This page was last updated on: February 23, 2005

About directives in general
Childrens's progress on directives & politeness
Analyzing children's discourse in terms of assymetrical power relations
Analyzing children's discourse in terms of 'recipient design'
Further Introductory Reading


A directive is a speech act that involves the speaker requesting the hearer to provide either 'goods'
"Pass the salt" "I want some more candy"
or 'services'
"Clean up your room" "Stop hitting me."

The most 'direct' form of directive is in the imperative form:
"Clean up your room."

But this same command could also be phrased more indirectly...

As a question in the interrogative form  with varying degrees of directness:
"Can you clean your room?"  "How many times have I told you to clean up you room?"

As a statement in the declarative form:
"This room is a mess." "Your Gran won't like this messy room."

The form of directives is determined by several factors, all of which interact with each other...

Vertical Social Distance  The more unequal two speakers are in terms of power or status, the greater the vertical social distance between them.

Horizontal Social Distance The less intimacy between two speakers, the less well they know each other, the greater the horizontal social distance between them.

Cost/benefit of the 'goods' or 'services' being requested. Directives which are likely to involve a high cost for the recipient of the directive and/or result in a high benefit for the person making the directive, tend to be more polite, and more indirect.

The need for clarity and therefore immediate understanding.  The most indirect directives take longer to understand. Compare:
"Evacuate the building!"  and "I think we should leave the building."

The need to preserve 'face'. 'Positive face' involves people wanting to feel part of a group and an intimacy with its members. 'Negative face' involves people not wishing to be imposed upon. Speakers will chose a form of directive which may orient to preserving either the hearer's positive or negative face.  Similarly, the speaker will be aiming to preserve their own 'face' as well. Asking for something in a completely unambiguous, direct way, carries a higher risk of outright refusal. Indirect directives, and especially 'hints', leave both speaker and hearer an escape route.                                                                                                         


The ages given below are a rough indication as to when these forms emerge.  Some of them are directly related to children's progress in acquiring syntax.  For example, Embedded Requests (4) require the use of auxiliary verbs.  Others are more related to children's social maturity and their ability to take the perspective of their hearer.  Note that Elaborate Oblique Strategies - desire not mentioned (8) tend to be produced on a regular basis at 5+, although the example given is actually from a 4 year old. This typology of directives is based on  S. Ervin-Tripp (1977) 'Wait for me, roller skate!' in S. Ervin-Tripp and M. Keenan (eds), Child Discourse, New York: Academic Press.

1. Prelinguistic Directives 0;9 - 1;3
An example would be Nigel who used nananana spoken at mid-pitch to mean "give me that object.
(Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.) Such directives are often accompanied by pointing

2. Telegraphic Directives 1;3 - 2;0
That mine. Gimme. More cookie.

3. Limited Routines 2:0 - 2:4
Where's my X / What's that? / Is there X? / I need X. = Give me X

4. Embedded requests 2;4 - 3;8
Can I have big boy shoes? Could you give me one?

5. Advanced Embedding 3;8 - 5;7
Don't forget to buy some candy.  Why don't you buy some candy?

6. Hints 2:5 - 4+
I can't do it, Daddy. = Do it for me.

7. Elaborate Oblique Strategies - desire mentioned 4+
We haven't had any candy for a long time.

8. Elaborate Oblique Strategies - desire not mentioned 5 +
In this conversation 4 year old Sophie (C) uses quite a Machiavellian approach. It is only under questioning from her mother (M) that she reveals her real reason for asking for cucumber for lunch
   C: I got a headache.
   M: oh darling. have you?
   C: mmm. can we have some cucumber for lunch?
   M: cucumber? yeah. if you want to.
   C: cuz I need some. I need a cool bit.
   M: you need some cucumber do you?
   C: cuz I need the cold bit to spread on my face and it goes away.
   M: oh Sophie.          
   C: cuz it does, Mummy.
   M: yes. but who on earth have you seen putting cucumber on their face?
   C: what?
   M: who have you seen put cucumber on their face?
   C: Griselda.
(Data from Fletcher, P. (1988), A Child's Learning of English by Paul Fletcher. Oxford: Blackwell)



In the context of children's discourse, vertical distance, and therefore asymmetrical power and status between speaker and hearer, can result from:
- Age differences between two or more children in a conversation, with the older child generally in the more powerful position.
- The adult/child relationship per se,
- Additional authority, e.g. teacher/pupil, parent/child (arguably, a parent has more power over her own child than other children, although children may not necessarily perceive this to be the case)
- Gender issues in 'mixed' conversations

'More Powerful' Party may:
- retain greater control over topic (both in initiating a new topic and maintaining the current one)
- retain greater control over turn-taking and feel free to interrupt or overlap the less powerful party
- use a relatively high proportion of  'directive' and 'instructive' talk, including talk about how the conversation itself should proceed, e.g. "Don't say that", "Don't interrupt", etc.
- engage in 'talking over' - talking about a person in their presence to a third party and referring to them as we or she/he
- repair or reformulate the less powerful person's conversational contributions to produce a 'privileged interpretation'
- use more question tags, e.g. "That's nice, isn't it ?" which 'position' the hearer to agree with the speaker

'Less Powerful Party' may:
- use more hedges, mitigations, indirect directives and 'hints', and in general, use a relatively lower proportion of 'directive' and 'instructive' talk
- have their topic initiations ignored
- be interrupted and overlapped more often
- feel less free to interrupt or overlap the more powerful party, and if interrupted/overlapped be less likely to insist on 'having their say'

These are only rough guidelines. The problem of analysing conversational asymmetry in children's discourse in terms of power differentials is considerably complicated by the fact that young children lack linguistic skills and social and cognitive maturity.

While indirectly contributing to their relatively less powerful position, this also means that asymmetry may result because young children find it difficult to:
- Monitor the conversation for transition relevant points with sufficient speed or accuracy, which causes turn-taking problems, especially in multi-party conversations (as opposed to dyads).
- Establish a topic adequately and be able to keep it going, especially in multi-party conversations
- Convey their intended meaning clearly, and are therefore are more likely to have their utterances ignored, repaired, expanded, or re-formulated by others
- Use and understand indirect directives and 'hints' as opposed to blunt commands and direct requests



In analyzing the degree to which a speaker shows Recipient Design, we can look for these features:

1. Produces appropriately polite utterances for that particular recipient in that particular situation. 'Appropriateness' will be affected by horizontal social distance between sender and recipient (degree of intimacy); vertical social distance between sender and recipient (relative status and power); social cost to the recipient of the request or statement being made.

2. Shows an ability to adapt to the recipient's background knowledge and perspective
Related to Grice's Maxim of Quantity. This involves providing an adequate balance between given and new information. Young children often have trouble with making the referent clear, wrongly assuming that their conversational partners share the same visual perspective or the same degree of background knowledge or information. This is especially so when they attempt to use 3rd person pronouns (she, he, it, they) and deictic visual and spatial terms such as here, there, this, that. They also have trouble knowing when to use a definite determiner the (for something 'given', i.e. known by the recipient) and an indefinite determiner a (for a 'new' referent, something not known to the recipient).

3. Produces conversational contributions that are relevant to the current conversational topic or if not relevant, clearly signals to the recipient that the topic is being changed
Related to Grice's Maxim of Relevance. See MacTear Chapter 6; the article 'Topic as a discourse notion' in Acquiring Conversational Competence; the article 'Making it last: repetition in children's discourse'  in 
Acquiring Conversational Competence;
'Children's verbal turn-taking' in Developmental Pragmatics. These discuss children's problems in this area and in 4. below.

4. Speaks sufficiently clearly for the recipient to understand
Related to the Maxim of Clarity. It can be observed in children as young as 3 or 4, that they will adapt their speech when speaking to a child younger than they are, making it clearer and simpler than the language they use with older children or adults. See also, Harris & Coltheart, Language Processing in Children and Adults, Chapter 3, especially, section 3.5. (also useful for 2. above)
Because very young children still have a fairly small vocabulary, limited syntactic skills, and immature pronunciation, they often unintentionally violate the Maxim of Clarity - they can't help it. However, young children can show recipient design if they appear to run 'a communication check' every once in a while to see if they have been understood and if, when they realize that the recipient has not understood them or has explicitly requested clarification, they attempt to reformulate what they just said to make it more understandable to the recipient. In other words, they show that they are attending to and responding to listener feedback on their utterances.


Introductory reading on Child Directed Speech (CDS) and Directives...
J. Peccei, 1999, Child Language 2nd Edition, Unit 8: Learning how to have a conversation
J. Peccei, 1999, 'Language and Age' in L. Thomas & S. Wareing (eds) Language, Society and Power

More advanced  reading but an excellent summary of the past and current work done on CDS and its role in the language acquisition process...
Snow,C. 1995, 'Issues in the Study of the Input' in Fletcher, P. and MacWhinney, B. (eds.), 1995, The Handbook of Child Language, Oxford: Blackwell.

A useful overview of the issues involved in Recipient Design can be found in...
J. Gleason (ed.), 1997, The Development of Language, Chapter 6 'Language in Social Contexts'.

For an introduction to Conversational Maxims, the Cooperative Principle, and Politeness see...
J. Peccei, 1999, Pragmatics, Units 4, 5 and 8.

For more advanced reading, see Approaches to Language Acquisition - Further Bibliography