Face-Threatening Act (definition)


“an act which challenges the face wants of an interlocutor” (Brown & Levinson, 1987)

According to Brown and Levinson (1987:25), face-threatening acts may threaten either the speaker’s face or the hearer’s face, and they may threaten either positive face or negative face.

Everything we say or do potentially threatens face. Even asking somebody for the time is a face-threatening act (FTA).


In the example below, the interviewer Jeremy Paxman (JP) ask a face-threatening question (lines 01-04) to the Prime Minister, Theresa May (TM). The question is face threatening because is presupposes that Theresa May has got something wrong. It is a threat to her positive face. See this article for further discussion of this example. (A face-threatening question is also known as a conflictual question.)

01 JP: Theresa May (.)
02     when did you realise
03     that you’d got the wrong answer (.)
04     to the biggest question of our times in politics
05        (2.2) ((May coughs & smiles))
06 TM: well I’m tempted to ask you Jeremy what you (.) think
07     d’you mean (.) ((hand gesture))
08     you’re talking about Brexit?
09 JP: (0.3) well of course ((dismissive facial expression))
10 TM: right
11        (0.8) ((some laughter from audience))

Audio: External link to clip

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KllymYee9AI @16m39s

What is face?


Face (definition)

Definition “the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 61) “as an image of the self which depends on both the rules and values of a particular society and the situation the social interaction is embedded in.” (Goffman, 1967) We all have a face which we try and maintain…

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What is a conflictual question?


Conflictual Question (definition)

Definition: a question “where all the possible replies have potentially negative consequences, but where nevertheless a reply is still expected”. (Bull & Wells, 2012: 38) Also known as communicative avoidance–avoidance conflict Example This was the first question asked by Jeremy Paxman when he interviewed Tony Blair in 2005. This is a conflictual question because an…

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Further examples of FTAs


Face management

When discussing equivocation it is worth first considering the concepts of face-management and self-presentation. Face management originated with Erving Goffman who described it as “an image of self-delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (Goffman 1967:5). This concept has been adapted by Brown and Levinson to include two sides of face, positive and negative.

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Oy you, spit out your gum and shut up!

Politeness in the House of Commons takes on many forms but is often exhibited through off-record, negative and positive politeness. Here is an excellent example of how the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, avoids direct face-threatening language as he attempts to chide a noisy and boisterous MP (MacNeill) and remind him that chewing gum…

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Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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