = Collocation which is not closed. A nice fellow. To catch a ball.
Transparent = The feature that the actual meaning of an expression – whether it is unpredictable, i.e. non-regular,
or not – is easy to connect causally with the face meaning. Don’t let me down!
Opaque = Not transparent. Not a Chinaman’s chance.
Routine utterance = Utterance phrase the occurrence of which is rather predictable in a certain situation. Thanks!
Yes, please! NO SMOKING (signboard)
Ritual utterance = Utterance phrase which has to be said in a certain situation. With this I declare the exhbibition open.
I, ..., do solemnly swear...
Polite phrase = Routine utterance used by courtesy for which the sender, accordingly, does not take full
responsibility. Good to see you!
Quotation = Utterance which is signalled by the sender to be created by someone else, and for which, therefore,
he does not take direct responibility, but which he normally uses as an argument, thereby presupposing its truth.
(To the sender it is a phrase). [As my father used to say:] ”Women and kittens must be pampered.”
Familiar quotation = Famous non-anonymous quotation. (Hence phrase). [As the Oracle said:] Know thyself!”
Proverb = Quotation put forward by the sender as an old anonymous utterance phrase of universal validity which
the sender does not assert (for it is a quotation), but which he normally uses as an argument, thereby
presupposing its truth. [It takes a certain amount of courage, of course, but] nothing venture nothing win.
Saying = Well-known quotation phrase which is not a proverb. (Including the parodical proverbs). Time is money.
Blondes have more fun. Easy does it. Once bitten twice sly. [About Sylvester Stallone].
Slogan = Saying with a trenchant call. Your Country Needs You! Coca Cola refreshes you best.
Allusion = Expression referring to a quotation and forming an integral part of the sender’s speech for which,
accordingly, he takes responsibility. This, indeed, was our finest hour.
Linguistic cliché = Established linguistic feature (most often a phrase), for which a sender substitutes the normal,
straightforward expression (in a situation) in order to achieve a stylistic effect. (The term, of course, is impartial
in its scientific use. Observe that the sender’s intention is decisive: What is an effect to someone may be
straightforward to another.) Down under. The Big Apple. See you later, alligator! Shiver my timbers. As happy as a
Construction = Expression with unspecified variables. Sby. gives sth. to sby.
Unical = only occurring in one, poly-morphematic expression. Brimstone. Ha’penny. To and fro. [Mother etc.] in
law = ’through marriage’.
An established phrase is an established polyverbal expression (or an established utterance with one (!) or
more words). E.g. Adam and Eve – Go to hell! – Why me? – to listen to the radio – to steal [somebody]’s heart (and
Thanks!). Some of these established phrases has a meaning which is 100% predictable according to all the other
language rules, e.g. Adam and Eve – a handsome man – the ruling class. They are called collocations. Others, however,
are not meaning predictable: to go bananas – to shut up – the man in the street – to keep a diary. Such established phrases
are called idioms. The idiom, most often, has a face meaning i.e. a meaning one would think – according to one’s
knowledge of the language rules – was the actual meaning: the face meaning of the man in the street is ’the afore-
mentioned man in the afore-mentioned street’, and the face meaning of to keep a diary is ’to have a diary in one’s
possession’. But the actual meaning is another. It is like a bond with a face value of, say, $1000, but an actual
value, i.e. market value, of $3000.
In relatively rare cases a phrase can have both meanings as actual meanings, i.e. the face meaning
can either be equal to the actual meaning or different from it– and thus both be a collocation and an idiom. This
is the case, for example, when an established phrase at first has a predictable meaning, but later is used
metaphorically: To stand on one’s head was a collocation for centuries before it also became an idiom: to stand on
one’s head [trying to help sby.]. But when an idiom was born an idiom, you cannot, normally, use it as a collocation,
i.e. with its face meaning. To kill one’s darlings, fx, cannot be used about a mass murderer who in despair kills his
loved ones. Language will not take such a face meaning seriously, it is doomed to be a (very bad) joke. And the
reason is clear: Since the idiom was born an idiom, we only associate it with its unpredictable meaning, for we
have never before heard any other. The same applies to to pull [sby]'s leg or, for that matter, a single word like
gooseflesh: It would be a joke to let their face meanings be equal to their actual meanings.
The switch in meaning from the face meaning to the actual meaning in the above-mentioned examples is
significant, but not big enough to constitute a speech act switch. Whether you mean ’the average man’ or you
actually mean ’this man in this street’, it does not switch the speech act. If you are stating something about the
former, you are still stating something about the latter.
My subject today, however, is those idioms – and other expressions – that switches the speech act
from one to another, say from a question to a statement. And let me give you an example right away. If I say to
my fellow human being: "Aren’t you a bit stupid?" – which, of course, I would never dream of saying (I have my
corpus from more rude persons) – then I would not be posing a genuine question, but instead I would be stating
my critique: ’I think you are somewhat stupid right now!’ My fellow human being knows this (he speaks English
very well), so he does not answer: "Oh yes, I am; I was even too stupid to go to high school, so you are quite
Before I give you more examples, I must say a few words about speech acts. A speech act is a
fundamental category of utterances. There are as many speech acts as you like, but normally we operate with a
few fundamental ones related to Karl Bühler’s organon model with its 3 basic speech functions: 1) matter-of-fact
description, 2) appeal, 3) expression of the sender’s feelings. So the basic speech acts are: 1) statements, 2a)
questions, 2b) orders, 2c) requests (and 2d: prayers, if you are talking to God), and 3) exclamations. The father of
speech acts, John R. Searle (1969, p. 23), mentions many others, fx warnings, apologies, promises, but adds
immediately that there could be pinned down more than 1000. For my purpose the above-mentioned traditional
3 types will do.
The basic grammatical category for orders is the imperative. An order presupposes that the sender has
power over the receiver. It gives no meaning if I say to our queen: Resign!. But even if you are in power, you had
better be very careful with the imperative. Clearly, the imperative has been impolite for ages outside certain
spheres like the family and the military, and language has found other ways to express orders, some of them now
just as rude – the eternal cycle. In Danish we very often give orders by means of the verbs kan (can) pres. and vil
(will) pres. in sentences formed like a question. Fx,
(1a) Kan du komme ud!
["Can you come out?"]
(1b) Vil du 'så holde 'op?
["Will you then stop?"]
This Danish kan/vil + interrogative form is not a phrase, but a speech act switching meaning variety of these two
verbs demanding interrogative form to be triggered. The switch is optional because the actual meaning may be =
the face meaning: Når du bliver 65, vil du 'så holde 'op? [’When you get 65, will you then stop?’] But language has a
stock of SPEECH ACT SWITCH MARKERS to disambigue the speech act:
(2a) Kan du 'så 'lige komme 'ud?
["Can you then straight come out?"]
(2b) Kan du ('så 'lige) 'se at komme 'ud?
["Can you (then straight) see to come out?"]
Now we have full-fledged phrases (Kan/Vil [du/De/I] 'så 'lige + inf., Kan/Vil [du/De/I] 'se at +inf.), and now we
have full unambiguity.
Then we do not use the imperative much in modern society, one would think. Outside the army,
the kindergarten and the speech of very angry managers. We do. For we can use the imperative together with a
switch marker and transform the face order into a request:
(3) Ræk mig lige saltet!
["Pass me just the salt!"]
The adverb lige meaning that it is just a small favour we are asking. But be careful. Three days ago I went to the
post office, and the clerk said to me,
(4) Skriv lige under her!
[’Just sign here!’]
which sounded a little bit too free in my sensitive ears. The imperative is dangerous both in orders and in
But you can use the imperative in a much more refined way. If you use it in a situation
demanding a certain amount of politeness, and the thing you are "ordering" is something nice for the receiver,
then there is no danger. But then the apparent order is transformed into an OFFER,
(5a) Sit down!
(5b) Have a cigar!
(5c) Feel free to play the piano!
Formally they are ambiguous, but they can be disambigued with a switch marker, in English with a do-
construction: Do sit down! In Danish you can extend such an imperative with a subject (which is normally absent
(6) Tag du en cognac!
["Take you a brandy!"]
and we have an unambiguous offer or a piece of good advice. The English imp. do-construction and the Danish
imp.+subject construction are not phrases since only 1 constant word is involved, but if we extend the Danish
construction with the switch marker bare ("just"), we have an unambiguous phrase signalling a piece of advice or
(7) Tag du bare den kjole på!
[’Do not be afraid to wear that dress, it is quite all right!’]
and this is an established phrase: imp. + du/De/I + bare.
The most common switch marker is undoubtedly please/bitte. Since it is only 1 word in English
and German, it is not a phrase, but in the Romance languages it is a phrase: s'il te plaît, per favore, por favor etc. The
nearest equivalent in Swedish is also a phrase: är du snäll. With this switch marker you can transform any question
and order into a request:
(8a) Please, give me some money!
(8b) Could you please tell me the time?
(8c) Räck mig saltet, är_du_snäll/snälla!
Curiously, we have no "please" in Danish; the nearest equivalent being the lengthy phrase
(9a) Du ville vel ikke...?
["You would probably not...?"]
or, in modern times also,
(9b) Gider du lige at...?
["Bother you just to...?"]
which older citizens like myself find a bit rude.
A refined way to give an order is to use the please-switch seemingly indicating a request, but in
reality issuing an order. We hear it every year at Wimbledon:
(10) Quiet, please!
Of course it is an order: The umpire is in power, and no doubt he will impose sanctions against us if we do not
obey. But he masks his order as a request signalling: I give you this order, but I still want to be polite, I do not
treat you like children or dogs. The trick is very common. In English, fx, we have phrases like:
You are kindly requested [not to touch the paintings].
If the sender is your aunt, it might be a request, but if the sender is the museum, you can be sure it is an order. In
spite of the fact that it is formed like an explicit request.
Most of my examples in this lecture are international in so far as they have counterparts in every
language. But this is not necessarily so. I just prefer the international ones so that I do not have to give you
language specific examples from my mother tongue. But I will present to you one speech act switching idiom
specific to Danish:
(11) 'Så er det 'godt!
["Then it is good!"]
It is seemingly a statement of approval, but actually it is an order meaning ’Stop it!’ usually used about (insulting)
words. If an immigrant does not know it and thinks it has its face meaning, he will not stop, possibly with
There are 3 normal ways to pose a question in English and other languages: 1) Inverted word order, 2)
use of an interrogative word like who, and 3) interrogative intonation, fx You have just arrived? In some languages,
like Latin, there are special interrogative words (num). In Danish we also have such an interrogative word (mon).
Neither of these 4 ways, of course, is an established phrase. The speech act of questioning is marked by syntax,
by intonation and/or by some single interrogative word. But I feel rather sure that the most common way to
pose a question in a Western European language is to form it as a statement, i.e. with no intonation clue at all.
How then can we hear it is a question? We cannot, we have to guess. If I tell my mother that I have walked 30
km to her house, she might say,
(12a) And now you are hungry, my dear son(?)
I would take that as a question since I do not expect other people to inform me of my hunger. But it is just a
guess. My mother of course knows that her question is ambiguous, so she can always resort to one of the
mentioned unambiguous ways. And one thing more. She can put a so-called tag to her ambiguous question
making it unambiguous,
(12b) And now you are hungry, my dear son, aren’t you?
This tag, aren’t you? / are you?, which has equivalents in all the languages I know, is a genuine speech act switching
idiom, switching the meaning from ambiguity into an unambiguous question.
There are other switchers. In English you can begin an actual question by, I suppose (that)..., I take
it (that)..., I take it for granted (that)..., in Danish by, Jeg går ud fra, at... [I depart from...] and the receiver can be pretty
sure it is a question,
(13) I_suppose/take_it you’re not from this town?
Such phrases like I suppose are switching idioms since the interrogative meaning is unpredictable on any other
basis in the language than this very phrase. I call it a question because it is intended as a question, and we all
know there are very good chances that this is the case. But, of course, it could be a piece of information about the
sender himself. Dr. Freud might for example say,
(14) I suppose you always hated your father subconsciously!
There is no special grammatical form indicating a request. Normally one uses an interrogative form with a
please in it. You can ask your wife,
(15) What time is it?
But this is too rude to strangers, so you have to wrap up the question with a please or, better,
(16) Could you tell me the time?
The Could you tell me-switcher ensures that it is a request, not a question about the receiver’s ability. So if he
answers Yes! and walks on, he either does not understand English or he is joking. In Danish, where we have no
"please", we have a multitude of such switchers,
(17a) De kunne vel ikke sige mig...?
["You could supposedly not tell me... ?"]
(17b) Undskyld, men De skulle vel ikke vide...?
["Sorry, but you should not happen to know...?"]
A very special switching idiom is a formula well-known in many languages,
(18) Hvis De lige ville skrive under her!
['Wenn Sie nur hier unterschreiben möchten!']
['If you would just sign here!']
The face meaning is ’If you would sign here, then something implicit would happen like I would be happy’, but
of course the If you just...-idiom simply means ’I request you to (sign_here/wait_a _second’ etc.).
Expression of feelings
You may express your subjective criticism by posing a question that would be quite pointless or stupid if it
really was meant as a true question,
(19) Are you going to drink now??!!
It cannot be a true question, for the sender can very well see the receiver serving himself a big glass of whiskey.
This is not an idiom. But language has a stock of idioms for this purpose,
(20) When will you ever grow old?
Since the receiver is much over 18, and he knows that the sender knows this fact, it is inappropriate to answer,
Oh, you must mistake me for another. I turned 18 seven years ago! The actual meaning is, as we all know, ’I am tired of
your immature behaviour!’ – an expression of feelings. – Other switching idioms are,
(21a) Do you know what you have done?
[’You have done something terrible, maybe you do not know how terrible!’]
(21b) Véd du virkelig ikke dét?
["Know you really not that?"]
[’You certainly ought to know that!’]
(21c) Aren’t you a bit stupid?
[’I think you are stupid right now!’]
(21d) What the heck do you know about [Havana cigars]?
[’You know nothing about [Havana cigars], so shut up!’]
(21e) Don’t you understand English?
[’It is irritating that you do not respond properly!’]
(21f) Skulle du spørge fra nogen?
["Should you ask from somebody?"]
[’What business is that of yours?’]
(21g) What about [going to the circus]?
[’I think it would be a good idea [to go to the circus]!’]
Some of the switches, of course, are only optional, fx What do you know about Havana cigars?, but if I insert a mild
oath like the heck, or a coarser one, it can only be a criticism, since it is absurd (and grammatically forbidden) to
swear in a genuine yes/no-question.
All these switchings switches from interrogative form into expression of feelings. But we also
have switchings from a statement form: If my wife tells me that our daughter was engaged to an older man two
months ago and has now gone with him to his summer house, I might shout in anger,
(22) And I know nothing about it!!
meaning ’You certainly ought to have told me long ago!’ I guess the phrase is well-established mutatis mutandis
in every language. The same, I suppose, applies to,
(23) Det bliver min død!
["It will be my death!"]
meaning ’This will be terrible for me!’. And I am sure that in any European language you can criticize the
contents of a person’s words by saying that you do not quite understand what he says. You understand it
perfectly well, but it is more polite to say,
(24) I don’t quite understand your attitude towards smoking, because...
instead of What you say about smoking is wrong:... . There is a lot of established phrases about one’s non-
understanding. But the linguistic rule we follow is not idiomatic, departing from certain phrases, but a rule
saying: You may form a polite critique by faking that you do not understand. It is no real fake, but a faked fake
(!) because the receiver knows perfectly well what is going on.
We can disguise a statement by posing a question. Good old Demosthenes knew that very well when he
formed his rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions, per se, are not established phrases. You can make anything a
rhetorical question if your stance is unambiguous and you make it clear that your audience is not supposed to
answer. Thus, they are speech act switching expressions, but not necessarily speech act switching idioms. But a
portion of them are. Fx the Who says...? questions,
(25) Who says the ball has to be round?
the implicit answer always being: ’Nobody says so!’. Thus, the actual meaning is ’A ball does not necessarily have
to be round’. Closely related is the Who knows? idiom, meaning ’Nobody knows!’. Well, in my aunt’s idiolect it
means ’I do not know’, for she will say: Maybe Greenland is bigger than Australia, who knows?
A true demagogic marvel is the face tautology,
(26a) Jews are jews.
(26b) Sunt pueri pueri. Pueri puerilia faciunt.
– marvellous because you have to be a professor of rhetorics to deny that boys are boys. But, of course, the
actual meaning cannot be a tautology since, per definition, there is no communicative point in tautologies. The
meaning – a personal, subjective opinion – is, vaguely, that the nature of boys/jews etc. is bound to come out.
Notice how the figure can be used as an accusation (jews) as well as an excuse (boys).
Another very old type of apparent statement is the so-called DECORIC PRESENT,
(27) You don’t speak with your mouth full!
Seemingly a description of table habits, but actually quite another speech act: the prescription of good table
Can you improvise a speech act switch?
All my examples of switches have been built on traditional, well-established means of expression: single
word meanings or established phrases. At the congress a German colleague asked me if I thought it possible for
a sender to create (improvise) a switch by means of an adequate context, i.e. without having "language" do the
job. – Let us suppose I want to express what my father taught me: Greeks are totally unreliable. Today such a
statement is severely tabooed, so I have to wrap it up. How? The first means occurring to me is:
(28) Well, I don’t think the Greeks are the world’s most honest people.
which could be combined with the Who says...? switcher. I would thus use the very old trick of LITOTES, i.e. the
denial of the very opposite of the intended meaning. The receiver would immediately grasp my intention, for
why should I want to state the straightforward face meaning of ? You do not deny something that nobody has
asserted, something that never was an issue. Another possibility is a semi-rhetorical question,
(29) Are the Greeks, in general, reliable? I am just asking!
semi-rhetorical because although I really want to hear the receiver’s opinion, I have raised doubts about the
honesty of the Greeks and at any rate given the receiver a hint of my suspicion. But as anyone can see, all these
means and tricks are utterly established. I am not a bit creative except that I pick out from language’s stock what
suits my book. And, for the time being, I cannot see how I could possibly improvise a switch or other cover-up.
But maybe I am not sufficiently inventive? Which is not meant as a rhetorical question.
Why switch speech act?
Why can we not just give an order as an order and request something by an explicit request? Why all this
hide-and-seek? I really do not know. I guess that if everyone was like me, we could. Personally, I would not mind
taking plain orders from the Wimbledon officials saying Be quiet, Mr. Brink! or strangers simply asking: What time
is it? I do not need the wrapping up. And I would not be surprised if there were primitive languages lacking this
cover-up. But in our society we have had them for centuries. They are in most of my examples due to politeness.
They can also be due to rhetorics. Rhetorical questions are suggestive, for it is easy and normal to
argue against a statement, but it is a bit confusing to argue against a question, even a fake one.
Other causes can be found, too. We have an idiom in Danish,
(30) [Prisen/leveringen etc.] kan vi snakke om.
["[The price/delivery etc.] can we talk about."]
meaning ’I am open to negotiation regarding [the price etc.], it is not fixed already’, or, in other contexts, ’Maybe
we can reach some agreement, I do not see any concrete obstacle right now’. This meaning is simply much more
difficult to formulate, and too dangerous, you might be too complying. It is easier and safer to use the casual
Brink, L. (2006): Den fraseologiske terminologi. Oslo: LexicoNordica 13 (Forthcoming). (An English version can be obtained
from the author)
Hansen, E. (1973): Kan De lige se her engang. Copenhagen: Magister Stygotii betænkninger over det danske sprog.
Searle, J. R. (1969): Speech Acts. London: Cambridge.