Taylor and Francis Group is part of the Academic Publishing Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.


Unit 4: Speech acts

4.1. Address forms in CMC

Speech acts have been studied both by philosophers and linguists (see A4). The linguistic study of speech acts has also been inspired by discourse studies and by the study of spoken language. Moreover, linguists have moved away from introspection as a method of studying speech acts and have relied on a variety of approaches such as the use of field methods or discourse-completion tests and have increasingly studied real-life use of speech acts on the basis of corpora. A neglected aspect of the use of speech acts is how the speaker chooses a particular form to address the listener or a larger audience. This will be the topic in the task below, which deals with address forms in computer-mediated communication. The aim of this task is to show that the choice of address form is affected not only by the social relationship between the speakers but also by the computer medium.


Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has to do with various new ways of communicating via email, weblogs (blogs) and in chat rooms. An interesting issue is how people address each other in the new medium and how the forms differ from conversation and from letter-writing. The choice of a particular address form may, for example, convey information about your social relationship to the person addressed. The same individual may be addressed as Professor Brown, by surname only, as Charles or Chuck depending on the relationship between the speakers. In the blogs or in a chat room on the other hand you are addressing an invisible and anonymous audience. In this task we want you to study the address forms used in chat logs.

You can collect chat logs by using the search engines Google Search and Yahoo! Search. The chat logs should represent different types of situations such as social chats or general discussions on a particular topic. A number of different address forms can be used such as common nouns (e.g. guys, folk, chaps, dear), a personal name or a pronoun (e.g. everybody). It is typical of the chat room that the participant often uses a ‘nick’ (a nickname). A person may choose to identify him/herself by means of a ‘nick’. The ‘nick’ can consist of several words and it can be abbreviated.

  • How many different categories of address forms can you find?
  • Try to identify the functions of the address forms you find in terms of their social function (i.e. establishing intimacy or group feeling, ‘greeting’, catching attention or picking out a particular participant).

You can also choose to compare the use of address forms with those found, for example, in personal blogs.


  • Anglemark, L. (2009) Address Terms in Computer-Mediated Communication: Email, chat and weblogs. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet
  • Crystal, D. (2006) Language and the Internet. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

4.2. Speech acts and dialogue acts

A major problem in speech act analysis is interpreting what a speech act means on the basis of its surface realization. Some speech acts are expressed indirectly (the surface form does not match its interpretation). The question Can you pass the salt? is interpreted as a request, although this is not clear from the form itself. Speech act interpretation and the models needed to figure out the speaker’s intentions have also been studied by computational linguists. More recent work in computational linguistics has expanded the notion of speech acts and talks about dialogue acts. There is a large number of such dialogue acts, which are defined by their properties in the dialogue. They can point backwards and forwards in the discourse and serve functions such as checking and assessment. The purpose of the second task is to familiarize you with some typical dialogue acts.


In computational linguistics the notion of speech act has been enriched in order to model more kinds of conversational functions than have been recognized in philosophical speech act theory. Speech acts express a psychological state (apologizing) or can be an attempt to do something (a request). A dialogue act on the other hand is associated with particular dialogue functions such as ‘checks’ (a question for confirmation), repair or reformulations, opening a conversation, etc. A number of different tag sets have been suggested and applied primarily to task-oriented dialogue (see Jurafsky 2006). Task-oriented dialogues in computational linguistics are, for example, illustrated by map tasks and can be studied on the basis of the Map Task Corpus. The number of dialogue labels can be quite large. In some dialogue systems modelled in computational linguistics we find more than 40 different acts.

Jurafsky gives the following examples of ‘checks’ from various corpora:

  1. tag questions
    A: and it’s gonna take us also an hour to load boxcars right?
    B: right
  2. a declarative sentence used as a question usually with rising intonation
    A: and we have a powerful computer down at work
    B: Oh (laughter)
    B: so, you don’t need a personal one (laughter)?
    A: No

Another example of a dialogue act (which has been discussed, e.g., by Jurafsky and Martin (2000)) is the assessment. Assessments that have an evaluative function are associated with a special ‘micro-grammar’, which can be described by the following pattern:

            Pro-form (that) + Copula + (Intensifier) + Assessment adjective

For example, that’s very interesting, that’s really stupid.

The BNC can be used for the task: search for the sequence above and find out which adjectives are used in this pattern.

  • To what extent do they mark positive or negative properties?
  • Which are the intensifiers found?

In addition we have patterns such as that’s right,which also refers to recipient action and can be described as a dialogue act and shares many properties with assessments such as a fixed form.

However, that’s right seems to express less lexical-semantic meaning than assessments. Speakers use it mainly to take up a stance aligning themselves with what comes before.

  • Use a corpus to investigate how it is used either as a response or a follow-up.

It is, for instance, used in classroom discourse to express the teacher’s epistemic authority.

In recent years studies of speech acts and pragmatic markers have also considered people with aphasia and other communicational disorders. In a study of a woman with aphasia (Barnes 2011) it was shown that that’s right had special advantages in the woman’s speech by enhancing her social participation in the interaction. That’s right is used to ‘claim mutual stance’ but not in the same way as in conversations with non-aphasics. It was shown for example that the woman did not use that’s right to index epistemic authority (a claim to know better) but it was used as a claim to know the same.


  • Barnes, S.E. (2011) ‘Claiming mutual stance: On the use of that’s right by a person with aphasia’, Research on Language and Social Interaction 44(4): 359–84
  • Jurafsky, D. (2006) ‘Pragmatics and computational linguistics’, in Horn, L.R. and G. Ward (eds.) The Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Jurafsky, D. and J. H. Martin (2000) Speech and Language Processing: An introduction to natural language processing, computational linguistics, and speech recognition. New York: Prentice Hall, pp578–604