Patterns – Field – Diary

Some of the most influential compliment research has been carried out on the patterns of compliments with the help of the diary method. Manes and Wolfson (1981), for instance, used the diary method to collect 686 compliment sequences for their analysis. The compliments were collected in a large range of speech situations in which the collectors participated or which they observed, and they made sure that the complimenters and the recipients of the compliments were both men and women and represented different educational and social background. In fact, they claim that their research method, which they call “ethnographic approach”, is the only valid one.

It is our conviction that an ethnographic approach is the only reliable method for collecting data about the way compliments, or indeed, any other speech act function in everyday interactions. Manes and Wolfson (1981: 115).
On the basis of the 686 compliments that they collected in this way, they claim that “one of the most striking features of compliments in American English is their almost total lack of originality” (1981: 115). According to their data the positive evaluation of the compliments is regularly carried by an adjective with a positive semantic load, but only few different adjectives are used for this purpose. The two most frequent ones are nice and good. In addition to these only three more appear regularly: beautiful, pretty and great.

They also present a range of syntactic patterns that occur regularly in their data. The following three patterns account for more than eighty per cent of all the syntactic patterns in the collection of compliments. In all the patterns, wavy brackets enclose alternative options and round brackets enclose optional elements. ADJ stands for any positive adjective and ADV for any positive adverb. PRO stands for a demonstrative or a personal pronoun. Really stands for any intensifier and the verbs need not be in present tense. The percentage after the pattern indicates its frequency in their compliment collection. I have added appropriate examples from the BNC to illustrate the patterns.

(1) NP {is/looks} (really) ADJ (53.6%)
"Your hair looks amazing," said Christina. (BNC FRS 3252-56)
(2) I (really){love/like} NP (16.1%)
"I like your hair," I told Ben. (BNC B7H 215-23)
"And I love your dress." (BNC AEO 1923-26)
(3) PRO is (really) (a) ADJ NP (14.9%)
"These are very good cakes, Miss Cuthbert," Mrs Allan said to Marilla. (BNC FPT 309-310)

These results have been replicated by Holmes (1988:  453, 1995: 128), who finds that the same syntactic patterns dominate her diary data of New Zealand compliments.

There are, however, several problems connected with this method. First, the method depends on researchers or research assistants who spot a compliment when they see one. This may seem to be a trivial point, but in real conversations, the researcher’s attention may momentarily be absorbed by other things and a compliment may easily pass unnoticed. There is no possibility to go back and listen to the conversation again. It seems likely that researchers are more alert to stereotypical compliments, and, therefore, compliments that fit their preconceived ideas of what a compliment should look like are more likely to be included in the collection. This makes it less likely that unusual patterns are attested in the data.

And second, the method depends on the researcher’s memory because he or she often notes down the compliment a considerable time after the event. It is plausible to assume that they may reliably remember the general content of the compliment but not the actual wording. Thus they may reproduce the compliment in a more stereotypical manner than it was originally uttered. Yuan (2001: 287-8) provides empirical evidence for this. On one occasion of her research, she interviewed two elderly ladies and tape-recorded the interaction. She also took field notes and wrote down the compliments in the typical fashion of the diary method. After transcribing the tape-recorded interaction, she could analyse the differences between the field notes and the transcription, and – as her examples show – they were quite considerable. Extracts (1) and (2) give only the translation of the interaction but not the Chinese original.

(1) [Field note data, Respondent 82-F-O-H]
Researcher: In fact, you don't look old at all. (You) don’t have any wrinkles on your face.
Respondent: Yeah. I just turned 49 this year. (Yuan 2001: 288)
(2) [The actual exchange in the transcription]
Researcher: You also look very young (Particle).
Respondent: But I've only retired for a little over a year. I'm 49.
Researcher: Gosh, you look very young. (You) don't have any wrinkles. (Yuan 2001: 288)

The field notes failed to record one significant turn, and they failed to record the respondent’s information about having retired. The compliment, which in the transcription is spread out over two turns, is merged into one in the field notes. Yuan concludes on this basis:

It seems, then, that what can be recorded accurately in field notes are the topics of compliments and information about interlocutors. Some supportive moves such as elaboration and explanations may fail to be recorded in field notes through the loss of turns. In addition, the actual wording may not be totally reliable. Yuan (2001: 288)

See also Patterns – Field – Corpus for an account of Jucker et al. (2008), who tried to turn the Manes and Wolfson patterns into search strings in order to retrieve compliments from the British National Corpus.