Archive for Speech-acts

Giving the bad news

We’ve had more than enough bad news lately about the economy, loss of jobs, fraud in the marketplace, and our various wars, so maybe talking about how to give bad news seems timely. Now has published an article about the problems that law enforcement officers experience when it’s their job to give the bad news to relatives about murder victims and other tragedies. Giving the bad news is hard on the police. Some do it well; others don’t. But giving the ultimate bad news is necessary, no matter how hard we stuggle to do it.

Most of us have to communicate bad news to suffering people at some time in our lives, whether it’s the type that police have to announce, the type that financial advisors have to give clients who have just lost their life savings in a stockmarket dive, or the type that physicians sadly have to give their patients. No bad news giving is easy.

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Rectifying the oath flub

When Chief Justice John Roberts and Barack Obama made a hash of the presidential oath of office on Tuesday, most early commentators — including me — assumed it didn't really matter what they said, since Obama had officially become president at noon (shortly before they actually got to the oath). But some legal scholars pointed out that the oath is still required under the Constitution and argued that a "do-over" should be performed, just to be safe. Today, the do-over proponents won out, and at 7:35 pm EST, Roberts again swore in Obama in the Map Room of the White House. From the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire:

“We decided it was so much fun,” Obama joked before again stating the words written in the Constitution. “Are you ready to take the oath?” Roberts asked. “I am, and we’re going to do it very slowly,” Obama quipped.
The oath took 25 seconds, and the recitation was flawless this time. “Congratulations, again,” Roberts said. “Thank you, sir,” Obama replied.
“The bad news for the [press] pool is there’s 12 more [inaugural] balls,” Obama joked.

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Adverbial placement in the oath flub

Chief Justice John Roberts' administration of the presidential oath to Barack Obama was far from smooth. Early reports differ in saying who stumbled: NBC and ABC say the flub was Roberts', while the AP says it was Obama's. I think both men were a bit nervous, and the error that emerged from their momentary disfluency came down to a problem of adverbial placement.

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Water landings, threats, and throwing bricks gently

My father (probably not very originally) used to tell me, “If you have to throw a brick at someone, throw it gently.” That sounded pretty stupid to me at the time, but I’ve since learned that it’s actually pretty good advice. What he seemed to have meant was, “if you have to threaten, warn, or otherwise say anything negative, temper it as much as possible.” If he had known anything about the differences among the speech acts of threatening, warning, and advising, he might have elaborated a little more. His words were brought home to me by three recent events: (1) my work trying to make the letters written by the Montana Department of Revenue clearer and more respectful; (2) my emergency landing at the Salt Lake City airport; and (3) the recent “water landing” of the U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River.

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Can we really elicit an apology?

We may expect to get an apology for an offense committed against us but we sometimes don’t get one. Henry Alford’s opinion piece in the NYT offers one solution: apologize to the person who should have done the apologizing. It goes something like this:

(someone bumps into him)

Alford: Oh, I'm sorry you bumped into me.

Bumper: That's okay.

Alford calls this “reverse etiquette.” In an effort to elicit the expected politeness routine when somebody bumps into him, he tries to prime the pump by apologizing to the bumper. He admits, however, that this strategy doesn’t seem to work. But he tries again, more explicitly upping the ante with something like this:

Alford: I didn’t really mean for you to bump me with your bag.

Bumper: Don’t mention it.

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It might not be the speech-act you thought it was

My credit-card company has developed a new scheme for trying to trick me with speech-acts. It's likely that you've heard roughly this pitch before, especially if you are lucky enough to work at home sometimes and trusting enough to answer the phone before ring #3.

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