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 Ling 131: Language & Style

 Topic 13 - Shared knowledge and absurdist drama (Session B) > Zoo Story > Task B > answer skip topic navigation

Topic Contents
Absurdist drama
Zoo Story
Getting to know Applicant
Assumptions in Applicant
Turn-taking in Applicant
Topic 13 "tool" summary
Useful Links

Zoo story

Task B – Our answer

Jerry’s utterance (‘You have a TV, haven't you?’) is a reversed polarity tag question (a positive statement-like form followed by a negative question form tagged on to it). This suggests that he is assuming that what he says in the statement-like part is almost certainly true, and that in the tag question he is merely requesting confirmation of the assumption behind his statement. Compare Jerry’s utterance with the more straightforward question ‘Do you have a TV?’, for example.

These days almost everyone in the USA will have a television (or more than one), and so Jerry’s utterance will probably seem odd because it breaks Grice’s maxim of quantity, checking up on a statement that would be true for just about everyone. At the time the play was written televisions would have been reasonably common, but not so common as now, and so, if anything, it would have appeared that Jerry was assuming too much. Whether you react to the tag question with 1958 assumptions or more modern assumptions Jerry’s utterance is odd, and it is also difficult to work out whether it is intended as a violation or a flout of the Gricean quantity maxim, making it difficult to work out exactly what Jerry is getting at, and why. This begins to explain why Jerry seems odd and a bit threatening. In politeness terms he is invading Peter’s personal space, if the 1958 assumptions are in place. He appears to know more about Peter than he should.

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