Patterns – Field – Philological

Provided that the researcher can spot the compliments in the data he or she is reading, a collection of compliments provides all the variety of possible compliments. Indeed this method does not share the problems of precision and recall of the corpus method (Field – Corpus) because the researcher can decide in each case whether a particular utterance is a compliment or not. But it encounters the very serious problem that manual searches are liable to be hampered by exhaustion and fatigue of the researcher and by the extremely time-consuming nature of the process. If these restrictions are accepted, the attentive human reader can spot all types of compliments, i.e. implicit, explicit and indirect personal compliments.

In a class exercise the members of a seminar on pragmatic research methods joined forces to search for compliments in English novels from the nineteenth and twentieth century. Each member of the class decided on one novel and collected twenty compliments. The results of this collection are very provisional because the novels that were searched form a very heterogeneous set, and I certainly do not want to claim that these novels use compliments in a coherent way. But even so the search revealed many interesting patterns. The hypothesis proposed by Manes and Wolfson (1981: 115) that “one of the most striking features of compliments in American English is their almost total lack of originality” (Patterns – Field – Diary) cannot be supported by compliments of this collection. But the collection admittedly includes both American and British English.

While the patterns in examples (1) and (2) follow the Manes and Wolfson patterns, those in examples (3) to (5) don’t.

(1) Pattern [1]: NP {is/looks} (really) ADJ
“ahh, your're so clever aren't you” (Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow)
“Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool.” (Fitzgerald: Great Gatsby)
(2) Pattern [3]: Pro is (really) (a) ADJ NP
“Ay, marry," quoth he again, “thou art a tall lad, and eke a brave one,” (Pyle: Robin Hood)
“You're a swell-looking young lady.” (Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow)
(3) He saw me looking with admiration at his car. (Fitzgerald: Great Gatsby)
(4) “Miss Fairfax ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl...I have ever met since I met you.” (Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest)
(5) “Come, … you are anxious for a compliment, so I will tell you that you have improved her. You have cured her of her school-girl’s giggle; she really does you credit.” (Austen: Emma)

Extract (3) is particularly interesting because it records a non-verbal compliment. Such compliments are presumably difficult to locate with other research methods. With the diary method for instance, such a compliment may pass unnoticed, unless the recipient of the compliment or some bystanders explicitly refer to this non-verbal compliment. Extracts (4) and (5) are compliments that do not follow the patterns proposed by Manes and Wolfson. They are more complex and defy easy classification.

Manes and Wolfson reported more than 80 per cent of the compliments of their collection to follow one of three syntactic patterns (Patterns – Field – Diary). The preliminary and very heterogeneous collection of compliments based on these novels had only forty per cent of compliments with these patterns, while another forty per cent followed patterns that were different from any of those listed by Manes and Wolfson.