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Corpus Pragmatics

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 83–105 | Cite as

“Thank bloody God it’s Friday”: A Local Grammar of Thanking

Original Paper

Abstract

This paper presents a local grammar of thanking in English, aiming to further demonstrate the feasibility of using a local grammar approach to account for speech acts and also to contribute to the on-going development of corpus pragmatics. The corpus used for the study is compiled of those texts categorised as ‘Spoken—conversation’ in the British National Corpus. Conventionalised realisations of thanking are identified and used as search terms to retrieve automatically instances of thanking. The retrieved instances are then manually examined to make sure that all instances to be analysed have the illocutionary force of thanking. The subsequent analyses suggest 7 functional labels that are needed for a local grammar description of gratitude expressions and identify 29 local grammar patterns. The implications and applications of research on local grammars of speech acts are discussed. It is concluded that local grammars can contribute substantially to the description of speech act realisations, and therefore more research on local grammars of speech acts are desirable and valuable.

Keywords

Speech acts Local grammar Thanking Corpus pragmatics 

Introduction

This paper reports findings from a research project which extends the concept of local grammar (see “Local Grammar and Speech Act Studies” section) to speech act studies (Su 2017; Su and Wei forthcoming). The purpose of the project is to develop a set of local grammars to account more adequately for speech act realisations, and ultimately to contribute to the on-going development of corpus pragmatics. The rationale of this project relates to Butler’s (2004: 158) argument that “rather than a single general grammar, we might end up with a set of local grammars for particular areas defined by their communicative functions in the discourse”.

The study reported in this paper offers a local grammar of thanking in English, aiming to further demonstrate the feasibility of using a local grammar approach to account for speech act instances. It will be shown that a local grammar approach can contribute substantially to speech act studies, in particular to a more systematic and comprehensive description that takes into account both functional and grammatical aspects of speech act realisations. By ‘both functional and grammatical’ we mean that “the elements used in the description should not only reflect the function of the corresponding linguistic form in social contexts, but also resemble traditional grammatical analysis, that is, the elements used can in a way be seen as analogies of traditional grammatical elements (e.g. subject, object)” (Su 2017: 73).

Thanking is defined in this study either as an illocutionary act of expressing sincerely gratitude to the addressee who has done something in favour of the speaker or as an illocutionary act of expressing jokingly or ironically gratitude to the addressee (cf. Searle 1969; Aijmer 1996). Briefly, thanking is selected on three bases. First, thanking is taught at an early age by one’s parents or care-givers and the act of expressing gratitude is crucial for maintaining social relationship (Jacobsson 2002; Jautz 2013) Second, the selection of thanking relates to some methodological pitfalls associated with corpus-based investigation into speech acts. As noted in Taavitsainen and Jucker (2008a: 10), “[c]omputerized searches for specific speech acts can only be undertaken if the speech act tends to occur in routinized forms, with recurrent phrases and or [sic] with standard Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices (IFIDs)”. The observation that linguistic realisations of thanking are highly routinised and lexicalised (Aijmer 1996; Jautz 2013), then, facilitates our investigation and as such justifies our choice of focusing on thanking.

More importantly, thanking is selected because research has shown that even advanced EFL learners have difficulty in expressing appropriately gratitude in different contexts (e.g. Eisenstein and Bodman 1986; Hinkel 1994; Cheng 2010). One solution to this, as suggested by Aijmer (1996), is to explore how the routines of particular speech acts can be adequately described, which would also be helpful for language teaching. However, the question as to how the routines of speech act realisations can be systematically described has not been sufficiently addressed, or sometimes even has been neglected. For example, Jautz (2013), which may be considered as the currently most comprehensive investigation of thanking formulae in English, explicitly states that the focus of her study is not on “form-based realisations” (ibid: 14). This points to a gap existing in the current literature of studies on thanking and, therefore, the significance of the present study.

The reminder of this paper is organised into 5 further sections. “Local Grammar and Speech Act Studies” section introduces the concept of local grammar and the proposal of extending local grammars to speech act studies. “Corpus and Methodology” section presents the data and methodology used in this study. “Local Grammar Analysis” section offers the detailed local grammar analyses of gratitude expressions, followed by “Results and Discussion” section which summarises the local grammar patterns of thanking identified and discusses the implications and applications of research on local grammars of speech acts. “Conclusion” section concludes this paper, further arguing the importance of adopting a local grammar approach to account for pragmatic functions, or more generally, language used in social contexts.

Local Grammar and Speech Act Studies

We have offered a comprehensive discussion about the concept of local grammar elsewhere (Su 2015, 2017; Su and Wei forthcoming; see also Hunston and Sinclair 2000). Put succinctly, local grammar is an alternative approach, as opposed to traditional or general grammars, to the description and theorising of language in use. It is situated within the framework of what is now widely known as Corpus Linguistics (Sinclair 1991; McEnery and Hardie 2012), though local grammar research is still in its infancy in this linguistic scholarship (Hunston 2002a: 91). The distinctive features of local grammar are, first, it “seeks to account for, not the whole of a language, but one meaning only” (Hunston 2002b: 178) and, second, it assigns functional labels that are far more transparent than those used in general grammars to the corresponding formal or pattern elements (Bednarek 2008: 66), and as such “[w]hen all the relevant patterns of all the relevant lexical items had been parsed in this way, this was to be called a local grammar” (Hunston 2003: 348).

While local grammar is originally proposed to account for those linguistic areas (e.g. numbers, dates, names) which general grammatical analysis could hardly cope with (Gross 1993), it has been shown that local grammar is in fact useful for dealing with all areas of language use, including those which regular grammars could cope quite easily with. This has been exemplified by a number of studies. For example, the pioneering work by Barnbrook and Sinclair (1995, 2001) and Barnbrook (2002) contributed to a local grammar of definition; Hunston and Sinclair (2000) established a local grammar of evaluation; and Cheng and Ching (2016) offered a local grammar of disclaimers to account for disclaiming in company reports. Most recently, Su (2017), using a corpus compiled of scripted TV conversations, developed a local grammar of request. These studies have demonstrated that local grammar descriptions are “more simple, more precise, and more useful” (Hunston and Sinclair 2000: 101).

Furthermore, studies have argued that local grammars may even ‘outperform’ general grammars. Barnbrook and Sinclair (2001), discussing their local grammar of definition, notes that

Experiment will tell us whether the definition grammar is always superior to the general grammar, or whether there are some conditions where it is better to ignore the potential of some sentences as definitions. The likelihood is that such a specialised grammar will outperform a general grammar, and that raises some interesting questions for the future of grammars. (Barnbrook and Sinclair 2001: 273; emphasis added)

In a similar vein, Su and Wei (forthcoming) have argued that, compared with general grammars, local grammars may be particularly more useful to explain how language is used in interactive contexts. This is because local grammar descriptions have advance information of the communicative functions of each analysed unit, that is, local grammar analysis takes into account the functions language fulfills in social contexts (cf. Barnbrook and Sinclair 2001). The upshot of the above discussion is that local grammar is an alternative, or an even more useful, approach to functional-pragmatic studies of language and discourse (cf. Firth 1968), which in turn indicates the significance of local grammar research.

Two lessons we learned from previous studies on local grammars are worth noting. The first is that the development of local grammars relies heavily upon the identification of instances associated with the chosen meaning or function. This has also been pointed out by, for example, Barnbrook and Sinclair (2001: 243) who argue that “local grammars carry an extra burden over general grammars in that they have to identify in the flow of open text the textual units that are relevant to them”. The second, however, is that it is very challenging, if possible at all, to identify really exhaustively instances of that chosen meaning or function, because of the creative nature of both language and its users (cf. Aijmer 1996: 131). This suggests that compromise may be necessary; that is, it is acceptable to develop local grammars based on analysing conventionalised realisations of each meaning or function (see also Su 2017). This is particularly true for research on local grammars of speech acts, as will be discussed below.

The theory of speech act holds the view that in saying something we are also doing something (Austin 1962; Searle 1969). Speech acts are concerned with communicative functions (e.g. request, apologise, thanking), though they are often discussed with respect to illocutionary forces. While early speech act research often uses invented examples, most researchers now draw on authentic data. That is, recently there has been an increasing interest in using corpus methods to investigate speech acts (e.g. Wichmann 2004; Adolphs 2008; Cheng 2010; Jautz 2013; Page 2014; Garcia 2015; Su 2017). This not only helps to avoid the criticism that has been made about speech act theory, i.e. “despite the fact that the theory seems to emphasize language as social action, it has largely ignored actual language in use” (Stubbs 1983, 485), but also contributes to the burgeoning research field—Corpus Pragmatics (e.g. Romero-Trillo 2008; Aijmer and Rühlemann 2015; Mey 2017).

At this point, it is necessary to illustrate both the compatibility of local grammars and speech acts and the feasibility of using a local grammar approach to further speech act studies. As noted at the beginning of this paper, the rationale of extending local grammars to speech act studies is Butler’s (2004: 158) argument that “rather than a single general grammar, we might end up with a set of local grammars for particular areas defined by their communicative functions in the discourse”. Since each speech act is associated with one communicative function and each local grammar, as stated previously, is a grammar of one specific meaning or function, it can be said that local grammars and speech acts are compatible. Furthermore, the observation that realisations of most speech acts are highly conventionalised (Aijmer 1996; Su 2017) indicates the feasibility of using a local grammar approach to account for speech act instances. This is because, as discussed above, the development of local grammars relies heavily upon the identification of instances associated with that chosen meaning or function, and these conventionalised forms are a useful starting point for searching and identifying speech act instances in naturally occurring texts.

This study focuses on thanking, being well aware that there has been a plethora of studies which have investigated extensively this pragmatic function (see, for example, Wong (2010) and Jautz (2013: 6–19) for a comprehensive survey). The difference between the present study and previous research is that, while previous research mostly centres on investigating cross-cultural differences (e.g. Bodman and Eisenstein 1988; Aston 1995), or how thanking is performed by EFL learners (e.g. Hinkel 1994; Kontani 2002), or the functions of thanking formulae (e.g. Aijmer 1996; Jautz 2013), the present study pays special attention to describing, both functionally and grammatically, those conventionalised linguistic realisations of thanking. This is generally an under-explored area, because formulaic expressions appear to be difficult for grammatical analysis, let alone a functional account. For example, Quirk et al. (1985) did not analyse irregular expressions and consider those expressions as “grammatically defective” (ibid: 885); and Aijmer (1996: 41) notes that “thank you and thanks are difficult to describe in grammar”. Moreover, Carter and McCarthy (2017: 2), discussing spoken grammar, point out that “[w]e are still struggling under the burden of a grammatical metalanguage inherited from writing that does not seem always to work for speaking”. It will be shown that local grammars are able to account more adequately for such formulaic or conventionalised expressions frequently used in spoken language, which in turn offers support for our argument that local grammars are an alternative, or an even more useful, approach to language and discourse studies.

Corpus and Methodology

The corpus used for the current investigation is compiled of those texts categorised as ‘Spoken—conversation’1 in the British National Corpus (henceforth BNC-SpoCon). The BNC-SpoCon consists of 153 texts, containing 4,233,962 tokens; and it can be easily accessed via the BNCweb—CQP edition (Hoffman et al. 2008). The reason for using this part of BNC is that the speech act of thanking would be frequently performed in face-to-face conversations, because “[s]peech acts, like thanking, apologizing, requesting, are characteristic of spoken language” (Aijmer 1996: 5). We can then be certain that the BNC-SpoCon would provide numerous examples of thanking formulae as well as their varieties. Additionally, since BNC is openly accessible, other researchers can either replicate our study or extend the proposed local grammar approach to investigate other types of pragmatic functions.

The method used to retrieve instances of thanking is similar to that used in Su (2017) and Su and Wei (forthcoming). Specifically, corpus queries of specific lexical items (e.g. thank, thanks, appreciate) associated with thanking are performed to extract automatically all instances containing those forms in the BNC-SpoCon; and the extracted instances are then manually examined to make sure that all instances to be analysed have the illocutionary force of thanking. The reasons for using this method are explained as follows. First, expressions of gratitude have been shown to be routinised and lexicalised (Aijmer 1996; Cheng 2010; Jautz 2013), which indicates that searching those conventionalised forms would help us to identify a sufficient number of instances associated with thanking. Second, extracted instances are further manually examined because “there is no one-to-one correspondence between linguistic features and speech acts” (Garcia 2015: 47). That is, an item may perform a certain speech act in some contexts but may not in some others. For example, one typical conventionalised form of thanking is thanks, but it does not have the illocutionary force of thanking in She says thanks. The method of combining both computerised search and manual examination can then largely increase the precision, i.e. all instances analysed are gratitude expressions.

While we use a set of specific lexical items as the starting point to identify instances of thanking in the BNC-SpoCon, we acknowledge that this method has some shortcomings. The major drawback is that “the identification of speech acts… is limited to only the forms and phrases that the researcher predicts will carry pragmatic meaning and cannot account for the full range of linguistic forms that are possible, specifically those that the researcher has not predicted to include pragmatic meaning” (Garcia 2015: 29). In other words, “while corpus investigation techniques are useful for searching typical lexico-grammatical constructions that are associated with one particular speech act, corpus search may leave many other speech act utterances which do not contain such conventionalised forms undetected” (Su 2017: 80).

This, however, does not undermine the usefulness of this method, because how speech act instances can be reliably and maximally exhaustively identified in naturally occurring texts is a very challenging issue that every corpus-based speech act study faces. Aijmer (1996: 131), for example, points out that “it is, in principle, impossible to say how many strategies there are linked to a certain function”. What makes it even more challenging is that not all illocutionary forces in English are realised syntactically or lexicalised (Vanderveken 2001: 30); gestures or body language, for example, may also have illocutionary force. Then, what the shortcomings of this method do mean is that compromise would be necessary; that is, it is acceptable to develop local grammars of speech acts based on analysing instances containing those pre-determined forms, as noted earlier. Extra local grammar analysis can be carried out whenever new forms or expressions are found, and new local grammar patterns identified can then be added to supplement the initial local grammars developed.

Having discussed both the advantages and limitations of the method we use, the next question to be addressed is what the conventionalised realisations of thanking are. Drawing on insights from previous investigation (Aijmer 1996; Cheng 2010; Jautz 2013), those lexical items which have been shown to be frequently co-occurring with gratitude expressions, together with their syntactic variations and frequencies in the BNC-SpoCon, are given in Table 1.
Table 1

Thanking items, their structural variations, and their frequencies in the BNC-SpoCon

Item

Variation

Frequency

THANK

thank you/god/goodness/heaven/the lord

1206

 

thank NP adverbial

211

 

thank you proper name

142

 

thank NP for NP/V-ing/that-clause

81

 

thank NP that-clause

23

 

thank NP adverbial for NP/V-ing

19

 

thank you adverbial proper name

17

 

I/we thank NP

5

 

I/we thank NP for

3

 

I/we adverbial thank that-clause

2

  

Subtotal: 1709

THANKS

thanks

430

 

thanks adverbial

128

 

thanks NP

103

 

thanks for NP/V-ing

38

 

thanks adverbial proper name

16

 

thanks adverbial for NP/V-ing

6

  

Subtotal: 721

TA

ta

175

 

ta proper name

25

 

ta NP

19

  

Subtotal: 219

CHEERS

cheers

86

 

cheers proper name

23

 

cheers NP

6

  

Subtotal: 115

APPRECIATE

I/we appreciate NP

13

 

I/we adverbial appreciate NP

4

 

I/we appreciate that-clause

3

 

I/we v-link appreciate NP if

2

  

Subtotal: 22

GRATEFUL

  
 

I/we v-link grateful for/to NP

5

 

ifI/we v-link grateful

4

 

I/we v-link grateful to proper name for NP

3

 

I/we v-link adverbial grateful

2

 

I/we v-link grateful if

2

  

Subtotal: 16

THANKFUL

I/we v-link thankful for NP

3

 

I/we v-link thankful that-clause

2

  

Subtotal: 5

OBLIGED

adverbial obliged

3

 

ifI/we v-link adverbial obliged

1

  

Subtotal: 4

APPRECIATED

NP v-link adverbial appreciated

2

 

it’s adverbial appreciated

1

 

NP v-link appreciated

1

  

Subtotal: 4

  

TOTAL: 2815

Table 1 lists all the linguistic realisations of thanking that are to be examined in the present study. A few points about the data are worth noting. The first is that, unlike Jautz (2013), we did not include expressions such as that’s/is/was nice/good/kind/lovely because we would argue that these expressions are more of compliment than gratitude. This can in a way be reflected by the evaluative prosody of these expressions; that is, gratitude is concerned with the construal of the psychological state of affairs, whereas compliment may be related to an evaluation of something or action performed (see also Taavitsainen and Jucker 2008b: 198). Second, we include expressions such as thank God/goodness/the lord/heaven. This is because, while these expressions appear to be used as expressions of relief or concern, we would concur with Jautz’s (2013: 89) argument that “they still at least echo their original motivation, viz. addressing God or some higher being for something one is grateful”. Moreover, it is also arguable that such expressions have been kind of grammaticalised and their primary function is to express gratitude. Third, items such as ta and cheers may be frequently used in even less formal contexts than other gratitude expressions and may only be of regional use (and, consequently, a variational pragmatic (Schneider and Barron 2008; Bieswanger 2015) investigation into these items would be worthwhile). Finally, although the terms listed in Table 1 may have not covered all the linguistic resources or strategies that are available for thanking, we can be reasonably confident that searching these items can help us to identify a considerable number of gratitude expressions in the BNC-SpoCon, since these items have been shown to be frequently co-occurring with thanking routines.

Local Grammar Analysis

Provided instances of thanking containing those items have been identified, the task for the researcher is then to assign functional labels to corresponding formal elements, which is to be done in this section. For the sake of clarity, the subsequent analyses are grouped into five sets, according to the complexity of the strategies used. The degree of complexity in the present study simply corresponds to the number of functional elements that are needed for each set of analysis—the more functional elements needed, the more complex the strategy used is. Examples are given of each local grammar patterns identified.

The first set of analysis includes those instances which can be easily analysed using one of the core elements—Thanking (Table 2).
Table 2

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking’

Thanking

thank you

thank God

thank goodness

thank heavens

thanks

cheers

ta

thank you/God/goodness/heavens are considered grammaticalised realisations of thanking, as noted above. The difference between them and expressions such as thank you Paul lies in whether or not the addressee is clearly specified, which will be discussed in more detail below (see Table 3). In addition, while these expressions are the most straightforward way to express gratitude, they are not used with equal frequency. In order to provide a fuller picture, we examined the frequency of each expression in the BNC-SpoCon, while being aware that the frequency may vary in other genres or varieties of English (e.g. American English); the quantitative information is given in Fig. 1. The observation that thank you and thanks are used much more frequently than the other terms confirms that the two are indeed the most frequent realisations of gratitude, as noted in, for example, Aijmer (1996) and Jacobsson (2002).
Table 3

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor’

Thanking

Benefactor

thanks

Ray

cheers

Dave

thank

you Laura

ta

Fred

Fig. 1

Idiomatic expressions of gratitude

The second set of analysis leads to the identification of five local grammar patterns. In over half of the instances included in this set, the one who did something good for the benefit of the speaker, labelled ‘Benefactor’, is explicitly presented; these instances realise the pattern Thanking + Benefactor, as shown in Table 3. The other frequently occurring pattern is instantiated by those instances where there is an element, usually adverbs, which upgrades the degree of the gratitude expressed; such element is labelled ‘Intensifier’ (Table 4). A variation of this pattern is that the ‘Intensifier’ comes before the core element ‘Thanking’ (Table 5). Another pattern is instantiated by those instances in which the reason for gratitude is specified; the element that names the reason is labelled ‘Specifier’ throughout this study, as shown in Table 6 (cf. Schauer and Adolphs’ (2006) discussion of ‘thanking + stating reason’).
Table 4

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Intensifier’

Thanking

Intensifier

thanks

a bunch

thanks

very much

Table 5

Gratitude construed as ‘Intensifier + Thanking’

Intensifier

Thanking

much

obliged

very much

obliged

Table 6

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Specifier’

Thanking

Specifier

thanks

for a lovely dinner

thanks

for letting us know

The remaining instances included in this set of analysis, which though are structurally similar to those instances analysed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor’, realise a different local grammar pattern. These instances involve an element (e.g. love, darling, sweetheart) that indicates close or intimate relationship between the interlocutors; this element is labelled ‘Endearment’ throughout the present study. Examples are given in Table 7.
Table 7

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Endearment’

Thanking

Endearment

cheers

honey

thanks

dear

ta

sweetheart

The third set of analysis results in ten local grammar patterns. Two new elements needed for the analysis are identified, which are labelled ‘Beneficiary’—the one who benefits and who therefore performs the speech act of thanking (Tables 8 and 9), and ‘Hinge’—the element that links different element or sometimes signals the speech act of thanking is being performed (Tables 10 and 11).
Table 8

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Thanking + Benefactor’

Beneficiary

Thanking

Benefactor

I

thank

you sir

we

thank

you

Table 9

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Thanking + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Thanking

Specifier

I

appreciate

the miracle of it all

I

appreciate

that the long term we gain…

Table 10

Gratitude construed as ‘Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking’

Specifier

Hinge

Thanking

earlier reply

will be

appreciated

Table 11

Gratitude construed as ‘Specifier + Hinge + Thanking’

Hinge

Intensifier

Thanking

it’s

much

appreciated

The other local grammar patterns instantiated are combinations of functional labels that have been identified so far. They either upgrade the gratitude the Beneficiary expresses to the Benefactor (Tables 12 and 13), or specify the reason for which the Beneficiary is grateful (Tables 14 and 15), or indicate intimate relationships (Tables 16 and 17).
Table 12

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier’

Thanking

Benefactor

Intensifier

thank

Bet

ever so much

thank

you Turan

very much

thank

you

very much indeed

Table 13

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Intensifier + Benefactor’

Thanking

Intensifier

Benefactor

thanks

very much

Chris

thanks

a lot

girls

Table 14

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier’

Thanking

Benefactor

Specifier

thank

you

for telling us

thank

goodness

we didn’t put Michael with them

Table 15

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Intensifier + Specifier’

Thanking

Intensifier

Specifier

thanks

very much

for letting us know

thanks

very much

for your help

Table 16

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Endearment’

Thanking

Benefactor

Endearment

thank

you

love

thank

you

sweetheart

Table 17

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Intensifier + Endearment’

Thanking

Intensifier

Endearment

thanks

very much

dear

thanks

a lot

love

The last two sets of analyses do not lead to the identification of new functional labels, which suggests that the labels identified in the first three sets of analyses have achieved a satisfactory level of granularity. The fourth set of analysis presents nine patterns; they are patterns where: (1) the Beneficiary thanks the Benefactor for something (Table 18), (2) the Beneficiary upgrades his/her sincerity of being grateful (Tables 19 and 20), and (3) the Beneficiary simply expresses his/her gratitude and specifies the reason (Tables 21 and 22).
Table 18

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Thanking

Benefactor

Specifier

we

thank

you

for the call

I

thank

him

for the letter

Table 19

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Intensifier + Thanking + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Intensifier

Thanking

Specifier

I

really

appreciate

it

I

fully really

appreciate

what you are saying

Table 20

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking’

Beneficiary

Hinge

Intensifier

Thanking

I

’m

very

grateful

I

was

really

grateful

Table 21

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Hinge

Thanking

Specifier

I

would

appreciate

it if you could let me have…

we

’re

grateful

for your taking the time to be with us

Table 22

Gratitude construed as ‘Specifier + Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking’

Specifier

Beneficiary

Hinge

Thanking

so as soon as you can let us know

I

’d be

grateful

if you gave me a fiver

I

’d be

grateful

In some other instances analysed in this set, the Beneficiary is not presented, but the Benefactor is explicitly expressed; and the gratitude expressed is often intensified. The difference between these patterns lies in that in some cases the reason for being grateful is specified whereas in some not (Tables 23 and 24), and in some the relationship between the interlocutors has been brought closer by using those linguistic resources which are semantically glossed as ‘Endearment’ (Table 25).
Table 23

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier + Specifier’

Thanking

Benefactor

Intensifier

Specifier

thank

him

very much

for his idea

thank

you

ever so much

for the flowers

Table 24

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier + Benefactor’

Thanking

Benefactor…

Intensifier

…Benefactor

thank

you

very much

John

thank

you

very much

Kathleen

Table 25

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier + Endearment’

Thanking

Benefactor

Intensifier

Endearment

thank

you

very much

my love

thank

you

very much

my dear

One special case in this set of analysis is that both the Beneficiary and Benefactor are not presented, whereas the reason for being grateful is specified (Table 26). This configuration can be seen as a variation of the pattern Specifier + Hinge + Thanking discussed above (see Table 11).
Table 26

Gratitude construed as ‘Specifier + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking’

Specifier

Hinge

Intensifier

Thanking

they

were

very much

appreciated

an early [unclear]

would be

much

appreciated

While local grammar patterns of thanking identified in the last set of analysis seem to be complicated, they are merely variations of basic configurations where the Beneficiary thanks the Benefactor for something (Table 27) and sometimes the Beneficiary upgrades the sincerity of gratitude expressed (Table 28).
Table 27

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Hinge

Thanking

Benefactor

Specifier

we

’re

grateful

to Eileen

for what she is doing

we

’re

grateful

to John

for what he intends to do

Table 28

Gratitude construed as ‘Beneficiary + Intensifier + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier’

Beneficiary

Intensifier

Thanking

Benefactor

Specifier

I

really do

thank

God

I’m at boarding school

I

did

thank

him

for the letter

Another special case found is where the Specifier appears at the beginning of the pattern, as shown in Table 29. It shares similarities with those two patterns presented in Tables 11 and 26.
Table 29

Gratitude construed as ‘Specifier + Beneficiary + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking’

Specifier

Beneficiary

Hinge

Intensifier

Thanking

if you can take it in tomorrow

I

’ll be

much

obliged

The above presents the detailed local grammar analyses of all attested instances of thanking identified by searching those pre-determined specific lexical items in the BNC-SpoCon. What is worth noting is that, while it is clear that sequences ‘I would/’d like to thank NP for…’ and ‘thanks go to NP’ can also be used to express gratitude, no instance containing the two sequences is found in the BNC-SpoCon. The reason may be that the two sequences are likely to be used in more formal situations; since the BNC-SpoCon consists of spontaneous conversations which are relatively informal, it is not surprising that they do not occur in this corpus.

Nevertheless, since our aim of this paper is to develop as comprehensive as we can a local grammar of thanking in English, it is necessary to explore how instances of ‘I would/’d like to thank NP for…’ and ‘thanks go to NP’ can be analysed. We thus searched these two sequences in the whole spoken part of BNC. The search returned 27 hits containing ‘I would/’d like to thank NP for’ and 2 containing ‘thanks go to NP’. The analyses show that the former group of instances can be analysed using the pattern Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier identified in Table 27 (e.g. I [Beneficiary] would like to [Hinge] thank [Thanking] the executive [Beneficiary] for awarding this golden badge [Specifier]), but the latter group leads to the identification of a new pattern, as shown in Table 30.
Table 30

Gratitude construed as ‘Thanking + Hinge + Benefactor’

Thanking

Hinge

Benefactor

my enormous thanks

go to

my own Table, Chester…

special thanks

go to

Betty

Results and Discussion

Based on the analyses, we first summarised the functional labels that are needed for a local grammar analysis of gratitude expressions (Table 31). These functional labels are, arguably, sufficient for a functional-grammatical description of the speech act of thanking, because they are not thought-up, but are proposed based on analysing a large amount of attested instances associated with thanking.
Table 31

Functional labels for a local grammar analysis of gratitude expressions

Label

Explanation

Example

Beneficiary

The one who benefits and thus expresses gratitude.

I am grateful.

Thanking

The verbal act of expressing gratitude.

We thank you.

Benefactor

The one to whom the Beneficiary is grateful.

Thanks Paul.

Hinge

The element that links different elements together.

I am grateful for that.

Specifier

The element that specifies what the Beneficiary is grateful for.

Thank you for coming up.

Intensifier

The element that upgrades the degree of gratitude expressed.

Thanks a bunch.

Endearment

The element that indicates an intimate relationship between interlocutors or that is simply used as an honorific.

Cheers, love.

The analyses identified 29 local grammar patterns of thanking in total, which are summarised in Table 32. Though 29 patterns may be relatively too many for one meaning or function, this is a manageable number and suggests that the local grammar developed has achieved comprehensiveness. Despite that the frequency of each pattern would vary from register to register or from genre to genre, it is arguable that the majority of, if not all, gratitude expressions found in any corpora can be analysed using these patterns.
Table 32

An overview of the local grammar of thanking

Analysis

Local grammar patterns

Frequency

Set 1

Thanking

1897

 

e.g. thanks; cheers.

 
  

Subtotal: 1897

Set 2

Thanking + Benefactor

220

 

e.g. thanks, Tom.

 
 

Thanking + Intensifier

128

 

e.g. thanks ever so much.

 
 

Thanking + Endearment

41

 

e.g. cheers, love.

 
 

Thanking + Specifier

38

 

e.g. thanks for the birthday present.

 
 

Intensifier + Thanking

3

 

e.g. much obliged.

 
  

Subtotal: 430

Set 3

Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier

211

 

e.g. Thank Bet ever so much.

 
 

Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier

104

 

e.g. thanks you for taking time for this interview.

 
 

Thanking + Benefactor + Endearment

57

 

e.g. Thank you darling.

 
 

Beneficiary + Thanking Specifier

15

 

e.g. I appreciate that.

 
 

Thanking + Intensifier + Benefactor

13

 

e.g. thanks a lot, Bill.

 
 

Thanking + Intensifier + Specifier

6

 

e.g. thanks very much for your help.

 
 

Beneficiary + Thanking + Benefactor

5

 

e.g. I thank you all.

 
 

Thanking + Intensifier + Endearment

3

 

e.g. thanks very much, my dear.

 
 

Thanking + Hinge + Benefactor

2

 

e.g. thanks go to Betty

 
 

Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking

1

 

e.g. it’s much appreciated.

 
 

Specifier + Hinge + Thanking

1

 

e.g. an early reply will be appreciated.

 
  

Subtotal: 418

Set 4

Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier + Specifier

19

 

e.g. thank you very much for your time.

 
 

Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Specifier

14

 

e.g. we are grateful to your commitment.

 
 

Thanking + Benefactor … + Intensifier + … Benefactor

13

 

e.g. thank you very much John.

 
 

Beneficiary + Intensifier + Thanking + Specifier

5

 

e.g. I really appreciate it.

 
 

Thanking + Benefactor + Intensifier + Endearment

4

 

e.g. thank you very much, my love.

 
 

Specifier + Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking

4

 

e.g. if she’d do the sleeves and the back for me I’d be grateful.

 
 

Beneficiary + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier

3

 

e.g. we thank you for the call…

 
 

Beneficiary + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking

2

 

e.g. we are very grateful.

 
 

Specifier + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking

2

 

e.g. they were very much appreciated.

 
  

Subtotal: 66

Set 5

Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier

30

 

e.g. we’re grateful to John for what he intends to do.

 
 

Beneficiary + Intensifier + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier

2

 

e.g. I did thank him for the letter.

 
 

Specifier + Beneficiary + Hinge + Intensifier + Thanking

1

 

e.g. if you can take it in tomorrow I’ll be much obliged.

 
  

Subtotal: 33

  

TOTAL: 2844a

aInstances counted in this table include those containing ‘I would/’d like to thank NP for’ and ‘thanks go to NP’

Figure 2 gives the quantitative information about the proportion occupied by patterns identified in each set of analysis, which further confirms that gratitude expressions are indeed largely routinised. The observation that nearly 97% of all the thanking instances found in the BNC-SpoCon can be analysed using those patterns identified in the first three sets of analyses would not be surprising, given that thanking is like our everyday ritual and therefore a simple thank you or thanks would be enough. The more complex patterns identified in sets 4 and 5, accounting for 3%, have some implications though; that is, the more complex the pattern, the sincerer the gratitude expressed is or the more significant the favour is.
Fig. 2

Percentage occupied by each set of analysis

We are now in a position to discuss the implications and applications of the research reported here. Theoretically, local grammar analysis can be used as a heuristic exercise to investigate the link between form and function. The investigation shows that the association between form and function in some cases appears to be consistent whereas in some other cases it is less so. Some conventionalised forms of thanking can be analysed consistently using one local grammar pattern; for example, ‘thanks adverbial’ always corresponds to the pattern Thanking + Intensifier, and ‘thanks adverbial for…’ to Thanking + Intensifier + Specifier. However, there are also a number of cases where there is no one-to-one correspondence. One situation is that one form may need to be analysed using different patterns; for instance, ‘thanks NP’ may be analysed either as Thanking + Benefactor or Thanking + Endearment. Another situation is that one pattern may be realised by more than one form; for example, Beneficiary + Hinge + Thanking + Specifier can be realised either by ‘I/we v-link grateful/thankful for…’ or by ‘I/we v-link grateful/thankful if-/that-clause’ or by ‘I/we v-link appreciate NP if-clause’.

Moreover, each local grammar offers a specialised description of one meaning or function within its specific context (e.g. in the present study, the local grammar we developed provides a specialised description of gratitude expressions in the specific context of thanking). Compared with general grammar descriptions, local grammar descriptions are more simple and transparent. They are simple because each local grammar deals with one meaning or function only; they are transparent because each discourse unit is analysed using a term that is related directly to its function, as shown above. This, on the one hand, indicates the advantages of using a local grammar approach to account for speech acts, or language use in general, and on the other hand, lends support to Barnbrook and Sinclair’s (2001: 273) argument that local grammars may ‘outperform’ general grammars.

Further, research on local grammars of speech acts and other pragmatic functions has pedagogical applications (Su 2017; cf. Carter and McCarthy’s (2017) discussion on spoken grammar and ELT/ESL pedagogy). The importance of formulaic sequences in language teaching and learning has been emphasised by many researchers (e.g. Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992; Ellis 1997; Wray 2000, 2002, 2008; Schmitt 2004), which, however, has not been sufficiently recognised by education practitioners. Take thanking as an example. Schauer and Adophs’ (2006) examination of the presentation of thanking formulae in four textbooks suggests that most thanking formulae are under-represented: two examined text books provide learners only with some basic formulaic sequences and fall short of introducing formulae complemented by for prepositional phrase(s), and thanking formulae presented in the other two textbooks are restricted in their varieties. The reason for this may be that such formulae have not been comprehensively identified and adequately described.

Three features of the kind of research presented in this paper, then, make it useful for language teaching. The first is that such research can identify (probably most) comprehensively the linguistic resources that are available for expressing one particular communicative function. In the present study, for example, we have identified those linguistic resources for expressing gratitude (see Table 1). Second, this kind of research identifies both formal variations and their corresponding functional patterns, which contributes substantially to the repertoire of strategies that can be employed by EFL learners to express gratitude. As demonstrated in the present study, not only formal strategies have been identified that are frequently used by native speakers to express gratitude, but also the corresponding local grammar patterns (see Table 32). Third, local grammar descriptions are more simple and transparent, as discussed above. Apart from indicating that local grammars may work better than general grammars, this suggests that local grammar descriptions are more informative for language teaching, because it is more useful to know an element in terms of its discourse or communicative function than in grammatical terms (see also Hunston 2002a: 157); that is, in the case of thanking, it would be more practical to know an element, for example, as ‘Beneficiary’ than as ‘Subject’. It is in these respects that it can be argued that our study, or research on local grammars of communicative functions in general, is useful for instructing EFL learners about how one particular function can be performed appropriately. This further helps to improve EFL learners’ communicative competence.

Conclusion

This study has presented a local grammar of thanking in English, comprising 29 local grammar patterns, which further demonstrates the feasibility of using a local grammar approach to account for speech act realisations and the usefulness of corpus methods in pragmatic investigation. It has been shown that local grammars can provide a functional-grammatical description of speech act realisations. Specifically, local grammar takes into account the functions language fulfils in social contexts and therefore analyses each discourse unit in terms that are directly related to its discoursal or communicative function. Hence, local grammar is in essence a functional account of language in use. At the same time, functional labels used in local grammar analyses also resemble traditional grammatical elements. For example, local grammars would analyse the instance we thank you for your help as ‘Beneficiary + Thanking + Benefactor + Specifier’, which is to some extent similar to that analysed in general grammars, i.e. ‘Subject + Predicate + Object + Complement’. This shows that the resulting local grammar descriptions capture both the functional and grammatical aspects of speech act realisations and therefore are more useful. It has thus been further argued that local grammars of speech acts have pedagogical applications.

Overall, this study has offered empirical evidence to support Butler’s (2004) argument that local grammars can greatly facilitate the description of language used in social contexts, which alone would indicate that more investigation into local grammars of communicative/discoursal functions are desirable and valuable. Such investigation will ultimately contribute to corpus linguistics, pragmatics, and corpus pragmatics in general.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    See Lee (2001) for a detailed discussion of the classification of texts in BNC.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This study is supported by China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (Grant No.: 2016M600026). The author thanks the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. Any remaining errors are mine.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Foreign LanguagesBeihang UniversityBeijingChina

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