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Functions of Compliments
In American English we use compliments for a variety of reasons:
- To express admiration or approval of someones work/appearance/taste (Manes, 1983; Herbert, 1990).
- To establish/confirm/maintain solidarity (Manes & Wolfson, 1981; Wolfson, 1989).
- To replace greetings/gratitude/apologies/congratulations (Wolfson, 1983, 1989).
- To soften face-threatening acts such as apologies, requests and criticism (Brown & Levinson, 1978; Wolfson, 1983).
- To open and sustain conversation (conversation strategy) (Wolfson, 1983; Billmyer, 1990; Dunham, 1992).
- To reinforce desired behavior (Manes, 1983).
Major compliment topics can be classified into 3 categories:
Compliments on someones appearance or possessions are the most
common type of compliments in American English. "Your blouse looks
beautiful!" is an example of an adjectival compliment.
About 2/3 of adjectival compliments use the words nice, good,
pretty, great, or beautiful (Manes
& Wolfson, 1981). Good is often used for performance
and nice is mostly used for appearance/attire (Knapp
et al., 1984 [©]).
"I really love your car!" is an example of a compliment that contains a semantically positive verb. Like or love are used 90% of the time in this type of compliment. Some other semantically positive verbs that are used would be admire and be impressed (Wolfson, 1989).
"You did a good job!" and "You are such a wonderful writer"
are examples of compliments on performance/skills/abilities.
Concise compliments such as "Nice shot!" are typically given by male speakers (Herbert, 1990 [©]).
- personality traits
In terms of sentence structure, compliments in American English can be classified into 9 categories.
NP = noun phrase
ADJ = adjective
PRO = pronoun
V = verb
ADV = adverb
- Your blouse is/looks (really) beautiful. (NP is/looks (really) ADJ)
- I (really) like/love your car. (I (really) like/love NP)
- Thats a (really) nice wall hanging. (PRO is (really) a ADJ NP)
- You did a (really) good job. (You V a (really) ADV NP)
- You really handled that situation well. (You V (NP) (really) ADV)
- You have such beautiful hair! (You have (a) ADJ NP!)
- What a lovely baby you have! (What (a) ADJ NP!)
- Nice game! (ADJ NP!)
- Isnt your ring beautiful! (Isnt NP ADJ!)
Above passages from Manes & Wolfson (1981), p. 120.
Responses to Compliments
As noted in the introduction to this website, and at the beginning of this compliment page, Americans rarely accept compliments. Deflecting or rejecting compliments negates the implication that the addressee is superior to the speaker in any way. In American English, the preference of response strategies other than acceptance may be related to the notion of democracy and equality of all human beings (Herbert & Straight, 1989, p. 39 [©]).
Compliment Response Strategies
- Appreciation Token (Thanks/Thank you)*
- Comment Acceptance (Yeah, its my favorite, too)*
- Praise Upgrade (Really brings out the blue in my eyes, doesnt it?)**
- Comment History (I bought it for the trip to Arizona)**
- Shift credit (My brother gave it to me/It really knitted itself)**
- Questioning or Request Reassurance/Repetition (Do you really like them?)*
- Return (Sos yours)**
- Scale Down/Downgrade (Its really quite old)**
- Disagreeing Utterance (A: You look good and healthy. B: I feel fat)*
- No Response**
- Request Interpretation**
- Addressee interprets the compliment as a request: (You wanna borrow this one too?)
Above passages adapted from *Nelson, Al-Batal, & Echols (1996), p.419 and **Herbert, 1990, p. 208 [©].
Gender Differences in American Compliments
There are some interesting gender differences in the giving of compliments:
- Compliments given by female speakers tend to have a personal focus and use 1st and 2nd person pronouns: "I love your purse!" "You look great!" (Herbert, 1990 [©]).
- Compliments given by male speakers are often impersonal: "Nice game!" "Good job!" (Herbert, 1990 [©]; Holmes, 1988 [©]).
- Women give and receive significantly more compliments to each other than they do to men or men do to each other (Holmes, 1988 [©]).
- Male compliments are more likely to be accepted than female compliments (Herbert, 1990 [©]).
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