1.2. Distance, power, and imposition

The linguist Peter Grundy emphasizes the determination of politeness by its external context. “Among the aspects of assumed external context that are particularly derterminate of language choice in the domain of politeness are the power-distance relationship of the interactants and the extent to which a speaker imposes on or requires something of his/her addressee” (Grundy 2000:127). “In being ‘polite’, a speaker is attempting to create an implicated context. The speaker stands in a certain relation to the addressee in respect of the required act and (Grundy 2000:128) politeness is the system used by the speaker in order to keep up to the addressee’s expectations” (Grundy 2000:135).

The determiners of the external context are :

  • distance (D), i.e the social distance betweeen speaker and hearer
  • power (P), i.e. the adressee’s position in society and age, the social status; the relative power of the hearer over the speaker and vice versa.
  • imposition or risk (R), i.e. the weight of the actions that threatens the addressee’s autonomy and freedom of action, like e.g. orders

These three variables determine the weigth (W) of the potential face-threatening act (FTA), and consequently the weight of the politeness which the speaker will use.

  • Social distance :The higher the status of the speaker (Sp) in relation to the addressee (Ad), the less s/he will need to adopt strategies to minimise any FTA (example: a king talking to a servant)
  • Power : Although the social distance are high among interactants, the current power relationship might be close, becaue there might be a friendship between King and servant, or the interactants might belong to one family.
  • Imposition/Risk of an utterance: this variable is about the risk posed by the message which the speaker has to convey to the addresse. It depends on the content of the utterance.

W= D (Sp -> Ad) + P (Ad -> Sp) + R


If you want to know more about the historical context that influenced distance, power, and imposition in Early Modern England click here.