Politeness and the Linguistic Construction of Gender in Parliament: An Analysis of Transgressions and Apology Behaviour

Chris Christie


In this paper I explore the realisation of gender in parliamentary discourse by drawing together scholarship in politeness, studies of gender and language use, and work that adopts a communities of practice perspective. I show that scholarship in language-use and gender has suggested a connection between male speech, public speech and politeness which would predict that men are more likely than women to conform to the transactional discourse norms (Kaspar 1990) of public discourses such as parliamentary debate. I draw on a study that analyses male and female MPs’ performance of parliamentary discourse from a Communities of Practice perspective to explore whether the evidence supports this prediction, and to show that the application of a CofP framework usefully opens up for analysis the relationship between gender and parliamentary debate in that a) it shows that if politeness behaviour in a particular practice such as parliamentary debate is understood in general rather than practice specific terms, the significance of this linguistic behaviour becomes obscured, b) it shows that in highlighting practice specific norms this type of analysis allows a distinction between ‘polite’ behaviour and ‘politic’ behaviour to be made and c) this in turn brings into view a structure and agency dynamic that helps to explain differential uses of politeness resources by male and female MPs. My overall aim is to show that applying a CofP framework to the analysis of politeness behaviour brings into view aspects of gender identity that are specific to parliamentary practice.

[Errata, added 1/7/2005]


1        Introduction & theoretical framework

This paper explores the realisation of gender in parliamentary debate through the analysis of differences in the ways that male and female MPs use politeness resources within that practice. In addressing this issue I analyse debate data from a Communities of Practice perspective as developed by Eckert & McConnell-Ginet (1994, 1999) with the aim of drawing out the practice specific significances of MPs’ contributions, both as pragmatic acts and as indexes of gender. My aim is to argue that gender identity within the practice of parliamentary debate is best seen as an effect of the way in which male and female MPs negotiate the institutional constraints on linguistic behaviour they are subject to in the performance of their role. In this introductory section, I provide an overview of the theoretical framework that has given rise to the questions that this study addresses, in Section Two I outline my methodology, in Section Three I give examples of my data analysis and some of my findings, and in Section Four I discuss the implications of these findings, and consider how they may contribute to future language and gender research.

1.1 Why consider the realisation of gender in Parliament?

In what follows I draw on a study of parliamentary debate over a two-week period in July of 1999 where the data consist of video and audiotapes of parliamentary debate from television and radio sources and Hansard transcriptions for that period. When the debates analysed in this study took place, the number of serving women MPs was 120, which represented slightly less than one in five of the total 659 serving MPs. At that time the total number of women who had been elected to Parliament throughout its history (including the current 120) came to just 239. Therefore, although the number of serving female MPs in 1999 was low in comparison to their male counterparts, it also represented an unprecedented rise in women’s participation in the public discourse of parliamentary debate. This increased participation is of interest for a number of reasons, not least because of the issues it raises about the nature of representation in relation to gender, the voice it offers female representatives in political decision-making, and the significance of that voice. These issues have already been touched on by works across a range of disciplines (see for example Coote & Patullo 1990, O’Regan 2000, Rossi 1982), each of which has emphasised the complexity of measuring the significance of women’s growing inclusion in the public arena. However few questions have yet been formulated or addressed by scholarship in relation to the significance of women’s increased contribution to the specific discourse of parliamentary debate. In order to contribute to the further study that is required if this issue is to be adequately addressed and understood, in this paper I offer a preliminary analysis of the way in which a single cohort of MPs engage in that discourse by asking how those men and women use linguistic and pragmatic resources in parliamentary debate. The study on which I base this analysis is underpinned by my belief that the terms within which women are able to access and utilise the resources of public discourses such as parliamentary debate are strongly related to the meanings they are able to generate in that context. I would argue that differential access to and use of these resources will affect the impact that women as a group are able to have on political decision-making. The study on which this paper is based was initially designed therefore to explore whether there were differences in male and female MPs’ uses of linguistic and pragmatic resources evident in the data, and if there were, the aim was to explore ways in which the characteristics and impact of those differences might be described and explained.

That the resources of public speech are not equally accessible to all language users is evident from a range of scholarship in the field of language and gender. For example, as I show in section 2.2 below, studies in this field have tended to argue that public speech generally, and political debate in particular are traditionally ‘masculine’ genres, and therefore there are likely to be differences in the way that male and female speakers take part in these speech genres. In particular this scholarship raises questions about whether women might be disadvantaged by these differences. In exploring parliamentary discourse I pick up on and develop one issue that has been addressed by this line of scholarship in language and gender: the argument that public discourses are carried out in styles, not generally used by females speakers, which exploit politeness norms in particular ways. However I do not begin from the traditional sociolinguistic premise that the term ‘gender’, as the cultural expression of sex, can be used to categorise language users in order to explain the social determinants of variation in language use. In this paper I draw on a Communities of Practice framework in order to ask how gender is realised in parliamentary debate. In adopting a CofP framework however, it is not my intention to entirely dismiss the sociolinguistic assumption that gender can function as an aspect of structure in that it can act as a determinant of linguistic variation. To an extent therefore I am working with, and attempting to reconcile, two sometime conflicting models of gender. For example, on the one hand, I accept that in British culture (as in all cultures) there are structural constraints on linguistic behaviour that relate to gender in the sense that an individual’s use of, and perception of others’ uses of language will be influenced to some degree by general conceptualisations that pertain at a given moment of what is appropriate masculine or feminine behaviour. However, I do not take this to imply that MP gender can be addressed as a given. For that reason I approach MP gender identity as an end point rather than as a starting point of my analysis. In order to clarify what is at stake her, and in particular in order to clarify the approach to gender I adopt in this study, I briefly discuss the model that arises from a CofP approach to language variation, and then go on to explore the tensions between this and models that conceptualise gender in structural terms. My aim in this introductory section is to illustrate the need to address the dynamics of structure and agency when addressing gender.

1.2  Communities of practice research: achieved gender

A change of direction in the way in which sociolinguistic study theorises identity generally, and gender identity in particular, was marked by Eckert & McConnell-Ginet’s (1994) essay ‘Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community based practice’.Their essay argued for (and set out the implications of) adopting an approach to language variation that addressed the specific social practices within which individuals engage with one another rather than according to a priori categories of membership of a given speech community. Bergvall’s account sums up the significance of that article for the analysis of language and gender research:

This work was among the first in the linguistic tradition to provide a systematic means to address what had become a growing concern in other fields (e.g. psychology, sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies): the idea that the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’ should not be treated as presupposed, monolithic variables in the search for understanding of variation, but rather that they themselves should be subject to scrutiny and analysis (Bergvall 1999:273-4)

In subjecting to scrutiny and analysis the categories ‘woman’ and ‘man’, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet raised fundamental questions about the model of social identity assumed in conventional sociolinguistics where ‘identity, interpreted in terms of place in the social grid, is seen as given, and manipulation of the linguistic repertoire is seen as making claims about these given identities’ (1994:439).

Eckert & McConnell-Ginet’s questioning of the conventional sociolinguistic model of gender gives rise to the tenets of their own model: their rejection of the idea that a simple, causal relationship obtains between speaker identity and language variation, their argument that ‘gender’ is best conceptualised as a verb and their claim that ‘gendering’ should be seen as an ongoing process. Most significantly, in arguing against the conceptualisation of gender identity as a set of intrinsic attributes or qualities that in some way generate the linguistic choices that an individual makes, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet are making the point that these language choices are better seen as part of the process by which individuals become gendered. As Bucholtz puts it in her discussion of the impact of this line of research:

Previously feminist researchers, both within and outside the field of language and gender, framed the problem in terms of how language affects gender. The question now becomes how language effects gender. (Bucholtz 1999b:6)

Their model therefore conceptualises gender as an aspect of identity that is achieved through language use rather than an attribute that precedes and in some way determines language use. They also point out that the context in which gender identity is achieved is highly significant.

Eckert & McConnell-Ginet’s argument is that it is necessary to focus on localised, shared practices (i.e. communities of practice) in order to understand the way in which gender identity is realised through language use. They characterise such a community in the following terms:

A CofP is an aggregate of people who, united by a common enterprise, develop and share ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, and values - in short, practices. [...] The development of shared practices emerges as the participants make meaning of their joint enterprise, and of themselves in relation to this enterprise. Individuals make sense of themselves and others through their forms of participation in and contributions to the community. (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1999:186)

As a range of empirical studies has indicated, (see for example, the studies reported in Bucholtz et al (1999) and the studies reported in the special CofP edition of Language in Society edited by Janet Holmes (see Holmes 1999) the proposition that identities are formed in relation to others through shared practices is a useful way of approaching gender. There are, in particular, two aspects of this approach that inform the methodology I adopt in my analysis of parliamentary debate. I summarise them here and explore each in more detail in subsequent sections.

Firstly, I take as axiomatic that any given individual will belong to a range of CofPs. This premise has a number of implications for the analysis of achieved gender. In particular it implies that any given individual will have a range of practice-specific identities and that, moreover, each of these identities will be configured to a given practice. A corollary of this premise therefore is that the way in which a person’s gender identity is realised through language-use within one practice will not necessarily map onto the way in which their gender identity is realised within other practices. If this is the case then it illustrates clearly why gender as an aspect of identity cannot be addressed as an a priori feature of an individual. Adopting a CofP framework in my study would therefore predict that the performance of parliamentary debate will give rise to practice-specific formations of gender identity. Locating which linguistic variations index and characterise this localised gender identity is the primary goal of my analysis of parliamentary discourse in this paper.

Secondly, my approach is underpinned by the assumption that Communities of Practice are made up of agents who have their own agendas and who use language strategically in the pursuit of those agendas. Therefore I take it as axiomatic in my study that an individual’s linguistic choices are actively made rather than simply generated by their membership of a particular social category such as class, gender, age, etc. In the following section I argue that adopting this premise does not entail adopting the premise that individuals are free to use any linguistic resources they wish, or the premise that individuals are able to make those linguistic resources mean anything that they wish. For example, there are clearly constraints on what can be said in parliamentary debate, and what MPs’ linguistic choices signify. As I discuss in Section 2.1 below, it is evident that the lexical choices made by MPs are overtly policed within that practice. More controversially however, I would argue that there are also constraints on what linguistic and pragmatic resources are available to women as opposed to men (and vice versa) in parliamentary debate and constraints on what those linguistic resources can signify when used by a man or a woman. It is not self-evident however how these gender-related constraints can be described and explained since they are not overtly policed in the same way. A concern of this paper therefore is to open up to debate ways of addressing the dynamics of practice specific interactions that will bring into view structural determinants of language use without losing sight of the human agency involved in the strategic use of language. In the remainder of this section I set out what is at stake in exploring this dynamic.

1.3  Structure and Agency in CofP research: ascribed vs. achieved gender

I have suggested that the CofP approach to language variation rejects the conceptualisation of gender as a monolithic state that precedes or in some self-evident way determines the language choices made by men and women. As a number of scholars have argued (see Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1995 and Bucholtz 1999a & 1999b), from a CofP perspective, gender identity tends to be conceptualised instead as an effect of the strategic language choices made by interlocutors when engaging with others in specific practices. However, as Bergvall (1999) has argued, the link between social structures and practice needs more consideration. In asserting this, Bergvall’s point is that gender has a number of facets, and she argues that any comprehensive theory of gender needs to address the biological, the achieved, and the ascribed facets of gender. She makes the point that the CofP model, in focusing on strategic linguistic choices made by interlocutors, is useful for accounting for achieved gender, but it does not adequately explain ascribed gender. What Bergvall is pointing to here is an unresolved tension between what appear to be conflicting notions of gender evident in studies of language variation: while on the one hand, the CofP approach sees language choices as the strategic realisation of gender identity, on the other hand, much research in the past has shown that male and female speech is measurably distinct (see section 2.2 below), and the degree of overlap in the findings of such research has been inferred as evidence that there are gender specific structural constraints underlying men and women’s linguistic behaviour.

Recent work by Chouliaraki and Fairclough on Critical Discourse Analysis, which also develops a version of Practice theory based on the social sciences model, may offer a framework that will help to work through this tension. Although their account overlaps in some ways with Eckert & McConnell-Ginet’s (1994, 1999) framework in that both models assume that identities and meanings are realised within socio-culturally situated practices, one of Chouliaraki & Fairclough’s expressed concerns is to explore how practices work hegemonically. Of particular significance for my study is the following claim they make about their perspective:

This view rejects both a structuralism which construes social life as an effect of structures and eliminates agency, and a rationalism which views social life as entirely produced through the rational activity of agents (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999:25)

They propose the following as a way of understanding how a focus on practice can help to negotiate a balance between these polar opposites:

A practice can be understood both as a social action, what is done in a particular time/and place, and as what has hardened into a relative permanency - a practice in the sense of a habitual way of acting. This ambiguity is helpful in that it points to the immediate positioning of practices between structure and events, structure and agency - practices have partly the character of both. (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999:21/2)

I hope to show that focusing on the relationship between the habitual and the event specific aspects of practices is a particularly useful way of understanding parliamentary debate in that it brings into view the dynamic between the strategic choices made by MPs as individuals who have their own agendas and the structural constraints on their dialogue. However, as I have suggested above, how structure can be explained in terms of gender is far less obvious than the way it can be explained by institutional practices such as parliamentary debate.

I will briefly rehearse where the difficulty lies: if in relation to language use, the notion of ‘structure’ (when defined in opposition to ‘agency’ ) implies a system of rules that constrains linguistic behaviour, although evidence of such a system might be easy enough to find in relation to a heavily codified and policed practice such as parliamentary debate, it is less easy to find in relation to gender. Indeed a core question that has long concerned research on language and gender, and which has yet to be answered adequately, is: in what way does being categorised as ‘male’ or ‘female’ in a given culture lead to a ‘habitual way of acting’ ? The range of scholarship that has argued that there is evidence that such differences exist, the range of theories that have been proposed as an explanation of these differences, as well as the lack of a single, widely accepted account, would indicate that there may be many distinct but overlapping factors involved in this process. In exploring ways of separating out some of those factors, and in particular, ways of addressing the dynamic between agency and structural constraints related to gender and parliamentary debate, I have elected to focus on politeness behaviour. In the following section, I illustrate the relevance of this focus by outlining recent scholarship in politeness that has addressed parliamentary discourse and gendered uses of language. My aim is to show that a politeness framework offers a particularly effective methodology for exploring the way in which gender identity can be seen as an effect of the structure/agency dynamic that underlies variation in language use in parliamentary debate.


2 Methodology: politeness as a way of exploring the realisation of gender

In order to develop a methodology for exploring gender in the context of parliamentary debate that can address both the structural and agentive aspects of linguistic behaviour, I begin by arguing that it is necessary to distinguish the politic from the polite.

2.1  Politeness in parliamentary debate

Although I want to argue that the analysis of politeness behaviour is a particularly useful means for exploring the construction of gender in parliamentary debate, given that the focus of the current study is a particularly confrontational type of discourse, it has to be acknowledged that some of the premises that underlie Brown & Levinson’s (1987) theory of linguistic politeness raise some problems. A consideration of three of these premises should highlight where the problems lie. These are: a) all individuals have ‘face’ (glossed in the (1987:2) version of the theory as ‘self-esteem’ ); b) any speech event is potentially face threatening; and c) speakers employ linguistic strategies in order to avoid or limit the effects of such threats. Brown & Levinson’s point is that the employment of these strategies is seen to be rational on the grounds that they serve as a form of pre-emptive self-defence:

[S]ince people can be expected to defend their faces if threatened, and in defending their own to threaten others’ faces, it is in general in every participant’s best interest to maintain each other’s face (1987:61).

Their model is premised therefore on the idea that linguistic interaction is always potentially face threatening, and that politeness behaviour is primarily a way of avoiding any conflicts that result from linguistic interactions. A further claim, that is of particular significance for the current study, is Brown & Levinson’s point that the use of politeness strategies ‘makes possible communication between potentially aggressive parties’ (1987:1 my emphasis). Their account implies therefore that maintaining one’s interlocutor’s face is a prerequisite of communication, the implication being that interaction would break down without the use of politeness strategies.

The problem here is captured by Watts (1992) when he argues that in proposing that politeness consists in those acts that maintain interpersonal relationships by avoiding conflict, Brown & Levinson fail to sufficiently capture what is and what is not covered by the term politeness. He points out:

[A]ll language usage may be interpreted in terms of whether or not the perceived fabric of interpersonal relationships is maintained. Conflict might be sought in certain types of social activity, e.g., political debates, discussion of controversial issues, quarrelling over personal rights and possessions, verbal duelling of various types, etc. The nature of the relationships engendered by the social activity may be opponential and antagonistic. Accordingly speech-event types will be required which give expression to confrontation and competition rather than collaboration and co-operation. Thus socially appropriate language usage can easily entail the very opposite of linguistic politeness. (Watts 1992:48)

Two recent analyses of politeness phenomena in parliamentary Question Time (Ayala 2001 and Harris 2000) provide convincing illustrations of this last point. Each offers a detailed account of the extent to which this discourse type involves a great deal of confrontation and competition, and also the extent to which, in spite of regular uses of language that are far from ‘polite’ (in that they are not designed to avoid or limit conflict), the ‘fabric of interpersonal relationships’ is not undermined.

Harris, for example, focusing specifically on Prime Minister’s Questions makes the point that:

The British House of Commons, while probably not unique is very clearly based on adversarial discourse practices. Systematic impoliteness, in the form of utterances which are intentionally designed to be face threatening, is not only sanctioned but rewarded. Members of Parliament as a community of practice clearly perceive that the main role of the opposition is to oppose, i.e. to criticize, challenge, ridicule, subvert, etc. the policies and positions of the Government. (Harris 2000:466)

Harris’ argument is that since this behaviour does not lead to a breakdown in parliamentary debate, it is ‘sanctioned impoliteness’.She also shows that although much of the discourse of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons is composed of ‘systematic impoliteness’ this is not only sanctioned but rewarded in that it meets the expectations that MPs have of the adversarial and confrontational nature of the political process (2000:466). She goes on to make the point:

Systematic and sanctioned impoliteness is likely to be judged both by the Members of the House of Commons and the overhearing audience as providing the Opposition MPs with the means to challenge the power and policies of the Government explicitly, released in context from the constraints of being Brown & Levinson MPs (Model Persons) whose mutual and primary interest is to maintain each other’s face. (2000:469)

Ayala (2001:147) makes a similar point in her analysis of Question Time in the House of Commons when she comments that ‘every question or parliamentary exchange can be considered a global FTA and the whole activity of Question Time in the House of Commons a face threatening genre’.

What is significant about these arguments is that while, for Brown & Levinson, rational linguistic behaviour involves interlocutors in the avoidance or mitigation of face threatening acts, as Harris (2000) and Ayala (2001) have shown, in the context of parliamentary debate, interpersonal relationships are maintained through the performance of those very acts that, according to the Brown & Levinson model, should lead to their breakdown. If, as these studies illustrate, in certain contexts it is conflict itself rather than strategies for avoiding conflict that enable interaction to take place, then the application of politeness as an analytical tool for describing and explaining linguistic interactions becomes somewhat problematic. It also raises questions about how, precisely, politeness might usefully be defined.

Watts argues that in order to answer such questions there is a need to make a distinction between ‘politic speech’ and ‘polite speech’.He describes politic speech as:

socio-culturally determined behaviour directed towards the goal of establishing and/or maintaining in a state of equilibrium the personal relationships between the individuals of a social group, whether open or closed, during the ongoing process of verbal interaction (1992:50).

Taking politic speech as a norm, in the sense that such behaviour will be unmarked, Watts proposes that two forms of marked behaviour then come into view: one leading to breakdown in the interaction, and the other to ‘an enhancement of ego’s standing with respect to alter’ (1992:50). He glosses this latter process as making other people have a better opinion of oneself, a notion of politeness that is quite distinct from that offered by Brown & Levinson, although not necessarily incompatible with the notion of face they propose, or with the notion that politeness is strategic. I discuss the distinction between these two models in Section 4, here however my point in addressing Watts’ definition of politeness is to draw on his proposition that politeness is inevitably relative. As he argues:

Thus what counts as polite behaviour depends entirely on those features of the interaction which are socially marked by the speech community as being more than merely politic. (1992:50)

This account of politeness is useful in that it allows a way of distinguishing between politeness as a strategy, and politeness as a set of linguistic conventions that ‘operate independently of the current goal a speaker intends to achieve’ (i.e. what Kasper 1990:196 refers to as ‘discernment’ ). However I would modify Watts’ account of what counts as ‘polite behaviour’ in the light of the developments in social theory I discuss above. I would want to argue that ‘politeness’ is marked by the ‘community of practice’ rather than by the ‘speech community’.This is evident in that although it is possible to argue that MPs can be seen as members of a single speech community in the Labovian sense that they share a set of linguistic norms, membership of this speech community does not explain language choices with enough precision. For example, although MPs belong to that community whether they are within or outside of the debating chamber, it is only when they are engaging in the practice of parliamentary debate that terms such as my honourable friend, or the honourable member can occur as ‘unmarked’ ways of addressing an interlocutor. With that single modification: that polite behaviour is that which is socially marked by the community of practice as being more than politic, it is this notion of politeness that informs my analysis of parliamentary discourse. The methodological consequences of adopting such a framework will be made apparent in Section 3 where I show that in order to analyse politeness it is necessary to address questions about how speech that is ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ politic is marked within the practice of parliamentary debate.

My argument here is that if it is taken as axiomatic that the criteria that determine which behaviours implicate politeness are practice-specific, it is only when the distinction between politic, non-politic and polite speech is made that the structure and agency dynamic that underlies the construction of gender comes into view. My argument goes as follows: I have stated in this section that in the analysis that follows I take unmarked behaviour to be evidence that MPs are conforming to practice-specific structural constraints on behaviour and I therefore take such behaviour as ‘politic’ speech. However, this does not mean that producing ‘politic’ speech is not as much an agentive act as producing ‘non-politic’ speech. As I show in Section 3, there are plenty of examples in the data of linguistic behaviour that does not conform to the parliamentary codes of practice. Given this evidence, it is clear that electing to observe these structural constraints is an act of agency as much as electing not to observe them. However, while politic behaviour can be explained as an active decision to work within and conform to structural constraints, non-politic, and polite behaviour requires a different explanation. My hypothesis is that it is through the norms and behaviour that are highlighted through deviation from the politic that the active construction of identity becomes evident. I would also argue that it is where there are systematic differences between male and female patterns of conformity and deviation that the active construction of gender identity becomes evident.

2.2  Gender and Politeness

In section one I suggested that the CofP approach has raised questions about essentialist explanations of differences between men and women’s speech. There remains however, a body of work that proposes that gender has an ascribed aspect in that it associates public speech with a particular style; associates that style with masculine speech norms; and infers from this that there are structural constraints on speech styles that relate to interlocutor gender. For example, on the basis of a range of empirical studies across the social sciences covering more than three decades (see Brown 1994, Talbot 1998 for useful surveys), it has come to be accepted as orthodox within feminist approaches to gender and language-use that the performance of public speech genres is a traditionally masculine practice. In her introduction to a collection of papers reporting on empirical studies of gendered differences in language use across a range of cultures, Philips argues that their findings consistently indicate that: more often than women realize roles and attendant speech genres in public settings, particularly roles and genres associated with the exercize of legitimized political authority. (Philips 1987:8) It has also been argued that, because public speech genres have been primarily carried out by men, the style of public speech is ‘masculine’.For example, where research has dichotomised style according to speaker gender, such as Tannen’s (1992:89) argument that men use ‘report talk’ while women use ‘rapport talk’, and Holmes’ (1995:3) argument that men orient towards ‘referential’ functions of talk while women orient towards ‘affective’ functions of talk, the masculine style is inevitably associated with the public sphere and the feminine style with the private sphere. Coates too has proposed a relationship between gender, style and the public/private distinction:

In public discourse, the exchange of information is an important goal. Male speakers in our culture are socialised into public discourse, while female speakers are socialised into private discourse. (Coates 1988:98)

The argument that women’s and men’s speech styles are different has been supported by studies of politeness behaviour (see discussions in Brown 1994, Christie 2000 and Talbot 1998). The most widely cited body of evidence is offered by Holmes across a range of works, and whose extensive (1995) survey of men and women’s uses of politeness draws together a number of studies to argue that in comparison to male speakers, females are more likely to express positive politeness and to use mitigating strategies in order to avoid or weaken threats to an interlocutor’s face. Holmes (1995:3) has linked these differences in the use of linguistic politeness to men’s tendency to orient towards the ‘referential’ functions of language (which she describes as ‘conveying information, facts or content’ ) and women’s orientation towards the ‘affective’ functions of language (which she describes as ‘the use of language to convey feelings and reflect social relationships’ ). Holmes also links these functions to public speech by contrasting men’s tendency to value ‘public, referentially orientated talk’ with women’s tendency to value ‘intimate, affectively orientated talk’ (1995:37)

While it is true that feminist debates on language and gender have moved on since some of the above work was published, and in particular there has been an increasing movement away from essentialist explanations of variation (whether in terms of biology or socialisation) the argument that masculine speech is in some way connected with public speech continues to be influential. For example Shaw’s analysis of talk within the House of Commons highlights patterns that lead her to argue:

The norms of [parliamentary] interaction can be interpreted as masculine norms because men have invented them. Some researchers have suggested that the norms of men’s discourse styles are institutionalised, and that they ‘are not only seen as the better way to talk, but as the only way’.(Shaw 2000: 402)

Such dichotomies sit uneasily with feminist research that has questioned how far the referents of the category ‘woman’ form a homogeneous group that is distinct from those of the category ‘men’ (see for example Bing & Bergvall 1996, Bucholtz 1999b, Cameron 1998, Hennessey 1993, Weedon 1999). However, I would want to argue that although some of the more extreme generalisations made by the above writers are questionable, the intuition that they pick up on is a valid one, and one that any study of public speech needs to take into account.

2.3  Drawing together Politeness, Parliament and Gender

I argued above that my methodology is based on the premise that it is within non-politic and polite behaviour that active gender differentiation becomes evident. But, given that a CofP approach would predict that the meanings of linguistic choices are locally generated, there is a need to distinguish between the practice specific behaviour that constitutes politic, non politic and polite speech, before the significance of linguistic choices, both at the level of pragmatic function and at the level of indexing gender, become evident. In order to distinguish between these types of speech, I draw on Kaspar’s distinction between speech styles that orient towards transactional discourse norms, and those that orient towards interactional discourse norms. His distinction is particularly useful since it provides an analytical framework that captures the distinctions between male and female speech styles that are pointed to by Holmes, Tannen and Coates. It is also useful in that by providing a set of criteria for distinguishing between transactional and interactional speech styles his distinction also enables politic, non-politic and polite speech to be separated out. For example, he argues:

Two global distinctions between discourse types have been proposed that bear on the quality and quantity of politeness. Transactional discourse types focus on the optimally efficient transmission of information. Conversational behaviour that is consistent with the requirements of transactional discourse will thus be characterized by close observance of the Co-operative Principle. Interactional discourse, by contrast, has as its primary goal the establishment and maintenance of social relationships. In interactional discourse, therefore, the Co-operative Principle is regularly over-ridden by the Politeness Principle in order to ensure that participants’ face wants are taken care of. (Kaspar 1990: 205)

In applying this to the data therefore, I point to evidence that either the Co-operative Principle or the Politeness Principle is being privileged. As I have argued above, patterns of behaviour reported in scholarship on language and politeness have been taken to imply that women orient towards interactional discourse norms and men to transactional discourse norms. Kasper points out that any given discourse is never entirely transactional or interactional, and as I show below, parliamentary discourse is no exception. In what follows therefore I analyse how far MPs orient towards both sets of discourse norms, and show how this allows politic, polite and non-politic speech to be distinguished. I then consider how far the use of such speech correlates with MP sex. Specifically, I explore the hypothesis that men are more likely than women to orient towards the transactional norms of politic speech in that they are more concerned than women to adhere to norms of Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Manner


3 Data Analysis and findings

My overall aim here is to show that there are qualitative differences in the apology behaviour of male and female MPs, and Holmes’ definition of an apology is a useful starting point:

An apology is a polite speech act used to restore social relations following an offence. Apologies therefore redress face-threatening behaviour, and they acknowledge the need of the addressee not to be imposed upon or offended (Holmes 1995: 155).

However, my point is to show that addressing politeness behaviour from a CofP perspective helps to draw out the extent to which politeness behaviour is always relative. What I will argue in this section is that apologies are never simply strategies for avoiding conflict, and nor are they simply acts that function to maintain the fabric of interpersonal relations. In order to introduce my argument, I will begin by illustrating why the significance of apologies, both as pragmatic acts and as indexes of gender, only becomes evident if parliamentary debate is approached as a Community of Practice.

That apologies can generate a range of different pragmatic meanings is evident in that it is clear that not all apologies within the practice of parliamentary debate can be categorised as politeness strategies. While on the one hand this is obvious in that in any context a phrase such as I’m sorry can function as irony, on the other hand, by looking at the specific context of apologies within parliamentary debate, it is also clear that even those apologies that appear to be functioning according to Holmes’ definition are not necessarily politeness strategies. The following is an example of an apology that I would argue is not, in the context of parliamentary debate, an example of politeness.

(1) Mr. McDonnell: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for not giving you adequate notice of my point of order; I have no excuse save my own incompetence. (Hansard 20.7.1999)

I would argue that the apology in (1) is politic rather than polite behaviour. This claim is based on the evidence that every time an MP raises a point of order with the Speaker during that time in the parliamentary week that is specifically allotted to the raising of points of order, it is preceded by an apology whenever the Speaker has not been given prior notice of the point of order. Whether this is the result of adherence to a written code of practice, or whether this is simply conforming to an unwritten set of expectations, the outcome here is that an apology in this context is a requirement rather than a strategy. I would want to argue therefore that (1) is quite different in function to the following apology.

(2) Ms Moffatt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
  Sir Raymond Whitney: I am sorry, but I cannot. (Hansard 20.7.1999)

I would argue that the apology in (2) is an act of politeness because requests for the current speaker to give way are constantly made throughout every parliamentary debate, and as in the above case, they are almost invariably followed by a refusal. However, in the two weeks of debate data, only five instances of a refusal include an apology. A more typical form of refusal that is used by both male and female MPs is:

(3) Mr. Donaldson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
  Mr. Galloway: No; I have no time. (Hansard 13.7.1999)

My point is therefore that (2) becomes visible as an agentive act of politeness only in the light of the evidence of examples such as (1) and (3) in that they show that (2) is a choice rather than a requirement.

What I am arguing then is that being able to distinguish what counts as politeness depends on being able to show how it is distinct from what counts as politic behaviour. Taking Watts’ account of non-politic speech as speech that leads to a breakdown in communication, I would also want to argue that being able to draw a distinction between politic and non-politic speech brings to light the strategic nature of apology behaviour in Parliament. I show in what follows that apologies rarely function as repairs for such transgressions. The general point I want to make is that this would imply that apologies in parliamentary debate tend to function as more than a means by social relations are restored following an offence. They are also more than a means by which social relations are maintained by redressing an offence. Indeed I would want to argue that apologies have a range of functions and in particular may function as agentive acts of identity construction.

I will summarise my argument about politeness in order to show how it relates to the discussion of my findings and data analysis which follows:

  • Drawing on Watts’ (1992) argument I propose that what counts as politeness comes into view when it is distinguished from politic and non-politic speech. However since it is practice specific, politic (unmarked) speech needs to be inferred from evidence, for example by distinguishing it from polite and non-politic speech
  • Following Watts (1992) I take non-politic speech as speech which is marked in that it leads in some way to a breakdown in the interaction.
  • Following Kaspar (1990) I take polite speech to be speech that prioritises interactive over transactional discourse norms. However, as the apology example above indicates, these interactive and transactional discourse norms are practice-specific, and need to be inferred on the basis of evidence.

My point is that polite and non-politic speech are evidence of deviations from the structural norms of parliamentary practice and are agentive acts that need explanations over and above those for speech that conforms to these norms. In 3.1 below, I explore this by showing patterns in transgressive speech behaviour that leads to a breakdown in the discourse. I highlight these patterns by categorising breakdowns according to the norms they transgress, and according to who transgresses these norms. I then demonstrate how this brings into view the norms of politic speech and also one aspect of politeness behaviour: apologies. In 3.2 I discuss the patterns in apology behaviour that this approach brings to light.

3.1   Transgressive Behaviour

In this section I argue that what counts as politic speech in the parliamentary debate data comes into view because the norms governing politic speech are named or implied when MPs are called to order by the Speaker of the House, her deputies, or by other MPs. I have measured transgressions in terms of the way in which they point to deviations from transactional and interactional norms, and measure apologies in terms of the way they point to real or putative offences against these norms. In my discussion in section 2.2 above, I suggested that according to studies of language, gender and politeness, women are more likely than men to orient towards interactional norms, and that since it is a public discourse, parliamentary debate is likely to be governed by transactional norms. However, in the data men, far more than women are called to order for transgressing transactional norms. Of the hundred and eight calls to order for the transgression of transactional norms, one hundred and three were for transgressions by male MPs. A breakdown of these transgressions is given in the following chart which sets out the distribution of transgressions according to Grice’s maxims.

















Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the purposes of the exchange); Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The ten calls to order that relate to quantity are all, typically, to do with contributions that do not orient towards an observance of the second sub-maxim, in that the speaking MP is accused of being over-informative. An example is the following:

(4) Mr. Jenkin:... During the week when the Secretary of State was attempting to get the procedure approved, the Prime Minister told the world that his back was scarred after his battles with the public sector. At another meeting, the Secretary of State was busy getting things off his chest. That was the week—
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to give the background to his reasons for developing this particular argument on the motion, but he may not do so repetitively--which is what I am beginning to suspect. (Hansard 19.7.1999)

In the data no women MPs were called to order for transgressing transactional norms related to quantity.

Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false; Do not say that for which you lack evidence

As can be seen from Table One above, out of the 108 calls for order that indicate that transactional norms are not being observed, there are none that relate to Quality.

Relevance: Be relevant

Contributions that transgressed transactional norms by failing to be sufficiently relevant according to the requirements of parliamentary practice were by far the most common type of transgression in the data. These transgressions take one of two forms. They either consist of contributions that attempt to draw in material that the Speaker deems to be irrelevant to the debate, or else the acts that the contributions perform are deemed to be irrelevant to the debate. This latter form typically occurred when MPs were making statements at a point in the debate when they were required to ask a question. Of the 78 relevance transgressions, 17 of these are of this second form: 16 by male MPs, 1 by a female MP. The remaining 61 relevance transgressions are similar to the following, in that it is the content that is deemed irrelevant:

(5) Clare Short: The hon. Lady might have read the press today, but I bet that she has not read the prospectus for the sale. Had she done so, she would have seen that the policy commitments that I put in there on behalf of the Labour party said that we would use the regulatory regime, in the way in which the new regulator now says that he will use the regulatory regime, to ensure that the railways operate efficiently in the interests of the—
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that honour is satisfied on that point now. May we return to the Bill? (Hansard 14.7.1999)

Here Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, who was in the Chamber to answer questions about the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, is attempting to address a criticism of the government that had been made by an opposition member, who had compared a current government measure with their earlier handling of the privatisation of the railways. The Deputy Speaker here calls Clare Short to order for addressing the issues raised in the criticism rather than the bill under discussion. Of this second type of relevance transgression, where it is the content rather than the act itself that is considered irrelevant, 57 were carried out by male MPs and 4 were carried out by female MPs.

Manner: Be perspicuous; Avoid obscurity of expression, Avoid ambiguity, Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity); Be orderly.

The final type of transactional norms transgressed by MPs, those relating to manner, tend only to be calls to order for failing to observe the third sub-maxim: be brief. The extent to which any transgression of the brevity norm is highly practice specific can be seen in that contributions are classed as transgressive where they fall foul of particular rules surrounding how long a contribution is allowed to be in a given type of debate. In some cases therefore an MP can speak for over an hour without this been deemed transgressive. Here a relatively brief contribution is classed as being too long because it is an intervention:

(6) Mrs. Browning: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce).
  Mr. Bruce: Did my hon. Friend see the two press releases that were produced when the scheme was abandoned: one from ICL, which had been approved by the DTI, and one from the DTI? Those two press releases were at odds with each other. The scheme was clearly not keeping to the timetable, because the NIRS2 computer, which was to provide the information, was not available. It was nothing to do with the roll-out of the Post Office. When the Conservative Government introduced this scheme, they went for the more expensive option of paying through post offices for the social reason of keeping those post offices open.
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This intervention is getting far too long. (Hansard 15.7.1999)

No female MPs were called to order for this type of transgression, while there were twenty calls to order for transgressions of this type by male MPs.



Address forms


Discourse Management













The contributions that transgressed interactional norms within the data each fall within one of three practice-specific types of interactive offence: transgressions related to address forms, to criticism and to discourse management.

Address Forms

As with all these transgressions, those related to the use of address forms are highly practice specific in that they are contributions where the second person pronoun is used to refer to an interlocutor.

(7) Mr. Prescott: Now we see the picture. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, "We’re against congestion charging."
  Mr. Gray: I am.
  Mr. Prescott: You might be--perhaps that is new new Conservatism--but you should have a chat to your mate on the Front Bench. 
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to stop the Secretary of State’s speech, but I would be grateful if he would use the correct parliamentary language.

The norm that is transgressed here is the codified practice of addressing all points in parliamentary debate to the Speaker. The only person who can be referred to as ‘you’ in parliamentary discourse therefore is the Speaker or his/her deputies. None of the eight calls to order for transgressing this norm were addressed to female MPs.


Interactional norms that are related to criticism take three forms: the use of an abusive tone, the use of unparliamentary language to criticise and a failure to follow the set procedures for carrying out an act of criticism. An example of the latter form is this extract from a question asked at Prime Minister’s Question Time where one MP asks the Prime Minister to comment on another’s integrity:

(8) Mr. Loughton... Will he not instead condemn his hon. Friend for abusing his position when he was a member of Westminster city council planning department, when he voted against a planning application by Waitrose in preference to one by Safeway, which just happened to be one of his clients?....
  Madam Speaker: Order. I remind the House that serious charges against another hon. Member must be made by tabling a motion on the Order Paper. (Hansard 21.7.1999)

Except in cases such as this, where the act is seen to be unacceptable because procedures have not been followed, the act of criticism itself is not taken as a transgression of interactional norms. However, there are practice specific constraints on the forms that criticism can take. An indication of the attitude towards criticism can be seen in the following comment by the Speaker:

(9) Madam Speaker: Order. I have been in the Chair since 2.30. I have heard exchanges across the Floor of the House involving Members of both sides of the House which I strongly deprecate. We should remember the wise words of Erskine May: "Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language." We should not be abusive, as we have been today. I deprecate very strongly the accusations that have been made from all parts of the House. (Hansard 21.7.1999)

An example of the way in which this ethos is occasionally transgressed is the following:

(10) Ms Jackson: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is unaware of the Government’s vast increase in funding road maintenance, in marked contrast to the previous Administration, who slashed such funding year on year. We have increased the funding for the maintenance of local authority roads by 8 per cent. in one year. The right hon. Member for Wokingham may be an expert on motoring, but he is clearly an ignoramus on any of the measures that protect pedestrians--[Interruption.]
  Madam Speaker: Order. That was quite unnecessary. I require the hon. Lady to withdraw that remark. [Interruption.] Order. I shall deal with this. I require the hon. Lady to withdraw the remark. (Hansard 13.7.1999)

It is not the fact that one MP is directly criticising another here that is the issue, the transgression relates to the use of the term ignoramus, which the Speaker designates as inappropriate. Of the twelve calls to order for behaviour related to criticism, ten were directed at male MPs and twelve at female MPs.

Discourse Management

The final way in which interactional norms are transgressed is through the non-observance of discourse management norms. This can take the form of an attempt to take the floor during another MP’s turn, or can involve general rowdiness by the House that prevents a speaking MP from being heard. What is interesting here is that, as Shaw (2000) has shown, transgressions of this type do not always generate a call to order by the Speaker. A discussion of the criteria by which they are categorised as transgressive is beyond the scope of this paper, but where an attempt to take the floor is named as a transgression, it can involve a single MP attempting to speak, or a mass attempt as in the following extract where a number of opposition MPs attempt to intervene in a debate.

(11) Mr. Pound (Ealing, North) rose-
  Mr. Baldry (Banbury) rose 
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions from the Opposition Front Bench are not allowed in Adjournment debates.

Of the thirty-five calls to order relating to this form of transgression, three were by women MPs, twelve were by male MPs and twenty were calls to order that related to general noise in the House.



Transactional norms

Interactional norms










As a context for interpreting the above tables, it is worth noting that female MPs made up 18 percent of the Parliament at the time the data were recorded. Based on the number of turns taken by MPs, and the total word count as recorded in Hansard over the two week period that the data were collected, I calculated that women contributed approximately 25 percent of the turns, but only approximately 16 percent of the word count, a point I will pick up in Section 4. The point I want to make here is that if gender were not an issue, it would be expected that given their level of engagement in the debate, the transgressions by women would equal between 16 and 25 percent and transgressions by males would equal between 75 and 84 percent. However, as the above tables indicate, female MPs carry out only 7 percent of the transgressions overall and less than 5 percent of transactional transgressions. Given the findings of studies of gender and language use that indicate that male speakers, and public speech generally is concerned with the optimal transference of information, this is somewhat surprising result. I will address the implications of these findings after the following description of the apology behaviour in the data.

3.2 Apology behaviour

In what follows I discuss the way in which the functions of apologies in parliamentary discourse come to light when the practice specific nature of apologies, as acts of politeness, is addressed. In collecting the data I located all uses of the terms apologise, sorry, sorrow and regret in Hansard over the two week period, and then analysed them according to the context in which they occurred. The analysis showed that, not surprisingly since political interaction is carried out primarily through language, all of the apologies are related to linguistic offences. However, very few apologies function as strategies for mitigating what in other contexts might be seen as highly face threatening acts, but also very few apologies are offered in response to what appear to be face threatening acts within the practice specific norms of parliamentary debate. Indeed, in the data the transgression of transactional and interactional discourse norms that led to breakdowns in the discourse rarely trigger apologies. Only 16 of the 155 transgressions listed above were apologised for. The most common response to a call for order by the Speaker or by another member is to simply continue with the debate without any acknowledgement whatsoever that a transgression has occurred. Here for example the speaking MP transgresses a discourse norm of related to relevance by asking a question about the behaviour of the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister’s Question Time:

(12) Mr. King: Did my right hon. Friend notice that the Leader of the Opposition, wisely in my view, avoided any question on the economy? [Interruption.] Could that be because last year he said.
  Hon Members: Order.
  Madam Speaker: Order. Let us cool it. It is not bucket and spade time yet. Will the hon. Gentleman now put his question very succinctly, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister is responsible only for Government policies and not for those of the Opposition?
  Mr. King: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition spoke...

Andy King here simply responds to the call for order by changing the form of his question so that it conforms to expectations about what would be a relevant question during Prime Minister’s Question Time. As I show below apologies tend to be for offences that within parliamentary discourse do not appear to count as transgressions at all, which raises questions about how these apologies are actually functioning. I set out below the patterns of apologies that function as politeness strategies in the data, and then discuss the pragmatic functions they appear to have.

















As the table shows, very few apologies for offences against transactional norms occur overall, a surprising result given the number of transgressions of these norms that led to a breakdown in the debate. As I show in table one above, transgressions against transactional norms total 108. However, only six of this 108 were apologised for.  Moreover, even where apologies were for putative offences against transactional norms, they were not the same norms that were classed as transgressive, as the apologies for transgressions against norms of quantity indicate.


In the data, behaviour that is called to order for transgressing norms relating to Quantity tends to be related to the second sub-maxim in that the calls to order were for speech that was classed as too informative for the purposes of the debate, and none of these generated an apology. Instead, apologies in the data that relate to Quantity are for failure to be informative enough. In the following example, Stephen Byers apologises for failing to provide a response to a written question from Patrick McLoughlin in time for the debate.

(13) Mr McLoughlin: Even under the freedoms that the Secretary of State says he is giving the Post Office, the taxpayer will ultimately pick up any liability arising from failure, which I expect is why there has to be Treasury approval. What does he regard as fast-tracking Treasury approval, bearing it in mind that I have been waiting some considerable time for an answer from him about the future of post offices? What time scale does he envisage?
  Mr. Byers: I apologise for the delay in replying to the hon. Gentleman. I will ensure that he gets an answer as speedily as possible. (Hansard 15.7.1999)

There were just five apologies for this type of offence, all by male MPs.


Although there were no calls to order for transgressions of norms related to Quality, around a quarter of the transactional apologies were for putative offences of this nature. The following example is typical of this type:

(14) Mr. McDonnell: I cannot speak for the City of London Labour party, but I shall try. From my discussion with party members at the end of the Committee proceedings--I apologise to Kate Green and her other friends if I have got this wrong--I understood that the corporation was not willing to accept the amendment. (Hansard 14.7.1999)

As with all of the apologies related to quality, this is a conditional apology – it only stands if the information turns out to be incorrect. It is also somewhat gratuitous. Given that the speaker has not actually committed an offence that would warrant the need to restore social relations, and given that he could have worded his concern that his information may be incorrect in a number of different ways, this use of an apology appears to be functioning as a politeness strategy in that the speaker here privileges interactional over transactional norms. However, apologies of this type also appear to have other functions. I will address what these might be after I have outlined the remaining patterns in apology behaviour. There were six apologies related to quality norms, five of which were by male MPs.


Calls to order for transgressions against relevance norms were the highest single category, amounting to 78, but there were just seven apologies for this offence, and just four of this seven were in response to actual calls for order. The remaining three apologies were not direct apologies for offences that had been carried out but were to mitigate potential irrelevance. Of these three, two were by male MPs. The single female example follows on from example (5) above in which Clare Short has been called to order for answering a criticism about the railways rather than addressing the bill that she is in the Chamber to address:

(15) Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that honour is satisfied on that point now. May we return to the Bill?
  Clare Short: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but surely an ill-informed insult cannot be made and the short answer not be provided. That is surely not the usual practice of the House.
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. (Hansard 14.7.1999)

Here, the apology does not relate back to the transgression for which Clare Short has been called to order but is linked syntactically with her argument that a proper response to the criticism is justified, and she goes on to attempt to continue addressing the subject of the criticism, as I discuss below. Of the seven apologies for failing to be sufficiently relevant therefore, six were by male MPs, two of which were to mitigate potential irrelevance, as was the single apology by a female MP.


Apologies for offences related to Manner tend to be, like the twenty transgressions of this transactional norm that led to a call for order, apologies for failing to be sufficiently brief. There were seven of these apologies. Two of these were in response to calls for order, and five to mitigate speech which might potentially be construed as unnecessarily prolix. An example is the following which took place after Nicholas St. Aubyn had returned to the same issue a number of times:

(16) Mr. St. Aubyn: I apologise for taking up the Chair’s time on this highly complex matter. It confuses many of us, although it would not do so if the Government had made their position clear. (Hansard 22.7.1999)

All seven of these apologies were by male MPs.

The data indicate that there was a tendency for apologies for offences relating to transactional norms to be for potential rather than actual offences. Fourteen of the twenty-five apologies were to redress potential offences. This pattern is also evident in apologies for offences related to interactional norms. Indeed, the single most frequent type of apology for interactional offences is for a type of language-related offence that does not count as a transgression within the practice of parliamentary debate. What these latter apologies appear to have in common is a concern to show that the voice of others should be valued. I will discuss this latter category after outlining the patterns in apologies that relate to address form, criticism and discourse management norms.



Address Forms


Discourse Management

Valuing the views of others






Deputy Speaker










Address forms

I indicated above that apologies were more often for potential rather than actual offences, and that they are even less likely to occur as responses to transgressions that had led to a call for order. An exception is where address forms are used incorrectly. In such instances, almost every transgression was apologised for, the following being a typical example:

(17) Mr. Mallon:.... Have you suggested any sanctions in your amendments to deal with that?
  Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying in and out of correct parliamentary language. I should be grateful if he would try to use it.
  Mr. Mallon: You are correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you and to the House. (Hansard 13.7.199)

Five of the eight apologies related to address form were for transgressions that had led to a call for order. All of the eight apologies were by male MPs.


As I also indicated above, calls to order in relation to criticisms are not to do with the speech act itself, but occur when an act of criticism fails to conform to codes of practice. There are however, two examples, one by a male and one by a female MP where a criticism is apologised for even though there is no reason to suppose it is transgressive. In the following example, the criticism is at the level of implicature only, but is still redressed by an apology.

(18) Mrs. Liddell: No one in his or her right mind would suggest that the railway is currently working fully in the public interest. I apologise to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East for saying that, because, usually, he is in his right mind. However, he has failed to recognise the concerns of the travelling public and of those of us who are interested in the United Kingdom economy. (Hansard 19.7.1999)

Given that this appears to be a gratuitous apology in that the form of criticism apologised for is perfectly normal within parliamentary debate, it would appear that its function is over and above the restoration of threatened social relations.

Discourse Management

Apologies related to discourse management offences also tend to be unrelated to transgressions, which would again imply that apologies have a function over and above the restoration of social relations. For example, some MPs, apologise for discourse management offences for which they have not actually been called to order, as in the following:

(19) Mr. Mackinlay: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being able to contain myself when I tried to intervene earlier. (Hansard 14.7.1999)

Moreover, as I have indicated above, calls for a current speaker to give way are more often than not refused, and are rarely apologised for. However there were five instances where a refusal to give way was mitigated by an apology. Again, given that turn taking apologies tend to be for behaviour that is not actually perceived as an offence, it raises questions about the function of such apologies. Of the fourteen apologies for discourse management offences, thirteen were by male MPs.

Valuing the views of others

The final type of apology evident in the data is related to putative offences against interactive discourse norms, in that apologies of this sort appear to be related to the addresee’s face wants. This final type takes two forms, but what each form shares is an indication that the speaker values the views of others. The first type of apology is for an absence from the Chamber during a debate to which the apologising MP is contributing which will mean that s/he will not be present to hear the contributions of others. Again, since MPs come and go throughout debates, and constant presence in the Chamber is not a requirement, this is polite rather than politic speech. The following is a typical example:

(20) Ms Hewitt:...Before I turn to the substance of the matter, I should like to apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and through you to the House. The debate has come, as all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, in the middle of a particularly busy week, and I am afraid that I have prior engagements that I have not been able to abandon completely so I will not be able to fulfil the normal courtesies of the House and be present for the winding-up speeches. (Hansard 20.7.1999)

Five of these apologies were by male MPs, and one by a female.

The majority of apologies by women fall into the second form of this final type. Typically, the final form of apology is carried out by an MP who is introducing a bill, and typically it implies a degree of responsibility and regret for the exclusion of others’ contributions, as in the following example:

(21) Mr. McDonnell: When I drafted amendments to enable that to happen--again I apologise to the City of London Labour party for not consulting it on my amendments’ detail, which is most probably why they are not particularly eloquent ones--and sought the Private Bill Office’s advice, I was told that the Private Bill Office would check whether it would be in order to amend the Bill in such a manner. My amendments were in order, and they were selected. (Hansard 14.7.1999)

The apologies within this category can also relate to the speed with which a bill is to be processed, with a particular emphasis on the resulting curtailment of debate that will prevent the views of members from being expressed. In each case, the implication is that the voice of others has been, or will be constrained, and that this is something for which the speaker takes responsibility and regrets. Eight of this last form of apology were by male MPs and eight were by female MPs.

4 Discussion

Clearly, given the size of the data, the findings I point to above can only be indicative of patterns in the interaction. However, there are three points I want to argue on the basis of my findings that would repay further study. Firstly I argue that given that the apologies I describe above are agentive, strategic acts of politeness that go beyond, but acquire their significatory power from, the structural constraints of the practice of parliamentary debate, Brown & Levinson’s model of politeness may not be the most appropriate analytical tool for capturing their significance. Secondly I argue that the function of these acts of politeness tends not to be, as Holmes has suggested, to redress face-threatening behaviour, or to restore social relations following an offence. I suggest that they are best explained by Watts’ argument that acts of politeness are ‘an enhancement of ego’s standing with respect to alter’ (1992:50), and that these acts of politeness are practice-specific resources through which interlocutors realise individuation. My final argument is that since there is a pattern here that relates to speaker sex, the data suggest that transgression and apology behaviour appear to be resources through which aspects of gender identity are realised.

4.1  Politeness in Parliament

I have cited evidence from Ayala (2001) and Harris (2000) that parliamentary debate is characterised by direct criticism, ridicule, challenges and attempts to undermine the standing of one’s interlocutors, but that this behaviour does not lead to a breakdown in the interaction. For that reason, I have claimed that such behaviour is, within the Community of Practice that constitutes parliamentary debate, politic rather than impolite behaviour. Here I want to suggest in the light of the above analysis that approaching parliamentary debate from a Communities of Practice perspective raises questions about how useful it is to consider acts that are unmarked in the context of parliamentary debate as ‘face threatening’, and this in turn raises questions about how useful Brown & Levinson’s model of politeness is in explaining such data. For example Harris refers to an instance when the Leader of the Opposition implies that the Prime Minister has lied: ‘The Government cannot even tell the truth about the duty on a litre of petrol’ (2000:459). As Harris points out, ‘such exchanges, though clearly intended to be face-threatening, do not apparently breach either the rules of debate or the discourse expectations of Members of the House’ (2000:459). Since, as Harris also points out, such behaviour is precisely what is required of a good parliamentarian, and since this behaviour functions to maintain the interaction, using Watts’ distinction it would be categorised as politic speech. Although therefore, the term ‘face-threatening’ might be useful when comparing parliamentary discourse with other discourses, given its significance within Brown & Levinson’s model, it is worth considering whether using the term within a practice such as parliamentary debate is sufficiently descriptive. What this also implies therefore is that there may be a need for a more precise vocabulary for describing phenomena of the type found in the data.

This is also evident when face-saving behaviour is considered. I have argued that, from Watts’ perspective, MPs’ use of address forms such as the honourable member is politic rather than polite. That is because, although this form of address would appear to implicate distance and formality, and therefore would match Brown & Levinson’s notion of negative politeness, this behaviour is not a volitional strategy, which would imply that it is not, even according to the Brown & Levinson model, strictly ‘politeness’. Since it is the term that all MPs are required to use during parliamentary debate whenever they refer to members of the opposite party, it is, according to Watts’ definition, ‘socio-culturally determined behaviour directed towards the goal of establishing and/or maintaining in a state of equilibrium the personal relationships between the individuals of a social group’ (1992:50), and therefore an example of politic speech. Equally, uses of indirect speech would not be seen as politeness behaviour according to Watts’ distinction. For example Ayala (2001) makes the point that MPs use politeness strategies in order to be able to carry out FTAs. In illustrating this she refers to the practice whereby an MP speaking in the Chamber addresses the Speaker rather than the MP with whom s/he is debating: ‘The procedure softens the weight of the threat, because the FTA becomes indirect, ‘filtered’ by the Speaker’ (Ayala 2001: 149). However, if referring to your opponent in the third person is required in all parliamentary speech, and if it is required whether you are attacking your addressees or complimenting them, then it is more than a way of softening a specific face-threatening act. Ayala does make this point when she comments: ‘Interestingly, it has been observed that such a use of politeness strategies extends to interventions whose contents are perfectly acceptable according to the House standards’ (2001:163). I would suggest therefore that these are not politeness strategies, but examples of politic behaviour.

Overall, then the use of Watts’ approach within a CofP framework would suggest that the use of terms such as politeness and face-threatening, as they are used in the Brown & Levinson model, are insufficiently descriptive to capture the significance of strategies used in parliamentary debate. My argument has been that the apologies that I have categorised as acts of politeness are acts of politeness because they are agentive acts and because their use is not determined by structural constraints that govern the practice of parliamentary debate. However, I have also argued that the meanings that are generated by these acts are an effect of the structural constraints of that practice. For example, although some apologies are in response to calls to order for transgressions, since the majority of breakdowns in the interaction are not responded to with an apology, it would imply that apologising is a choice that is open to, but rarely taken up by an MP. It would also imply that if an apology does not necessarily function as a way of maintaining or repairing social relations, it must have other functions. As I have shown, it is normal in parliamentary debate to ignore a request to give way, or else to refuse the request without an apology and that this does not cause a breakdown in the interaction. This would indicate, within the framework I apply, that the use of an apology in a given context may have other functions, and as I argue below, these can be related to the construction of social identity. As Bucholtz argues:

Local identities, and the linguistic practices that produce them, become visible to sociolinguistic analysis as the purposeful choices of agentive individuals, operating within (and alongside and outside) the constraints of the social structure. (Bucholtz 1999:221).

4.2 The function of apologies

I have made the point that the function of apologies in the data tends not to be, as Holmes has suggested, to redress face-threatening behaviour or to repair social relations. Here I will argue that their function appears to be closer to Watts’ argument that acts of politeness are ‘an enhancement of ego’s standing with respect to alter’ (Watts 1992:50). Example (18) above is a case in point in that it is an apology for an implicated criticism, rather than an actual criticism: Helen Liddell does not say that her addressee is out of his mind. If the apology is not functioning as a repair therefore, it may be better explained in terms of Watts’ notion of politeness. It may be significant that Helen Liddell’s comments follow this example of a call to order for a transgression against interactional norms by another MP:

(22) Mr. Jenkin: Paragraph 4 of the report states: "Stated political opposition at the time to the sale...adversely affected investors’ confidence and therefore the share price." There the right hon. Lady has it.
  Mrs. Liddell: That was not in the report’s conclusions. I have here the report’s conclusion--[Interruption.]
  Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) should not be so churlish. (Hansard 19.7.1999)

Given the ethos of parliamentary debate that the Speaker articulates in example (9) therefore, it could be argued that, although criticism occurs regularly through parliamentary debate, in apologising for an implicated criticism two turns after the above example, Helen Liddell is differentiating herself from the behaviour of her earlier interlocutor, and possibly indicating that unlike him, she does not engage in ‘churlish’ behaviour.

Equally, apologies for putative offences against the transactional norms relating to quality can also be seen as a means by which MPs enhance their own standing in relation to their interlocutors. Given that these apologies are not for actual offences, and are never in response to calls for order, they can be seen as resources by which MPs are able to display their integrity and honour to their addressees and the public in general. The same could be argued for apologies that relate to Manner offences. Particularly where these are not actually in response to a call for order, but are primarily to mitigate an attempt to pursue an issue, it could be argued that they display an MP’s concern that the transactional norms of parliamentary debate should be observed.

If it is the case that apologies in parliamentary debate function to enhance the standing of the speaker, rather than redress or repair offences, then this would also help to explain why some MPs use apologies to imply a concern with the contributions of others. As I indicate above, such apologies are not in any way related to redressing or repairing behaviour that might be perceived as non-politic, and neither do they occur with sufficient regularity for them to be perceived as politic behaviour. I would argue that such apologies fit into a type of behaviour that Holmes (1995:163) has argued is ‘other-oriented’ and which tends, in her data, to be carried out primarily by women, a pattern that is also found in the parliamentary date. An example is the following:

(23) Mrs Beckett:.... I understand the importance of the Procedure Committee’s report, and the wish of the House to come a view on it. I am sorry that it has not been possible to accommodate such a debate before the House rises for the summer recess. (Hansard 15.7.1999)

If Watts’ notion of politeness is applied, the apology here appears to function as a way to construct the speaker as concerned with ensuring that members are all able to contribute to debates, to construct the speaker as responsible for this, and to express regret when this does not happen, even though it is, arguably, not directly the speaker’s fault. It is in uses of this particular type of apology that there is evidence that, as the studies of gender and politeness I discuss is 2.2 above would predict, women more than men tend to privilege interactional over transactional discourse norms. However, it is worth noting that this trend is not apparent in any other area of debate in that although it is true that both male and female MPs rarely apologise, if the 16 apologies of this type (8 male/8female) were omitted from the data, the ratio of male to female apologies would be 14:1.

4.3 The realisation of gender in parliamentary debate

I have argued that the acts of politeness recorded in the data can be seen as resources through which an interlocutor’s practice-specific identity is realised. As I have also indicated, there are patterns here that relate to speaker sex, which would imply that apologies are one set of resources through which gender identity can be realised. For example, one of the most striking findings is that women rarely apologise. The Speaker of the House at the time the data were collected, Betty Boothroyd, never apologised at all, while her male deputies did apologise occasionally. There is no evidence therefore that, in general, women privilege interactional discourse norms more than men in this particular practice. The next most striking pattern is that where women do apologise, it tends to be for a putative offence that is not actually a transgression in the context of parliamentary debate. As I indicate above, of the sixteen apologies in the data where the speaker takes responsibility for and expresses concern about the contributions of others, eight are carried out by men and eight by women. Given the ratio of men to women in Parliament, if gender was not playing a part here, the expected balance would be something like one female to five male apologies, which raises questions about why women should be more likely than men to use this form of apology in this context. Interestingly, the four women who carry out these apologies are all ministers. All of the men who carry out these apologies are either ministers or else are MPs who are responsible in some way for the bill under discussion. In each case therefore, the apologiser is speaking from a position of control in relation to the discourse, and in each case they appear to be using this resource to display a concern that an appropriate transmission of members’ views takes place. Given that the vast majority of bills were introduced by male MPs and yet this resource is used only eight times by male MPs, it would appear that this is one way in which gender differentiation is realised in parliamentary debate

How far this is an agentive act, and how far it is an effect of structure is not self-evident however. As I asserted in Section 1.2, I would argue that there are constraints on what linguistic and pragmatic resources are available to women as opposed to men (and vice versa) in parliamentary debate and constraints on what those linguistic resources can signify when used by a man or a woman. I want to end by suggesting that although this group of four female ministers appear to realise their parliamentary role through the expression of a concern that the views of all members are heard and valued, and although such an expression is not an effect of structure in that male MPs for the most part elect not to display such a concern, these women’s behaviour may not be entirely agentive. It may be related to ascribed aspects of gender.

Although there is not space to explore this issue in depth in this paper, there is some evidence in the data that would lend support to this claim. On only four occasions does the interaction in this two-week period break down because a woman MP has transgressed norms related to relevance, compared to seventy-three by men. Moreover, on no occasions are women MPs called to order for failing to be sufficiently brief, or for being repetitive. Male MPs are called to order thirty times for these transactional transgressions. I would also point to the fact that although 25% of turns in the data are by women, only 16% of the word count is women’s speech. What I would suggest this points to is that the expressed concern that the voice of others is heard and valued may be related to a broader pattern in parliamentary debate that the data brings to light: the indication that one way in which gender is realised in this practice is through a women MPs’ clear concern to observe the transactional norms of brevity, informativeness and relevance in parliamentary discourse. And this concern may in turn be related to a pattern found by Eckert & McConnell-Ginet when they argue in relation to their own study:

Such data suggest an extension of the generalization that women have to do much more than men simply to maintain their place in the standard language market. We have argued elsewhere (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet1995) that women may have to use linguistic extremes in order to solidify their place, wherever it may be. (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet1999:195)

Women MPs’ apology behaviour, which indicates a concern for interactional discourse norms, but in doing so promotes transactional norms, together with their adherence to transactional norms made evident in their lack of transgressional behaviour, may be evidence of a play-off between ascribed gender and achieved gender.

A final example may help to illustrate this. The comment in (24) follows Clare Short’s apology for potential irrelevance, which in turn follows the Deputy Speaker’s call to order for her earlier irrelevance. When she was called to order she had spoken approximately 190 words in response to a criticism made by an opposition MP. In challenging the Deputy Speaker’s decision she takes issue here with the lack of an opportunity to respond, and ends with the following comment:

(24) Clare Short: We shall all look at Hansard tomorrow, and see how much time was devoted to the subject of gold sales in the earlier speech. I accept your ruling that the point cannot be responded to, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I feel that there is a slight imbalance. (Hansard 14.7.1999)

I would suggest in the light of this, and the earlier evidence, how far women MPs’ observance of transactional norms is an effect of a relative intolerance towards prolixity and irrelevance in female speech is an issue that would repay further exploration.

5  Conclusion

In this paper I have tried to capture the structure/agency dynamic that underlies the use of apology behaviour in parliamentary debate, and in doing so, have suggested that the descriptive power of Brown & Levinson’s model of politeness may be limited and therefore not be the most useful analytical tool in this context. While, given the limitations of the data, the findings can only be read as indications of trends in behaviour, I have suggested that the significance of apologies comes to light only when they are viewed against transgressions that lead to a break-down in the interaction, and in the light of politic behaviour, as suggested by Watts’ model of politeness. I have also argued that the data suggest gendered identities in parliamentary debate are not realised through the differential orientation to transactional and interactional norms in the ways that studies of gender and politeness would predict. I have argued that the data suggest that identity is realised through the use of apology as a strategy, and that there is some evidence to suggest that elements of both ascribed and achieved gender come to light through the analysis of differences in apology and transgression behaviour. I have argued that patterns in the data suggest that women MPs realise gender within the practice of parliamentary debate by displaying a relatively stronger orientation to transactional discourse norms and this is also indicated in their limited use of apologies compared to male MPs. I have also suggested that there is evidence that front bench female MPs are more likely than their male counterparts to express, through apologies, their concern that all MPs are able to make their views known through open debate, and that given the limited use of such a strategy by male front bench MPs that this may be another way in which gender differentiation is realised in parliamentary practice. Finally, I have suggested that the ways in which gender realisation is indicated in the data may be related to a lack of tolerance for prolixity or irrelevant speech in women, and that this would repay further debate.



Ayala, Soledad Perez de (2001) ‘FTAs and Erskine May: Conflicting needs? - Politeness in Question Time’ Journal of Pragmatics 33: 143-169.

Bergvall, V.L. (1999a) ‘Towards a comprehensive theory of language and gender’ Language in Society 28: 273-293.

Bergvall, V., J. Bing, & A. Freed (eds) (1996) Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. Longman: London.

Bing, J. & V. Bergvall (1996) ‘The Question of Questions: beyond binary thinking’ in Bergvall and Bing, eds., 1-30.

Brown, P. (1994) ‘Gender, Politeness, and Confrontation in Tenejapa’ in Roman, C., S. Juhasz and C. Miller, eds., The Women and Language Debate: A Sourcebook. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Brown, P. & Levinson (1987) Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bucholtz, M. (1999a) ‘"Why be normal?": Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls’ Language in Society 28: 203-223.

Bucholtz, M. (1999b) ‘Transgression and Progress in Language and Gender Studies’ in Bucholtz et al., 3-24.

Bucholtz, M., A.C. Liang & L.A.Sutton, eds (1999) Reinventing Identities: The gendered self in discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press .

Christie, C. (2000) Gender and Language: Towards a Feminist Pragmatics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Coates, J. (1988) ‘Gossip Revisited: Language in All-Female Groups’ in Coates and Cameron, eds., 94-122.

Coates, J. & D. Cameron (eds) (1988) Women in their Speech Communities: New Perspectives on Language and Sex. London: Longman.

Coote, A. & P. Pattullo (1990) Power and Prejudice: Women and Politics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Chouliaraki, L. & N. Fairclough (1999) Discourse in Late Modernity: Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Eckert, P. & S. McConnell-Ginet (1994) ‘Think practically and look locally: Language and Gender as a community based practice’ in Roman, C., S. Juhasz & C. Miller, eds., The Woman and Language Debate. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Eckert, P. & S. McConnell-Ginet (1995) ‘Constructing meaning, constructing selves: Snapshots of language, gender and class from Belten High’, in Hall & Bucholtz, 469-508.

Eckert, P. & S. McConnell-Ginet (1999) ‘New Generalizations and Explanations in Language and Gender Research’ Language in Society 28: 185-201.

Hall, K. & M. Bucholtz, eds. (1995) Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge.

Harris, S. (2000) ‘Being Politically Impolite: Extending politeness theory to adversarial political discourse’ Discourse and society 12 (4): 4-472.

Holmes, J. (1995) Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.

Holmes, J. (1999) ‘Preface’, Language in Society 28 (2): 171-2.

Kaspar, G. (1990) ‘Linguistic Politeness: Current research Issues’ Journal of Pragmatics 14: 193-218.

O’Regan, V. (2000) Gender matters: female policymakers’ influence in industrialized nations. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Philips, S.U. (1987) ‘Introduction: The interaction of social and biological processes in women’s and men’s speech’ in Philips, S., S. Steel and C. Tanz, eds. Language, gender and sex in comparative perspective Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1-11.

Rossi, A.S. (1982) Feminists in Politics: A Panel Analysis of the First National Women’s Conference. London: Academic Press.

Shaw, Sylvia (2000) ‘Language, gender and floor apportionment in political debates’ Discourse and Society 11 (3): 401-418.

Talbot, M. (1998) Language and Gender: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tannen, D. (1992) You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. London: Virago.

Watts, R. J. (1992) ‘Linguistic politeness and politic verbal behaviour: Reconsidering claims for universality’ in Watts, R. J., S. Ide, and K. Ehlich, eds., Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 43-70.