Politeness strategies in valedictions

Epistolary fomulas were clearly a popular topic during last semester’s course on Late Modern English letters. Here is what Klazien Tilstra wrote about themin her second blogpost:

This is not the first blog post on opening and closing formulae in Late Modern English letters. In her blog on opening and closing formulae in the letters of John Gay (1685-1732), Sabine Krouwels mentions a  free adaptation of the I am your humble servant rule in the valediction of a merry letter byJohn Gay and a few friends to Mary Bellenden, in 1717 (we are Your Servants wherever we go). Sopio Zhgenti mentions the use of nicknames in closing formulae in her blog post on the letters of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941),  as in the closing yr. lover, Sparroy, in a letter to Violet Dickinson, in 1902. Sophio suggests that Woolf used different closing formulae in formal and in informal letters, using nicknames only in her informal letters.

For my own research project on politeness in eighteenth-century letters, I looked at opening and closing formulae in the letters of Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), where I found variations on the I am your humble servant theme as well, and also on the my dear friend kind of opening formula, sometimes even both in the same letter. What to think of the closing formula in a letter by Montagu to her husband, written in 1769:

I am my Dearest Yr most faithfull & Obedt Wife EM,

or  the closing formula in a letter to her Bluestocking acquaintance Benjamin Stillingfleet, written in 1769:

With entire esteem I am Dr Sir yr most affectionate & faithful Friend and Hble Servt.

Source: Stephen Levinson’s website at the Max Planck Institute

In order to understand the politeness strategies used in these valedictions I consulted reading  Brown and Levinson’s book on universal politeness theory  (1987), which is based on notions of face-want. According to Brown and Levinson people basically have two desires: the first is to be unimpeded in their freedom, and the second is to be liked and approved. When, in interaction, someone threatens someone else’s fundamental desires – for instance by making a request –  or insufficiently meets them – for instance by uttering criticism or affecting unconcern – politeness can help to improve the relation.

Brown and Levinson distinguish between negative politeness and positive politeness. An example of the first is showing respect by linguistic deference. Examples of the second are the use of in-group identity markers, small talk, and jokes. Whether someone will choose a negative or a positive politeness strategy will mainly depend on the relation with the other. If, for instance, a letter writer perceives the addressee as more powerful (P) and the social distance (D) between them as great, the writer will choose for a strategy of negative politeness; if the letter writer perceives the other as having less power (P), and the social distance (D) as minor, the writer will choose a strategy of positive politeness.

On the basis of this theory,  we can interpret the valediction of John Gay  and his friends, we are Your Servants wherever we go,  as a positive politeness strategy: an in-group identity marker, or a joke  on the negative politeness strategy of linguistic deference,  as expressed in I am you humble servant. We can also interpret Virginia Woolf’s valediction yr. lover, Sparroy  as a positive politeness strategy: it clearly functions as an in-group identity marker. In both situations the positive politeness strategy is appropriate: the writers feel equal (in power) and close (in social distance) to the recipients.

Elizabeth Montagu’s valedictions are mixed: they show both positive and negative politeness strategies. The courtly words faithfull & Obedt, esteem, faithful and Hble Servt show the negative politeness strategy of linguistic deference. The words Dearest, affectionate and Friend are in-group markers expressing positive politeness strategies. Using both strategies in a single valediction may have been an intelligent strategy for the expression of mixed feelings. As an extremely rich member of the upper-classes, an involved friend and family member, and a central figure in the literary gatherings of the Bluestocking Circle, Montagu must have felt independent, self-conscious, and close to her friends and family members. However, in her role of a woman, wife or daughter, she may have felt differently, feeling the need to acknowledge the superiority of men. In the first situation a positive politeness strategy was the appropriate one, and in the second situation a negative politeness strategy. I think that this mixed strategy was an appropriate solution for an uneasy situation.

For my purposes, the universal politeness theory of Levinson and Brown (1987) proved to be an insightful sociolinguistic tool for analysing politeness in Late Modern English letters.


Brown, Penelope and Steven C. Levinson  1987. Politeness, Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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