Topic 28 – Macro-functions of language to express the commonest habitual communicative intentions: Establishing relationships; Asking for and giving information about things, people or actions; Expressing intellectual and emotional attitudes

Topic 28 – Macro-functions of language to express the commonest habitual communicative intentions: Establishing relationships; Asking for and giving information about things, people or actions; Expressing intellectual and emotional attitudes



· Context of situation

· Semantics

· Pragmatics


Ø Basic communicative needs



The term macro-linguistics is an extremely broad conception of linguistic enquiry promoted essentially in the 1950s: language is seen in its overall relation to extralinguistic experience. A contrast is drawn with micro-linguistics which is the analysis of linguistic data involving maximum depth of detail.

This topic deals with the former domain of linguistic research, paying special attention to the ways of expressing the most common communicative intentions in daily life situations.

But first and foremost and before entering in depth with the core of the topic, we are to give a brief overview to the possible contexts in which those macro-functions can occur, that is explaining speech acts as well as both fields of language Semantics and Pragmatics.


The meaning of the words we utter in a sentence may or may not be influenced by external factors (situation the speaker is in, body language, intonation…). For example, if we say: ‘Do you know what time it is?’ This sentence unaffected by external factors conveys the information that I want my addressee to tell me the time. However, if the context is a class in a Secondary School and a pupil enters the room 10 minutes late, the teacher could say the same sentence but the intonation and the meaning conveyed would change: the teacher is not asking for the time but wants the student to realise that he/she is late. So the context in which the action takes place (Þ context of situation) is really important to give a full meaning to the sentence. In speech the intonation is also a clue to infer the meaning; in written language, the lack of speech may be replaced by italics.

This explanation leads us to conclude that sometimes when speaking the information conveyed goes further the words themselves. In fact, when we speak, we convey three kinds of information:

– general information: basic information of the utterance ® SEMANTICS

– contextual information: information derived from the linguistic expression ® PRAGMATICS

– situational information: information derived from what the participants perceive or experience within the situation in which interaction takes place ® SOCIAL CONTEXT

Now we are to analyse the three of them.


In order to study the use of language in society we need to bear in mind what the social context of meaning is. It can be defined as the environment in which meanings are exchanged and it can be analysed in terms of three factors that help us determine the meanings expressed (Halliday):

Ø The FIELD of discourse: it includes the message and the purpose of the speaker ® ‘what is happening and what is being talked about’

Ø The TENOR of discourse: it refers to the participants that are taking part in the interaction, and their nature (status, social relations, role they play) ® ‘who they are and what kind of relationship they have to one another’

Ø The MODE of discourse: it refers to the way in which the language is organised to convey the meaning (function of the text) and what channel is used (spoken or written), the genre or rhetorical mode (narrative, didactic, persuasive…) ® ‘effects of verbal action’.


Meaning can be interpreted by means of the propositional content of an utterance and it constitutes the domain of Semantics.

Meaning is an essential factor to understand the functions of language, that is, depending on the meaning we carry on one function or another.

There are different types of meaning:

· Conceptual meaning: it is the content of the utterance as such.

· Connotative meaning: it is the communicative value an expression has by virtue of what language refers to. There is a reference to the real world.

· Social meaning: it conveys information about dialect, status, time, field…

· Affective meaning: attitudes and emotions of the speakers towards interaction (politeness, friendliness…)

· Thematic meaning: it is what is communicated by the way in which a speaker or writer organises the message in terms of order, focus and emphasis (an active sentence has the same conceptual meaning as its passive equivalent but, in turn, it has a different thematic meaning)

So meaning is not a matter of isolated words but we have to take into account all the factors that surround it in order to get the message through correctly.


Language, as an instrument for communication, cannot be analysed only in terms of a set of rules but also in terms of conditions of use.

Whereas Semantics studies the propositional content of an utterance, Pragmatics studies the ways of conveying meaning which do not belong to the structure of the language: mime, body position, length of pauses, pitch, stress… These external factors integrate themselves with the propositional content in order to produce the message. The lack of pure linguistic message, as denoted by silence, hesitation or by the use of communication strategies, is also part of the communication process.

In all, then, Pragmatics studies the interpretation of the intended meaning conveyed in a speech act (® a communicative action defined with reference to the intentions of the speaker while speaking and the effects on the listener)

The study of Pragmatics led in the 1960s to the development of the ‘Speech Act Theory’. It comes form philosophers Austin and Searle. Just as linguists tried to understand how speakers might be able to produce an infinite number of sentences given a very finite set of rules, philosophers tried to understand how an infinite number of sentences could reflect a finite set of functions. For instance, by saying I apologise, the speaker is doing something beyond what is being said: he has performed an apology. So in his book How to do things with words (1962), Austin claimed that verbal utterances are social actions, and that sentences on a specific context are assigned some additional meaning. He identifies three distinct levels of action beyond the utterance itself, distinguishing the act of saying something (locutionary act), what one does in saying it (illocutionary act), and what one does by saying it (perlocutionary act). Let us look at this example:

Þ Someone with a knife addressing to a person on the street and saying: ‘Give me the money’;

. The locutionary act is the literal/propositional meaning; the utterance as a sign (give me the money)

. The illocutionary act/force is the pragmatic meaning of the utterance, the intention the speaker has by using that utterance (a threat)

. The perlocutionary act/effect is the effect produced by that utterance on the listener (running, being frightened…), and it depends on the context the utterance has taken place

Some years later, in 1977, Searle, disciple of Austin, went further and classified the illocutionary acts in:

Directives: the speaker tries to get the hearer to do something (i.e. asking, commanding, requesting, challenging, ordering, advising, recommending…)

Commissives: the speaker is obliged to do something, to a certain extent, in the course of an action (i.e. betting, guaranteeing, promising, swearing, offering…)

Representatives: the speaker is committed, to a certain degree, to the truth of a proposition (i.e. affirming, believing, reporting, concluding, stating, boasting, claiming, complaining…)

Expressives: the speaker expresses an attitude towards a state of affairs (i.e. apologising, deploring, thanking, welcoming, congratulating, forgiving, blaming, praising, condoling, greeting…)

Declaratives: the speaker alters the status quo by making the utterance (i.e. resigning, dismissing, christening, naming, excommunicating, appointing, sentencing… ð I name this child…, I now pronounce you husband and wife…) They are performed, normally speaking, by someone who is especially authorised to do so within some institutional framework.

Now that we have already clarified the differences between Semantics and Pragmatics and their fields of study, necessary for the analysis of speech acts, we are ready to have a look at the linguistic macrofunctions to express the commonest communicative intentions.


When we refer to the functions of language we are actually talking about the way people make use of properties of language to achieve a large number of aims and purposes. Several classifications have been proposed by different scholars (Malinowski, Bühler); Jackobson’s (1960), though, seeming the most complete one. He based his theory on his model of communication process (topic 3):

. Emotive: feelings the speaker wants to transmit (I had it!)

. Conative: language used to provoke response on listener (Pete, open the door)

. Referential: related to the thing to which the message refers (The book is red)

. Poetic: oriented towards the message. The referent loses its importance in favour of the way it is expressed (If someone says ‘You are pretty’ is different from the same sentence but with tender and soft voice)

. Metalinguistic: oriented towards the code. Language is used to talk about language itself (What does interaction mean?)

. Phatic: oriented towards the channel. The function of language is to check that communication still exists (keep the channel busy) and avoid its break (Are you with me?)

So we can say that the functions of language provide the primary dimension for characterising and organising communication in society.

Ø Basic communicative needs

In the 1976, the Council of Europe established the basic communicative needs for European learners under the name of The Threshold Level. The study of language had been based on grammar; however, with the appearance of this book, methodological studies began to talk about functions (topic 1).

Therefore, according to The Threshold Level, communicative intentions can be grouped as follows: socialization, information, intellectual and emotional attitudes.


1. Beginning and ending a conversation

a. Greetings and responses

Hello; Hi; How are you?; How do you do?; Good morning/ afternoon/ evening; I’m fine thanks; I’m very well thank you; I’m not too bad.

b. Farewells

Good bye; See you (later); Good night; Nice to have met you; I hope we meet again; Take care; Give my love to…; Say hello to

c. Introductions

Hello. I’m Sara. Nice to meet you; Hello Sara. This is John. Nice to meet you; How do you do?

2. Complimenting and congratulating

Well done; Congratulations; What a marvellous/ nice…; Thanks a lot; I’m glad you liked it.

3. Offering and thanking

a. Offering

Please, do have a biscuit; Help yourself; Would you like…; Do you fancy…?; Here you have; What can I do for you?; Are you free on…?

b. Thanking

It’s a pleasure; My pleasure; Thanks a lot; Cheers; Ta; Not at all; Don’t mention it; That’s all right.

4. Apologising and regretting

I’m (really) sorry; I do apologise; Sorry about that; I regret that…; Forget that; Never mind; Don’t worry.

5. Expressing condolences

Please accept my deepest sympathy on the death of…; I was extremely sorry to hear that…/about…

6. Expressing good wishes, seasonal greetings and toasts

Good luck; Best wishes; Enjoy yourself; Have a nice…; Happy New Year; Merry Christmas; Happy Easter; Happy birthday; Happy returns of the day; Cheers; Bottoms up; To …

7. Speaking on the phone

Hello. 639242. Speaking/Hello. This is Sara here. Can I speak to …?; I’ll give her a call later; Can I leave a message?

8. Giving advice

Why don’t you…?; If I were you…; You should…; If I were in your shoes…


  1. Statements

I have spoken to your father; Here comes the train…

  1. Questioning and responding

Have you finished your homework? /Of course/ Not yet

  1. Reporting

Will you be here tomorrow?; I asked whether she should be here the day after

  1. Lack of information

I have no idea; I haven’t got a clue; I haven’t the faintest idea; There’s no point in asking me…; I really don’t know.


  1. Opinion
    1. Asking for opinion

What do you think of…?; What’s your opinion on…?; How do you feel about…?; How do you see…?

    1. Giving opinion

From my point of view…; In my opinion…; As I see it…; It seems to me…; As far as I am concerned…; I daresay…

    1. Sit on the fence

It really does not matter to me; It’s difficult to say; I’d rather not say; I have no particular view on…

  1. Partial agreement

It’s true but…; I can see that but…; I agree but…

  1. Expressing agreement and disagreement
    1. Agreement

I (fully) agree; I couldn’t agree more; I go along with that; I’m all with…; I share your view/opinion; I think so.

    1. Disagreement

I disagree; I don’t think so; I’m sorry I can’t agree; I can’t share your point of view.

  1. Interrupting

Hang on; Excuse me, could I just say…?; I’d like to say…; My I put a word in edgeways?

  1. Corroboration

I agree, and what is more…; … and I add…; Yes, in fact/above all…

  1. Clarification

I mean; I other words; Say that again; I beg your pardon; Sorry?; Excuse me?; Could you repeat that?; What do you mean by…?


  1. Volition
    1. Willingness

I’ll do anything for you; I’m ready to/prepared to/willing to…

    1. Wish

I wish…; If only I…; Would you like/prefer/rather…?

    1. Intention

I intend/mean to see you tomorrow; I’m going to…

    1. Insistence

I insist on…; I’m determined to…

  1. Liking and disliking
    1. Likes and preferences

I like/love/’m fond of/’m keen on/’m crazy about…; I’d rather/prefer…

    1. Dislikes and indifference

I don’t’ like/dislike/hate/loathe/detest/can’t stand; I’m fed up with; I don’t mind; I don’t care

  1. Hope

I hope that…; Hopefully, …

  1. Anticipation of pleasure

I’m looking forward to hearing from you; I know you’ll enjoy meeting her again; Hoping to hear from you soon

  1. Regret

It’s a shame/pity; I’m sorry to…; If only I…; I wish I…; Unfortunately, …; I regret to say that…

  1. Approval and disapproval
    1. Approval

You’re quite right to…; I (entirely) approve of…; I’m very much in favour of…; I (certainly) go along with that

    1. Disapproval

I must object to…; I don’t think much of…; We condemn…; We are opposed to…; I strongly disapprove of…

  1. Surprise

What a surprise!; It’s rather surprising; How surprising/astonishing/amazing that…

  1. Concern

I’m a bit concerned/worried that…; It’s quite disturbing/worrying that…

  1. Emotive emphasis
    1. Interjections

Oops!; Gosh!; Wow!

    1. Exclamations

What a wonderful weather; It’s lovely; What a man!; How strange!

    1. Repetitions

She’s very, very silly; It’s far, far too complicated

    1. Comparisons

They are as nice as…

    1. Empathizers

She’s an absolute beginner; They are such nice children


This topic is of utmost importance as when studying a language, not only linguistic competence is necessary but also communicative competence is essential, that is, having the ability to know what to say, when, where and to whom in order to be able to carry out actual performances with a certain guarantee of successful communication in the target language.

Nowadays, the Educational Law is organised in terms of language functions in order to encourage the students to learn useful expressions in everyday life situations.


– VAN EK. The Threshold Level for Modern Language Learning in Schools

– AUSTIN. How to Do Things with Words

– SEARLE. Speech Acts

– LEECH. Principles of Pragmatics

– LEECH. Semantics