Polite Strategies in English and Vietnamese Imperatives: A Contrastive Analysis
Nguyễn Thị Khoa
HCMC University of Pedagogy
As we all know, the most basic function of language is to communicate. In the relationship of language and other factors such as contexts and communicative objects, politeness factor of language is concerned. So, this essay will give you some ideas about the definition of imperative, definition of politeness and some strategies to make polite imperative in English and Vietnamese.
Definition of imperative
Using the same utterance, but in different contexts, we will understand it in many different ways. For example, the utterance “It’s so cold” (Trời lạnh quá.) can be understood as:
Close the door. (Đóng cửa lại đi.)
Turn on the heater. (Mở lò sưởi lên.)
Take the sweater for me, please. (Làm ơn lấy giùm tôi cái áo ấm.)
Or with the same intention, we can use different ways to ask people to do it. For instance, if you want others to close the windows, here are the sentences you can use:
It’s so cold.
Close the windows.
Would you mind closing the windows?
So, in his book “Dụng học Việt ngữ”, Nguyễn Thiện Giáp (2000) defines imperative as an act which speakers use to make receivers do something. This act can be expressed in sentences, due to which the speakers can make the receivers do something.
Imperatives can be used for many functions such as:
Telling people what to do.
Giving instructions and advice.
Making recommendations and suggestions.
Definition of politeness
There is a variety of definition for politeness, however, most of them approach the angle of social appropriateness. In Longman dictionary of contemporary English, politeness is defined as “having or showing good manners, consideration for others, and/or correct social behavior.” For Lakoff (1975) “to be polite is saying the socially correct thing” (p. 53) while for Adegbija (1989) politeness is associated with situations in which one “speaks or behaves in a way that is socially and culturally acceptable and pleasant to the hearer” (p. 58).
From these definitions, Lakoff (1973) approaches three maxims of politeness:
Make your receiver feel good.
Face and politeness
In daily conversation, face plays a very important role. In their book Politeness (1987), Brown and Levinson state that politeness is based on the notion of positive face and negative face: positive face refers to a person’s need to be accepted, or liked, by others, and to be treated as a member of a group knowing that their wants are shared by others; negative face refers to a person’s need to be independent and not to be imposed on by others.
In Vietnamese, saving face is also significant. We can hear sentences like “Nể mặt anh…”, “Đừng làm mất thể diện của tôi đấy”… So, according to Lê Thị Kim Đính (2006), “face and saving face are important concepts relating to politeness principle and are the main motives for human beings to behave politely while anticipating in communication process” (p.18).
Politeness and culture
As Adegbija (1989) defines politeness above, one wants to be polite must “speaks or behaves in a way that is socially and culturally acceptable and pleasant to the hearer”. That point shows that politeness and culture have a very close relationship to each other. Different cultures will have different principles of politeness. One action considered to be polite in this country may be assumed impolite in another. For example, interruption while making conversation is considered appropriate in America but in Vietnam, it is impolite to do so. Vietnamese people always wait for their turn to talk. Or, in the case of personal pronoun, the American only use “you” for the addressees whereas the Vietnamese have a lot of choices such as “anh, chị, em, cậu, chú, …”. So, we can see the influence of culture on language here: while Americans give prominence to equality in communication, Vietnamese people give prominence to hierarchy in family and society, therefore using the wrong personal pronoun in Vietnamese is considered to be impolite.
Another point is that the ideas of politeness change all the time. Which seemed to be impolite in the past can be polite at the present and vice versa. For instance, “mày – tao” was only used by noblemen, officers or landlords to people belonging to low social class. Using “mày – tao” between friends would be considered inappropriate. However, nowadays, “mày – tao” can be used commonly to show intimacy between people having the same status. So, this essay will only talk about polite strategies appropriate in modern society.
Politeness in imperatives
As mentioned above, politeness is very important, especially in imperatives, which, if using inappropriately, will cause the losing face of receiver or even the speaker if the action cannot be done.
However, Leech’s idea that the act of command is impolite because of its imposition while complimentary is polite is not true because politeness is controlled by other factors such as:
So, if the speaker is at higher position than the receiver, the imperative may not be concerned impolite. Or, commands which are allowed in some situations by specific social institution are considered to be polite. For example, when the King gives order to his people, it is never impolite. Nevertheless, giving complimentary untimely will be impolite (Lê, 2006).
Leech (1983) proposes a politeness principle which is based on the concept of benefit and cost between speakers and receivers. It is described as a set of maxim:
Maxim of tact
Maxim of generosity
Maxim of approbation
Maxim of modesty
Maxim of agreement
Maxim of sympathy
Comparision of English and Vietnamse imperatives:
We used to think that Vietnamese culture is collectivism, so Vietnamese imperatives will be influenced by factors such as distance of power, principle, hierarchy, age, relationship, etc… more than an individualistic culture like English. However, English is also influenced by such those factors, though the degree may be less than Vietnamese. We can see that people who are superior, older or having close relationship with the receivers will tend to use more imperatives. For example, adults do not usually give orders to each others, unless they are in a position of authority, like between boss and employees. However, they can give orders to children and animals that are inferior to them. Moreover, the factors mentioned above can influence the degree of politeness in imperatives. If the speakers are less powerful, younger and do not have a very close relationship with the receivers, the imperatives they use are assumed to be in polite forms, whereas to superior people, it is not a must.
Form of imperative:
The imperatives can take the form of affirmative, negative and interrogative. In English, imperatives can also take the form of tag-question
Would you mind opening the window?
Bạn mở cửa sổ giùm mình nhé?
Close the door, would you?
In the general view, imperatives in English and Vietnamese are nearly the same in some points. The most common feature of their imperatives is that, they usually lack subject. In that case, subject will be understood as “you”
Go! (I want you to go)
Đi đi! (Bạn/con/mày… đi đi)
However, when we want to make clear who we are talking to, noun/ pronoun can be used to clarify the addressee:
Mary, play on my side.
Anh đừng bao giờ đến đây nữa.
In the case of formation, an imperative can consist of Verb + Object + Adjunct or simply just a Verb
(11) Put the gun on the floor
V O A
In Vietnamese, imperatives can somehow be analyzed like this:
(13) Dắt nó về đi
V O A
When we do not want somebody to do something, the structure “Don’t / Never + Vinf” or “No + Gerund” is used. Similar structure in Vietnamese will be “Đừng…, Cấm…, Không được…”
(15) Don’t tell them.
(17) Never talk to me like that again.
(19) No smoking
(16) Đừng nói với họ.
(18)Đừng có bao giờ nói chuyện với mẹ kiểu đó nữa nghe chưa.
(20) Cấm hút thuốc.
From the examples above, we can see that both imperatives in English and Vietnamese can be direct ((7) – (20)) or indirect ((1) – (3)). In (1) – (3), the speaker does not mention what he/ she wants the receiver to do specifically but the receiver still can get the point due to the context. So, whatever kind of imperative is – direct or indirect, the speech act is also successful.
However, there is one form that is just used in English imperatives and cannot be seen in Vietnamese: passive, which usually takes the form of “Get + Vpp”. For example, “Get washed!” is an passive imperative which can mean “Take a bath!”. Nevertheless, we do not have any utterances like “Bị tắm đi / Được tắm đi”. In spite of that, “Đi tắm đi.” is used.
In Vietnamese, pronouns are very important when making conversation. Using appropriate pronouns when giving imperative will make it more polite, acceptable and vice versa, using wrong pronouns will be assumed impolite. Therefore, knowing how to use pronouns is extremely necessary when speaking Vietnamese.
One of the strategies is using plural pronouns “we” (chúng tôi, chúng ta) instead of singular pronoun. An imperative including the speaker will make it more acceptable to the receiver because he/she is not imposed to do it alone. For example, saying “Chúng ta (we) đi tưới cây đi” will be more polite than saying “Cậu (you) đi tưới cây đi”.
Furthermore, address pronouns need to be paid attention. Address pronouns in Vietnamese can show the relationship between speakers and receivers. So, using them successfully when making imperatives will create the close, intimate relationship with receivers and therefore, can reduce the imposition of imperatives. There are many ways of using address pronouns:
Firstly, using pronouns that show relative relationship. In Vietnamese, “ông, bà, cha, mẹ, cô, chú, bác, dì, cháu…” are used for people having blood relationship with each other. However, in reality, those pronouns are also used between strangers to be more intimate.
A young girl may speak to an old woman like this:
Dì cho con ly nước mía.
Con đợi tí, dì đem ra ngay.
In the example above, the young girl and the old woman are completely strangers but the pronouns they use - “dì-con” - erase the distance between them and the imperative, therefore, becomes polite.
In Vietnamese culture, address pronouns must go with each other as pairs such as “ông – con/cháu, bác – cháu, anh/chị – em, dì/cô – cháu, etc.” Changing pronouns in each pair may lead to the change in degree of politeness. For example, when comparing “Anh đưa giùm em quyển sách” and “Anh đưa giùm tôi quyển sách”, Vietnamese people will easily realize that the second imperative is not as polite as the first one.
Secondly, use titles when addressing receivers. Vietnamese people are always proud of their titles which show their positions in society, so, mentioning their titles when making imperatives is a way of honoring them and making them feel good.
Xin giáo sư cho biết ý kiến về việc này ạ.
Em xin thủ trưởng cho phép em nghỉ sáng mai, em có việc bận ạ.
In these two sentences, “giáo sư (professor), thủ trưởng (chief officer)” are the titles of receivers and they make them pleased when being addressed so. However, because titles are so polite, they are only used in formal conversations.
Thirdly, proper names are also used to increase politeness. Proper names are used not only in family but also in society. Proper names are only used by superiors to address their inferiors. However, the inferiors can sometimes use proper names for their superiors, but this case is only accepted when they add pronouns which show relationship before the proper name, as in (25):
Chiều nay ba Minh chở con qua nhà nội chơi nha ba.
Hùng lấy giùm mình cái quạt.
Thắng cho Hoa mượn cây bút nha. Bút của Hoa hết mực rồi.
Another strategy is to use extension elements. Extension elements are the elements going along with the core of the imperative without showing any imperative content (Lê, 2006). Though some of them can emphasize the act of imperatives, most of them can soften the imperatives. There are many kinds of extension elements. Firstly, they can be the words used to draw attention or to address the receivers. These words usually stand at the beginning of the sentences.
Mẹ ơi, lấy giùm con cây viết.
Này, cậu lấy giùm tớ cây đinh.
Ê, mai đi mua sách vở với tao nha.
In the three examples above, the speakers can draw attention of the receivers. In (28), “mẹ ơi” gives the relationship between them so that it shows the intimacy and reduce the threat of losing face caused by imperative. In example (29), and (30), “này, ê” are used informally between people having the same age, the same status. So, they also express intimate relationship, reducing the imposition and increasing politeness.
Secondly, the extension elements can make imperatives more polite by taking all verbal precautions or by compensating. By taking all verbal precautions, the speakers will give reasons, show hesitation or remind previous information to gain the receivers’ sympathy and so that the imperatives will be easily accepted.
Chị chở em ra trạm xe buýt nha, xe em bị hư rồi.
Có lẽ chúng ta phải về nhà thôi.
Anh có bảo khi nào lên thành phố thì cứ đến ở chỗ anh, hôm nay em đến xin anh ở nhờ nhà anh vài bữa.
Compensation reduces the cost caused by imperatives on the receivers. Compensation can be given by apologies (usually at the beginning of the sentence), promises or complimentaries so that receivers will feel comfortable and the imperative therefore will be polite.
Xin lỗi đã làm phiền anh chị, nhưng anh chị có thể cho em vay ít tiền được không ạ?
Xin thầy cho phép em được nghỉ học hôm nay, em hứa sẽ chép bài, học bài đầy đủ.
Chỉ có anh mới giúp được em thôi, xin anh hãy nói cho vợ em hiểu đi ạ.
Thirdly, extension elements can be words that supplement imperative verbs to make imperatives more polite. These verbs usually follow or precede the imperative verb/verb phrase. They can be categorized in these groups:
Nữa, phải, cứ, hãy, etc.: reduce the shyness of receivers when the imperatives cause the cost on the speakers.
Cô hãy ăn bưởi nữa đi ạ.
Mai nhất định cậu phải ghé nhà tớ ăn cơm đó.
Trân trọng, kính mời, trân trọng kính mời, etc.: used in formal meetings to honor the face of receivers.
Xin trân trọng kính mời ông bà tới dự lễ khai trương khách sạn Kim Đô vào lúc 8 giờ ngày 25 – 12 – 2009.
Hộ, giùm, cho, giúp, làm ơn, tha thiết, khẩn thiết, etc.: reduce the imposition on receivers. By using these words, the receivers feel that they have freedom to decide to accept or refuse the imperatives.
Mẹ lấy hộ con ly nước.
Em tha thiết xin chị cho em làm việc ở đây.
Một chút, một lát, tạm, một tí, một ít, chút xíu, etc.: these words are used to reduce the importance of the act the speakers want the receivers to do for them and so, reduce the cost on the receivers.
Cậu cho tớ mượn tạm hai trăm ngàn, mai tớ trả.
Bố cho con xem tivi một lát nữa nha.
Finally, extension elements can be words such as “đi, đã, nha, nhé, thôi, nào, nghe, nghen, nhen, cái, coi, với, xem, chứ, etc.
”. These words are used commonly in Vietnamese to establish the intimacy and the flexibility of utterances, increasing the sympathy of receivers and making the imperatives easy to be accepted.
Đợi em với.
Chiều nay qua nhà tui chơi nghen.
Bạn thử cách này xem.
Besides that, indirect imperatives are also very useful in increasing politeness. As we can see, we can not say everything directly for all the time. Sometimes, the situation or the relationship does not allow us to say directly because if we do so, it will cause the loss of face and make the imperative impolite. In that case, we have to try to make our imperative indirectly but the receivers still get what we want them to do. Especially, Vietnamese people prefer indirectness. So, understanding how Vietnamese people use indirect imperatives is very important. There are lots of strategies when using indirect imperatives:
Firstly, speakers can announce their wishes or the negative of what they want, so the imperatives will reduce its imposition and increase the receivers’ freedom of making decision.
Chị muốn em hãy chăm chỉ học hành.
Mẹ không thích con cứ chơi bời lêu lổng như vậy nữa đâu.
Secondly, the speakers can use third personal pronoun instead of first personal pronoun. By using this way, the speakers do not indicate it is themselves who want the action to happen and therefore can reduce the imposition on the receivers.
Nam says to his father:
- Ba ơi, chiều nay ba chở cu Bin đi ăn kem nha ba.
Con muốn ăn kem hả? Được rồi, chiều ba chở hai anh em đi.
In example (49), it can be easily recognized that Nam wants to eat ice-cream, but because he does not dare to say so, he says that it is Bin who wants to have ice-cream.
Thirdly, the speakers can use the association between things to make indirect imperatives. This case can be seen in example (1) – (3). When the speaker says that “Trời lạnh quá”, the receiver can associate the coldness with the wish of the speaker: “đóng cửa, mở lò sưởi, lấy áo ấm”. So, due to the contexts, the receivers can get what the speakers want correctly, and then, they can choose whether to accept or refuse the imperatives. Whatever they do, it also reduce the threat of losing face of the speakers and increase the freedom of the receivers.
Fourthly, interrogative can be used to make imperatives. With this kind of imperative, the receivers can infer what the speakers want and have freedom to decide. So, it also increases politeness.
- Cậu có dư cây bút nào không?
In example (50), we can see that the first speaker does not mention his/her intention of borrowing the pen but the second still get it and gives him/her the pen. Here, the imperative is made successfully.
Furthermore, interrogative imperatives can be categorized into these subgroups:
Ending with words such as: à, ư, ạ, nhé, nhỉ, hả, hở, chứ, chớ, etc.: the speakers use these words to look for the agreement and acceptance from the receivers.
Mẹ đồng ý cho con đi chơi mẹ nha?
Em thắp đèn lên cho chị Liên nhé? (Thạch Lam)
Chút nữa bạn đi với tôi chứ?
Having interrogative pronouns “gì, làm gì, ai, sao, bao nhiêu, mấy, bao giờ, đâu, etc.”: these words anticipate in the act of imperative, and in the same time, causing the surprise (54), giving heartfelt advice (55) or gentle but deep criticism (56) so that the imperatives will be more polite.
Chết! Lạy ông, con cháu nào dám thế! Sao ông lại nghĩ vẩn vơ như vậy? (Nguyễn Công Hoan)
Cậu ốm như vậy sao không ở nhà?
Sao anh không về chơi thôn Vĩ? (Hàn Mặc Tử)
Having the word “hay, hay là” (or): give the receivers the freedom to choose.
Hay anh ở lại dùng bữa với nhà em một hôm rồi hẵng đi.
Hay là mình đi xem phim đi.
Having interrogative pairs such as “có…không?, có thể…được không?, đã…chưa?, xong (rồi)… chưa?, được không?, được chưa?, được chứ?,etc.”: these pairs make the imperatives polite because they reduce the imposition and increase the freedom of the receivers.
Ông có thể cho tôi xem chứng minh được không?
Mình đi được chưa mẹ?
Because English people are highly self-respectful and highly independent
, they often get angry and feel uncomfortable when being given imperatives by other people. Therefore, using the appropriate strategies to make imperatives more polite will reduce the tension and make them feel good.
As mentioned above, pronouns do not play an important role in English, however, plural pronoun including speaker - “we” - can be used to soften the imperatives and the reason is the same as in Vietnamese: the receivers are not imposed to do the imperatives alone. The most common form we can see is “Let’s + V.inf”
Let’s sing a song!
Similar to Vietnamese, English also has words to draw attention before making an imperative: “excuse me, I’m sorry but, pardon, hey, etc.”:
Excuse me, can you show me the way to the post office?
Hey, don’t laugh!
I’m sorry but you must wait for your turn, sir.
In the first and the third example, besides drawing attention, “excuse me” and “I’m sorry but” also make the receivers feel good when they add the apology together with the imperatives. In second imperative, “hey” is only used between people who have close relationship or between the ones who are at the same age
, same status. So, “hey” will help increase the intimacy. Therefore, these words will make the imperatives more polite.
One of the easiest and the most common way to make the imperatives polite is to use “please” or in written English, you might also use “Kindly + V.inf”.
Please take a seat.
Give me the bottle, please.
Kindly reply this e – mail as soon as possible.
Using modal of ability (can, could, will, would, may, might, shall, should
) can also make the imperative more polite. For example, saying “You should
help her” is more polite than “Help her!”
Some other examples:
Could you make me some tea?
Will you open the window?
May I have the salt?
Shall we go to the cafeteria?
Furthermore, when people want to soften the order, they usually use an introductionary phrase. Here are some examples of introductory phrases, in order of the most indirect to the most direct:
Would you mind possibly… (+V.ing)?
Would you mind possibly moving your car out of my way?
I was hoping you could… (+ bare inf)?
I was hoping you could spare me a few minutes this morning.
Do you think you could… (+bare inf)?
Do you think you could do this photocopying for me?
If you have a couple of minutes spare…
If you have a couple of minutes spare, the office needs tidying up.
I’d like you to package these stuffs for me.
I want you to come to the airport and pick him up for me.
Similar to Vietnamese, English can use the form of question, for example, in example (69) – (72), (73), (75). However, there is one kind of question that exists in English but can not be found in Vietnamese: tag question. Following is the table of tag question which is retrieved from website EnglishClub:
imperative + question tag
Take a seat, won't you?
Help me, can you?
Help me, can't you?
quite friendly (some irritation?)
Close the door, would you?
Do it now, will you?
Don't forget, will you?
with negative imperatives only will is possible
Besides that, questions with “Auxiliary + S + (Verb)…?
” are also used to make the imperatives polite. In this case, the imperatives are indirect and therefore can reduce the imposition and increase the freedom of the receivers.
Is there any more coffee?
Have you got any change?
In example (79), (80), the speakers request for coffee and money indirectly and the receivers can decide to give them more coffee or some change. So, they are polite imperatives.
One strategy I feel the most exciting is the use of disguised imperatives in English. Because these imperatives sound less imposing, this strategy is usually used in public places like hospitals, schools, museums, etc. and they are usually written. Some disguised imperatives you can see:
"We are a no smoking school. Your cooperation is much appreciated".
"In the interest of hygiene No Dogs".
"We thank you for cooperation in refraining from smoking or talking loudly during the performance as this may offend other patrons".
Moreover, euphemisms are also used to avoid offensive overtones or refusals. Euphemisms make the request sound “milder, vague and less blunt and disagreeable” (Valentina, 2003)
A notice asking for donation in York Minster says like this:
“We hope you are inspired by your visit to the great Cathedral. Please leave a gift if you haven't done so already".
From the comparison above, here are some implications in teaching and learning English and Vietnames that I would like to propose:
Firstly, noticing the similar strategies between the two languages will help learners feel more excited. Noone wants to study a langualy which is totally different from their mother tongue. The similarities will reduce the giant load of knowledge they have to remember and accelerate their studying. The similarities between English and Vietnamese can be listed as: the use of plural pronouns, some extension elements (làm ơn – please, có thể - can, could, etc.), the use of indirect imperatives, etc.
Secondly, to deal with the differences between English and Vietnamese, sociolinguistics can help. We should teach English learners the value of equality and teach Vietnamese learners the value of society, family, hierrarchy and the use of personal pronouns. From these points, language learners will get over the obstacles more easily.
Besides that, the comparison will help reduce the phenomenon of translating word by word which usually happens to language learners. They will have to notice which form exists in both languages and which form is not. For example, the case of Passive in English imperative does not exist in Vietnamese, so, Vietnamese students will be easily trapped in wrong translation with “bị, được”. Furthermore, some people will transfer the imperative form of their language to the other unconsciously, and of course, it is usually incorrect. For instance, a Vietnamese person may ask “Cho tôi hỏi, đi sân bay Tân Sơn Nhất thì đi đường nào?”. Then, the Vietnamese students may translate like this “May I ask you a question, which way to Tan Son Nhat airport?”. We can see that this form does not exist in English and therefore, the translation is wrong. However, a students who knows the English imperatives well may say “Could you tell me how to get to Tan Son Nhat airport?”. Another case happens to Vietnamese learners when they translate every word in English into Vietnamese. For example, the sentence “Would you mind opening the window?” can be translated “Bạn có phiền lòng không khi mở cửa sổ giùm tôi?”. In fact, we hardly see this imperative in reality. Though the word “mind = phiền lòng”, this imperative is too polite to be used, even in formal occasion. Instead, Vietnamese people will say “Bạn mở giùm tôi cái cửa sổ với.” or “Anh vui lòng mở cửa sổ giúp tôi.”, etc. Although the form is changed from interrogative into affirmative, these sentences are the equivalents of the imperative above.
In short, the points mentioned above lead to the implication in teaching and learning English and Vietnamese imperatives. In their book “Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches”, Canale and Swain imply that communicative competence consists of the three components: grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, and strategic competence. This essay also gave you some basic knowledge of those three components. Therefore, a procedure of teaching and learning imperative can be used as following:
Teach/ learn possible patterns used in imperatives.
Teach/ learn sociolinguistic competence of these patterns.
Practise these patterns in conversation, so that learners can get used to the patterns.
In short, imperative is used very commonly in daily life, therefore, the ability to use its polite strategies successfully is very significant. Not all native speakers can use imperative effectively. People who can apply these strategies cleverly will be likely to get what they want easily without causing unpleasure to their receivers. Moreover, these strategies are not easy for foreigners to use. Native speakers can use them unconsciously but foreigners must learn and practice a lot to use appropriately. Therefore, the comparison of polite strategies between English and Vietnamese is very important not only to English learners but also to Vietnamese learners. I hope that this essay can give you the information you need to teach and learn imperatives in English and Vietnamese more effectively.
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