Friday, 6 November 2009


The English National Opera at the Colisseum Theatre has surtitles despite all their operas being in English (I find them helpful).

When you enter the theatre the screen is showing, alternately,

Welcome to the London Colisseum
Please ensure that all mobile phones are switched off


Welcome to the London Colisseum
Write a review

This poses an interesting question. It’s polite to say ‘please’ when you ask for something, which is why it says ‘Please ensure...’. Isn’t it then rude and peremptory to say ‘Write a review’?

No--I don’t think we do find it rude. So what’s going on?

Unlike the surtitles we get once the show has started, these messages are directly addressed to the audience with the intention of affecting their behaviour; the hoped-for response is an action. The difference is in the weight the ENO places on each address.

They really seriously want you to turn your phone off. Because the request is so serious it has to be made seriously polite. Just “Turn your phone off’ might well be taken as rude because it’s undisguisedly an order and one you’re really expected to act on, and we don’t take kindly to being bossed around. It risks reading like, ‘Do we really have to tell you to turn your phone off for a performance, you thoughtless fool?’

The politeness is done elaborately, almost to the point of ridiculousness: how can I, a single reader, not knowing anyone beyond perhaps an immediate neighbour, be supposed to ‘ensure’ that all the phones in the theatre are off? Or is the entire house supposed to come together in some fine upsurge of collective will? It suggests, moreover, that my response is to be some sort of ‘ensuring’ rather than the brutal actuality of (what they’re really after) switching my own phone off, which of course I should have already thought of.

‘Write a review’ on the other hand, while grammatically an imperative, is no more an order than the instruction in a recipe or a suggestion in an ice cream place to ‘Try our new flavours’. It implies, ‘Why not...?’ and as a speech act (ie *pragmatically) is in invitation or suggestion.

In fact, if we get a straight imperative like ‘Write’ in a situation like this, that’s a clue that the speech act isn’t an order. If it were the imposition of some near-compulsory regulation, we’d recognise it by it’s non-imperative form. If we were in a classroom or on a parade ground or in some firm run by Alan Sugar, our linguistic/pragmatic interpretive frames would be different.

(We shouldn’t, then, be telling kids that ‘an imperative is for giving commands’. It is, but only sometimes. Like the ‘present tense’ isn’t about contemporaneity: ‘I'm arriving tomorrow’.)

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