A corpus pragmatic analysis of spoken English business communication

Activity: Talk or presentationScience to science


British culture is said to be characterised by off-record or negative politeness (Blum-Kulka, 1987) and norms giving prominence to social distance (Bargiela-Chiappini & Kádár, 2011). Work constituting variational pragmatics (Barron & Schneider, 2008) has shown that politeness differs across speakers and contexts. Culpeper and Gillings (2018) found that there are differences in what politeness type is used depending on one’s sociolinguistic background.

In the present study, I investigate whether a nuanced politeness pattern based on linguistic variables can also be found in a specialised (in this case, business) context using the 1-million-word Cambridge and Nottingham Business English Corpus (CANBEC) (Handford, 2010). The corpus contains rich (sociolinguistic) speaker metadata, allowing for various comparisons, for example between genders and professions. Crucially for pragmatic analysis, CANBEC also contains metadata on the context of the interaction (Handford, 2010).

I selected 50 key British formulaic politeness expressions, each allotted to one of three types of politeness (tentativeness, deference or solidarity), and differing levels of formality (e.g., relatively formal goodbye versus relatively informal bye). The selection of expressions was driven by academic literature and/or non-academic literature (e.g., newspaper articles complaining about politeness); my own knowledge of politeness practices; or extrapolations from other expressions (e.g., thank you would lead to a consideration of thanks, ta, cheers). Instances of these 50 expressions were retrieved from CANBEC, and then manually screened to remove non-genuine cases of politeness (e.g., sarcasm).

I applied a linear mixed-effects model to analyse the effect of each social variable on the use of politeness expressions. Clear differences across politeness types and levels of formality emerged. There is also an observable difference in politeness usage based on job level, and between speakers of different ages. There are likely to be multiple and complex reasons for each finding; I will offer some tentative possibilities.

Bargiela-Chiappini, F., & Kádár, D. (eds.). (2011). Politeness Across Cultures. London: Palgrave
Blum-Kulka, S. 1987. “Indirectness and politeness in requests: Same or different?” Journal of
Pragmatics, 11, 131-146.
Culpeper, J. & Gillings, M. (2018). “Politeness variation in England: A North-South divide?” In V.
Brezina, R. Love, and K. Aijmer (Eds.), Corpus Approaches to Contemporary British Speech: Sociolinguistic studies of the Spoken BNC2014. New York: Routledge.
Schneider, K. P., & Barron, A. (eds.). (2008). Variational pragmatics: A focus on regional varieties in pluricentric languages (Vol. 178). John Benjamins Publishing.
Handford, M. (2010). The Language of Business Meetings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Period4 Jul 2023
Event titleCorpus Linguistics 2023
Event typeConference
LocationLancaster, United KingdomShow on map


  • pragmatics
  • corpus linguistics
  • business communication