Corpus Pragmatics

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 107–112 | Cite as

Review of Mock Politeness in English and Italian: A Corpus-Assisted Metalanguage Analysis

Charlotte Taylor, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 2016 (hardback), ISBN: 978-90-272-5672-0
  • Puyu Ning
Book Review


Charlotte Taylor’s book is a pioneering attempt to examine mock politeness from a first-order participant perspective, using an innovative approach that combines corpus linguistics with im/politeness theory. As one of the primary distinctions made in the study, the first and second-order concepts of im/politeness refer to the participants’ perception and the researcher’s theoretical understanding of the im/polite behaviour, respectively. The volume fits into a growing trend of research interest in impoliteness and conflictive interactions. Taylor argues that she goes beyond the limitation of previous studies on mock politeness, by presenting a detailed empirical analysis of naturally occurring data across (British) English and Italian. The analysis convincingly shows that there is a wide range of mock polite behaviours to be explored. Taylor’s research also demonstrates the considerable variation of functions and structures of mock politeness across the (British) English and Italian corpora. Thus, this volume casts light on a number of interesting questions that surround the study of mock politeness.

Summary of the Content

In Chapter 1 Taylor brings together research into mock politeness from different academic fields, and provides a concise but comprehensive definition of mock politeness in which the phenomenon of mismatch between evaluations of impoliteness is addressed. Following this, she defines the main theme of mock politeness as a phenomenon that occurs when there is an im/politeness mismatch leading to an implicature of impoliteness.” (p. 3). Taylor then introduces the major research questions of her research: (1) what metapragmatic labels are used in the (British) English and Italian corpora; (2) how do these labels and the behaviours they refer to relate to one another within and across the languages studied; (3) what is the relationship between the first-order real use of such metapragmatic labels and (a) the behaviours they describe, and (b) the second-order descriptions.

Since the 1990s the advancement of corpus tools has brought new perspectives and methodologies to linguistics. With her research being rooted in corpus approaches, Taylor proposes an innovative combination of pragmatic theories and corpus linguistics methodology. With abundant authentic corpora collected, Taylor incorporates corpus analysis into pragmatic research on mock politeness, hence combining the descriptive potential of the corpus method with the interpretative power of the im/politeness theories.

Besides its innovative methodology, cross-cultural perspective is another noteworthy feature of Taylor’s research. As English is commonly used as an academic lingua franca, most theories of linguistic politeness use English as metalanguage, which confines such research when it comes to the study of other language and culture. Italian offers a linguistic analytic landscape with very different cultural background from English, and as such it provides alternative insights into the evaluations and metalanguage of mock politeness. Accordingly, Taylor’s work aims to investigate the applicability of second-order theories across (British) English and Italian corpora of naturally occurring data.

Chapters 2–4 provide an overview of literature on mock politeness. Taylor surveys a vast amount of research on im/politeness, to point out what makes the study of mock politeness particularly challenging; she argues that the most difficult factor for the expert is that there is a wide variety of definitions of this phenomenon. Taylor adopts the notion of “mixed messages” coined by Culpeper (2011) to explain the mismatch of im/politeness as the main operator of mock politeness utterances, which “mix features which point towards a polite interpretation and features that point towards an impolite interpretation” (Culpeper 2011: 165–166). Drawing on her previous investigation of im/politeness mismatch (Taylor 2011), Taylor conceptualises a continuum of mock politeness structures with external (contextual) mismatch and internal (co-textual) mismatch at the two ends of the continuum. As mock politeness has been studied in different disciplines, such as social psychology, cognitive, psychological and linguistic studies, and under various names like ‘patronising’, ‘condescending’, ‘irony and sarcasm’, etc., Taylor argues that only a first-order examination of the real usage can provide a summative overview of this phenomenon. By arguing that facework is an important component in im/politeness, Taylor adopts Spencer-Oatey’s analytic frame for face (Spencer-Oatey 2000, 2002, 2008) to define impoliteness as “behaviour that is evaluated by a participant as attacking face or sociality rights in a particular context” (p. 56). She adopts a metalanguage/metapragmatic approach in her research, by which she investigates the evaluation of the im/politeness behaviours from the perspective of the participants, and examines the different cultural conceptualisation of the metalanguage terms.

In Chapter 5, Taylor makes a survey of the methodological approaches adopted to investigate mock politeness. She also demonstrates the strong relevance of concepts from corpus linguistics for the study of im/politeness. She argues that a key to rigorous research using the corpus method is to utilise sufficiently large corpora. The development of online communication, social media and Internet publishing has made vast electronic language text data available on an unprecedented scale. Consequently, the collections of large-sized data has become more feasible than previously. Taylor focuses her investigation on naturally occurring data from both the (British) English and Italian online forums.

In Chapter 6, Taylor explains how her corpora have been collected and which corpus tools and approaches she has used. She presents online data from the UK-based forum and the Italian-language forum She has filtered the webpages with specific search-terms and added the selected webpage data into the corpora using the data collection tool BootCaT. A critical step in corpus analysis is annotating the corpora. Taylor’s corpora annotation has been automatized, but this approach still requires some manual mark-up, also because, according to Taylor, such manual work is unavoidable when it comes to metapragmatic annotation. In order to ensure the annotation is done with the highest possible validity and reliability, Taylor drafted a uniform set of questions to identify different metapragmatic labels, and she revisited the annotation made with an interval of at least 2 months to check the reliability of the categories assigned earlier. Wordsmith, Sketch Engine and Collocational Network Explorer (CONE) have been employed in her research as corpus analysis tools. While CONE saves much manual work in a display of the collocational network, Taylor points out that this programme also has various limitations.

In Chapter 7, Taylor focuses on the actual use of the metapragmatic terms irony and sarcasm in the corpora built from both the (British) English and Italian online forums, including their own co-occurrences and their co-occurrences with explicit im/politeness labels impolite and rude. The findings reveal that while being sarcastic bears unfavourable evaluation in both (British) English and Italian corpora, being ironic is not associated explicitly with im/politeness evaluations in the (British) English data, while it triggers favourable politeness-related evaluations in the Italian data. With the help of Sketch Engine thesaurus function, Taylor collects the words that occur within similar lexical environments to ironic or sarcastic, the synonyms of the terms, and marks the favourable and unfavourable evaluation of these words. She then argues that sarcastic behaviours are more strongly associated with negative evaluation in both corpora; however, in the Italian data, both sarcastic and ironic are associated with more favourable behaviours, especially with someone being ironic. Thus, there are indeed language/cultural variations in the first-order perception of such metapragmatic terms. Following this, Taylor conducts further investigation by delivering more detailed annotation of the corpora to examine the relationship between these metalexemes and their users. Her research shows that people on both the (British) English and Italian forums prefer commenting on their own behaviours. Gender analysis shows male behaviours are more likely to be labelled as sarcastic in the first-order evaluations. Male participants are evaluated favourably for being sarcastic as a personality trait in Italian data.

As Chapter 7 performs a metalanguage level first-order evaluation from the corpora, in Chapter 8, Taylor examines the actual behaviours and acts, by using 191 instances from the corpora, which had been positively or negatively labelled as ironic or sarcastic. She analyses facework in the behaviours and impoliteness mismatch instances that she annotated as ironic and sarcastic. The findings show that both irony and sarcasm are used less frequently to refer to mock politeness than second-order theorisation tends to assume. The analysis also shows that while irony and sarcasm are perceived as distinct behaviours in the (British) English data, they are functioning more similarly in the Italian data, though irony plays more varied roles than the second-order theorisation anticipated. Thus the first order ironic and sarcastic behaviours are more language and cultural specific. In addition, the second-order theorised terms may refer to very different behaviours to the first-order participant.

In Chapter 9, Taylor examines other terms that indicate mock politeness in real life interactions. Following the work done by Culpeper (2009, 2011) and Partington (2007), Taylor explores the use of a range of alternative mock politeness labels in the corpora. Taking the criteria of im/politeness mismatch and the perception of being impolite by the participants, she identifies overly polite, TEASE, cutting, caustic, MAKE FUN, MOCK, passive aggressive, bitchy, put down, patronising and condescending in English, and PRENDERE IN GIRO, viperis*, DERIDERE, SUBDOLO, PUNGENTE, CANZONARE, BEFFARE, sadis* and patenalis* in Italian (p. 177).

In addition, Taylor also finds that the behaviours that were labelled by this list of terms do not consistently involve mock politeness, which means that “mock politeness appears to be one means of performing impoliteness using indirect methods and the semantic conceptualisation is focussed on the implicational nature of the impoliteness”(p. 177). She also argues that contextual features, the participants’ roles, social variables like age and gender influence the use of mock politeness, and concludes that such factors contribute to the choice of a particular descriptor of mock politeness.

In Chapter 10, focusing on the structures of mismatch, Taylor adopts Spencer-Oatey’s model of face and sociality rights and presents four mismatch types across the corpora, namely the mismatch of favourable evaluation of face and attack on face; the mismatch of favourable evaluation of face and violation of sociality rights; the mismatch of upholding sociality rights and violation of sociality rights; the mismatch of upholding sociality rights and attack on face. Across the two language corpora, Taylor then explores the frequency of the metapragmatic labels in the mismatch structure and the function of mock politeness.

Finally, Chapter 11 draws the conclusions of this investigation by answering the basic research questions, and provides new orientations for future research.


Taylor’s book serves as an eye-opening pilot study into mock politeness and offers high potential for more substantial breakthroughs in this specific area. The participants’ perspectives observed in the research provide much inspiration for second-order theorisation. Moreover, although there have been numerous cross-cultural pragmatic studies on im/politeness, little research has been conducted based on well-tagged corpora of authentic naturally occurring interactions, which makes Taylor’s study highly innovative.

In addition, Taylor’s research of mock politeness has paved the way for methodological innovation in related linguistic areas and beyond. The fast development of Internet technology and social media provides an amazing authentic corpus resource for observing and investigating various interactions. A huge advantage of using corpus analysis is that the analyst can test assumptions by using large datasets. In the second wave of politeness research there has been an emphasis on avoiding making generalisations (see Grainger 2011; Kádár 2017). Taylor’s research makes an important step in this direction, by drawing out dimensions of variation in terms of evaluation, facework and mismatch structures in mock politeness.

As data obtained from the Internet has become popular in corpus analysis, it will be important for future research to take the distinct stylistic features of cyber language into consideration when it comes to the study of linguistic politeness. As Kádár and Haugh (2013) remind us, culture is “a much more inclusive notion than simply referring to nationality” (p. 235), cultural variations other than on the national or language level, such as different generational groups should constitute cultural groups as well. Similarly, it can be claimed that Internet forum users form a distinct cultural group, besides the age and gender groups that also apply and have been studied by Taylor as social variables in the present research. It would have been fortunate for this research to take this aspect of culture on board in the analysis.

Having made this minor criticism, I believe that Taylor’s work is a must-read.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MTA NYTI Lendület Interactional Ritual Research Group, Research Institute for LinguisticsHungarian Academy of SciencesBudapestHungary
  2. 2.School of Foreign LanguagesNorth China Electric Power UniversityBeijingChina

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