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Translation on the Basis of Frequency: Compliment and Compliment Response

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Narjes Ziaei photoCompliments are a social phenomenon. In English, there are general rules of their usage, but because of a series of social factors, they vary according to the situation. They also consist of frequently occurring structures/words. In this article, compliments together with compliment responses are briefly discussed. Then, we will try to show that a structure/word that frequently occurs in the source language should be translated to a structure / word occurring with a fairly similar frequency in the target language.

Key words: compliment, compliment responses, translation

I. Introduction

In the semiotic trichotomy developed by Morris, Carnap, and Pierce in the late 1930s, syntax deals with formal relations of signs to one another; semantics deals with the relations of signs to what they denote; and pragmatics with the relation of signs to their users and interpreters. More generally, contemporary pragmatics is "the study of linguistic acts and the contexts in which they are performed" (Stalnaker 1972); it involves the context-dependent aspects of meaning.

A structure/word that frequently occurs in the source language should be translated to a structure / word occurring with a fairly similar frequency in the target language.
The meaning of a sentence can be said to be derived from a context. The pragmatic aspect of meaning involves the interaction between the context in which an expression is uttered and the referential interpretation of elements within that expression. One of the principal goals of pragmatics is to characterize the features of the speech context which help determine which proposition is expressed by a given sentence. One sub-domain of pragmatics is the identification and classification of speech acts, initiated by the philosophers J.L. Austin (1962), H.P. Grice (1967), and J. Searle (1981). A speech act is an utterance as a functional unit in communication. This utterance has two kinds of meaning: propositional or locutionary meaning and illocutionary meaning. For example, in "The phone is ringing," the propositional meaning is what it says about the ringing of a telephone. The illocutionary meaning is what the speaker intends, for example, a request to answer the telephone. Speech acts, also referred to as "language functions" are numerous: requests, orders, commands, promises, etc. Austin (1962) stressed the role of the speakers’ intentions in formulating utterances. Performative utterances, where the speaker does something rather than merely saying something, are of particular interest to linguistic pragmatics. This is what Austin means by "doing things with words." Interactions and speech events are composed of ordered moves; they, as well as complex structures such as arguments, and descriptions, are discourse units with distinctive structures. These structural units provide the contexts essential for grouping classes into coherent segments. Conversational routines and adjacency pairs such as greeting, inviting, complimenting, etc. are also important as socially constructed units of discourses. Such socially constructed units are present in all languages; the repertoire of units, however, differs significantly from one language to another, in both the variety of available units and their internal structure. Such discourse units are defined to be abstract linguistic structures which are realized through segments; segments are in turn composed of clauses which are related to one another in content and structure. Compliments and compliment responses are to be investigated so as to discern how (much) they vary in syntactic and semantic patterning and what stock of concerns they include. Recent work in the analysis of conversational discourse has included the study of speech acts among English-speaking monolinguals: inviting, requesting, greeting, etc.; one such speech act is the speech act of complimenting. A compliment is defined as "a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to somebody other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some good (possession, characteristic, skill, etc.) which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer" (Holmes 1988). The compliment event is an adjacency pair operation (Schegloff and Sacks 1973); it consists of two parts: the compliment and the compliment response. In translation teaching, it is no longer taken for granted that perfect mastery of source language’s grammar and vocabulary results into the proper rendering. A translator as a person who wants to learn a second language must, in addition to grammar, vocabulary, be aware of the rules of speaking (Hyms 1972; Wolfson 1983). These rules are shared by the speakers of the language and govern their spoken behavior; that is, they regulate when to speak in a conversation, what to say, what topics to select to be appropriate, and how to give, interpret, and respond to such speech acts as greetings, apologies, compliments, etc. (Wolfson 1981).

II. General points about compliment and compliment responses

"A compliment is a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some good (possession, characteristics, skills, etc.) which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer" (Holmes 1988). The compliment event is a two-unit turn adjancency pair operation (Schegloff and Sacks 1973) in which the first pair part and the second pair part are linked by both temporal and relevancy conditions. In

A: That’s a beautiful sweater.

B: Thanks, my sister made it for me.

B is relevant to and dependent upon A. A compliment and its response are related to each other so that the first part predicts the second to the extent that the absence of the second part is clearly noticeable. However, the two have been treated independently in the literature. Wolfson and Manes (1980) have examined the structure and content of the first on American compliments, while Herbert (1986) and Pomerantz (1978) have treated compliment responses.

Despite the fact that linguists have treated the first and the second pair parts independently, complimenting and responding to compliments are two intimately linked acts. Both function as negotiating solidarity. The primary function of compliments in everyday conversation, according to most analysts, is social; although they can serve a variety of functions, their purpose is to establish, negotiate, maintain, or consolidate social solidarity (Manes and Wolfson 1981, Holmes (1988), Herbert 1990, Johnson and Roen 1992).

Compliments operate within the scheme of conversational postulates such as make the hearer feel good (Lackoff 1975, Goody 1918).

Likewise, wrong translation can be avoided by equipping translation learners with the necessary sociolinguistic information concerning the common speech acts. One such speech act is complimenting. Compliments are surprisingly regular (Wolfson 1983): 85% of the compliments use only three syntactic patterns; two verbs, like and love, account for 86% of the verbs in compliments; only five adjectives—nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great—constitute two-thirds of the adjectives used. This high degree of fixedness has strong implications for teachers, translators and interpreters.

The analysis of compliments indicated outstanding semantic and syntactic regularity. Almost all the compliments were semantically loaded (93.7%), and this semantic load was found to generally be adjectival (83.5%); only five adjectives accounted for 67.4% of all the adjectival compliments. The syntactic regularity is also striking: only two syntactic patterns accounted for more than two-third (78.2%) of the compliments. 12 types of compliment responses were distinguished; three of them accounted for 43.8% of the responses. The frequent occurrence of set phrases was also remarkable: 50.4% of all the responses were accounted for by ten formulas.


Wolfson and Manes, in a series of interesting articles on American compliments (Manes 1983; Manes and Wolfson 1980; Wolfson 1981, 1983), found out that the structures of compliments are surprisingly similar: 85% of the compliments they studied consisted of three main syntactic patterns:

1. NP is/looks (really) ADJ

Your raincoat is really nice.

2. I (really) like/love NP

I really like your hair.

3. PRO is (really) a ADJ NP

That’s a neat jacket.

The first pattern covered 53.6% of the compliments in the corpus; the second and third accounted for 16.1% and 14.9%, respectively. Wolfson and Manes also found that only two verbs like and love, accounted for 86% of the positively evaluative verbs. Moreover, it was found that five positive evaluative adjectives- nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great accounted for two-thirds of the adjectives used, the two most common ones being nice (22.5%) and good (19.6%).

Compliment responses

Further works, following Pomerantz (1978) have expanded the unit of analysis to cover both the compliment and its response. (Hurbert 1990; Holmes 1988; Johnson and Roen 1992; Olshtain (1989). In English, the correct (preferred) response to a compliment is unanimously felt to be thank you; the socialization advice to children (say thank you) is also indicative of this. But Herbert (1990) found enormous variation in actual collection of compliment responses. Drawing on the complaint by foreigners about the difficulty of how to accept a compliment, he attributes the difficulty to the "dual semantic-pragmatics" components of compliments, namely 1. Assertion of positive valuation by the speaker, and 2. Verbal gifts offered to the addressee. Pomerantz (1978) claimed that the act of responding to a compliment is governed by two general conditions:

  1. Agree with the speaker

  2. Avoid self-praise

The addressee’s dilemma is how to agree with the speaker, and not to seem to praise oneself. Herbert (1986, 1989, 1990) found 12 types of compliments responses:

  1. Appreciation token—A verbal or nonverbal acceptance of the compliment (e.g, thanks, thank you, [nod]).

  2. Comment acceptance—single—Addressee accepts the complimentary force and offers a relevant comment on the appreciated topic (e.g, Yeah, it’s my favorite, too).

  3. Praise upgrade—Addressee aacepts the compliment and asserts that the compliment force is insufficient (e.g., Really brings out the blue in my eyes, doesn’t it?)

  4. Comment history—Addressee offers a comment on the object complimented, it shifts the force from the addressee (e.g., I bought it for the trip to Arizona).

  5. Reassignment—Addressee agrees with the compliment assertion, but shifts the force to some third person or object (e.g., my brother gave it to me; It really knitted itself).

  6. Return—As with (5) except that the praise is returned to the first speaker (e.g., So’s yours).

  7. Scale down—addressee disagrees with the complimentary force, pointing to some flaw in the object or claiming that the praise is overstated (e.g., It’s really quite old).

  8. Question—addressee questions the sincerity or the appropriateness of the compliment (e.g., Do you really think so?)

  9. Disagreement—addressee asserts that the object compliment is not worthy of praise; the first speaker’s assertion is in error (e.g., I hate it).

  10. Qualification—weaker than (9). Addressee merely qualifies the original assertion, usually with though, but, well, etc. (e.g., It’s all right, but Len’s is nicer).

  11. No acknowledgement—addressee gives no indication of having heard the compliment. He either responds with an irrelevant comment (topic shift or gives no response).

  12. Request interpretation—addressee, consciously or not, interpret the compliment as a request rather than a simple compliment; it is not actually a compliment response (e.g., You wanna borrow this one, too?)

Herbert reports that only one-third of American compliments are accepted. Of course this does not invalidate the compliment behavior as an act of offering (negotiating) solidarity since if the speaker intends to make the hearer feel good, the addressee does the same by choosing to avoid self-praise although he indicates that he recognizes the compliment to be a pleaser; hence, he tries to make the speaker feel good. Moreover, we can summarize Pomerantz’s two principles into a broader interpretation of the solidarity principle; one can confirm solidarity either by agreeing with the speaker or avoiding self-directed praise (Herbert 1990). Return responses, anyhow, seem to fulfill the two conditions by establishing balance between speakers by the mutual exchange.

Compliment events

Compliment events were, for ease of reference, classified into four classes depending on their content.

  1. Possession. The speaker compliments the addressee on his/her (new) possession, such as clothing, or ornaments, etc. For example,

    Che boluz-e qashangi! What a nice blouse!

    Che qardanband-e qashangi- dari! What a nice necklace you have!

    Sa’at-et jaleb-e. Your watch is interesting.

  2. Skill. The speaker compliments the addressee on the result of his/her skill or effort, including cooking, writing, drawing, etc. For example,

    Che qaza-ye khoshmazz-I bud! What delicious food it was!

    Kheili khat-e qashang-I dari! You’ve got very nice handwriting.

    Boluz-et ro qashang bafti. You’ve nicely knitted your blouse.

  3. Appearance. The topic of complimenting is hair, face, or overall appearance:

    Che muhat khoshgel shode! How pretty your hair has become!

    Khoshgel shodi. You’ve become pretty.

  4. Personality. Addressee’s morally positive points such as kindness, good companionship, and general features are complimented upon:

    Aqa jun cheqadr mehrabun-i! Dear grandpa, how kind you are!

    Hamishe tarife shoma bude. You’re always spoken well of.

III. Results

Compliments are expression of positive evaluation; a speaker wishes to "make hearer feel good" (Goody 1978) through expressing that he (the hearer) has a certain positive feature. This positive evaluation may be semantic—i.e. through words like adjectives or verbs or syntactic—through structural markers such as what, how. For example, "You’ve got a nice coat" owes its positive load to the adjective nice, while what a fountain pen! has a marker for its positive load. Almost all the compliments in the corpus (gathered translations from different books and from numerous translation students) are semantically loaded (93.7%), and this semantic load is found to generally be adjectival (83.5%). It is mainly adjectives that provide semantic load in the four content areas.





Semantic load





Adjectival semantic load





The range of adjectives used in compliments is quite vast; adjectives occur in the data, in a range from a single occurrence (delicate, great) to some adjectives very frequently used (nice).

Frequency and percentage of adjectives in the four content areas








% of all


% of all adj. com



























































































Syntactic analysis

Compliment structures are found to be highly patterned as on the semantic level. To be exact, 43% of the compliments in the corpus utilize a single syntactic pattern:

NP (kheili/very) ADJ/ADV V.

Kote-e qashang-I dari. You’ve got a nice coat.

Another pattern accounts for 35.2% of the compliments:

Che/cheqadr/ajab what NP ADJ (V)!

Ajab khodkar-e qashang-i!

What a nice pen!

Compliment responses

Recent work in the analysis of conversational discourse has included the study of compliment responses among English-speaking American monolinguals (Pomerantz 1708), Americans, and South Africans (Herbert 1986, 1989, 1990).

On the basis of written translations, 12 types of compliment responses are distinguished.

  1. Appreciation token. A verbal acceptance of a compliment, acceptance not being tied to the specific semantics of the stimulus (e.g., mersi Thanks; kheili mamnun Thank you very much)

  2. Comment acceptance. Addressee accepts the complimentary force and offers a relevant comment on the complimented topic (e.g., are, khodam kheili khosham miyad. Yes, I’m pleased with it myself.)

  3. Praise upgrade. Addressee accepts the compliment and asserts that the complimentary force is vivid and it has always been true of him/her (e.g., hamishe khoshgel budam. I’ve always been pretty.)

  4. Comment history. Addressee offers a comment on the object complimented (e.g., az Suriye baram avodrand. They’ve brought it for me from Syria).

  5. Reassignment. Addressee agrees with the compliment assertion, but the complimentary force is transferred to some third person (e.g., kado-ye khaharam My sister give it to me) or to the object itself (e.g., az zibaiye joml-e as The sentence is beautiful itself.)

  6. Return. As with (5), except that the praise is returned to the first speaker (e.g., khubi az khodetune. It’s you who are good.)

  7. Scale down. Addressee disagrees with the complimentary force, pointing to some flaw in the object (e.g., maze ash khub nist, rang-o-ru dare The taste is not good, it looks good)

  8. Question. Addressee questions the sincerity or the appropriateness of the compliment (e.g., jeddi? Do you mean it?)

  9. Disagreement. Addressee asserts that the object complimented is not worthy of praise (e.g., na baba Not at all)

  10. Qualification. Weaker than (9); addressee qualifies the original assertion (e.g., qashang nemidunam vali garme I don’t know if it is nice, but it is warm.)

  11. No acknowledgement. Addressee either gives no response or responds with an irrelevant comment (e.g., ki gofte kafshe mano bepushi whoever told you to put on my shoes?

  12. Request interpretation

IV. Conclusion

Sociolinguistics is a new branch of study which came into life through the amalgamation of the sciences of sociology and linguistics. Linguistics studies a language regardless of the person, the group, or the society which speak the language, but sociolinguistics studies a language in relation to people in a group or a society. In the past, for becoming a translator, learning rules of grammar and vocabulary was considered enough but now, in addition to grammar and vocabulary, rules of use are also regarded to be important and essential. A specific high-frequency structure/word n the source language should be translated to a structure /word occurring with a fairly similar frequency in the target language. When we encounter them to translate them appropriately, it is clear that we need good mastery of the two sides.

For example, Iranian students in translation studies should know that although Persian allows use of several titles before a name, only one title is allowed in English.

V. References

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to do thing with words. Oxford: Clarendon.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. C. (1989). Politeness: some works which stress the formulaic nature of such politeness routines.

Goody, E.N. (1918) Toward a theory of question. In Goody (ed.), Question and politeness. Combridge:CUP. 17-43.

Herbert, R.K. (1986). SAY "thank you" or something. American Speech 61: 76-88.

Herbert, R. K. (1989). The structure of English compliment and compliment responses: A contrastive sketch. In W. Olesky (eds.), contrastive pragmatics. Amesterdam: John Benjamins. 3.35

Herbert, R.K. (1990). Sex-based differences in compliment behavior. Language in society 19: 201-24

Holmes, J., and Brown, D., (1987). Teachers and students learning about compliments. TESOL Quarterly 21:523-460

Hymes, D.H., (1972). On communication competence. In pride and Holmes, sociolinguistics

Hymes, D., (1972). Foundations in sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press.

Johnson, D. M., and Roen, D. H. (1992). Complimenting and involvement in peer reviewers: Gender variation. Language in Society 21:27-57.

Lackoff, R. (1975). Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper

Levinson, S.C. (1980). Speech act theory: The state of the art. Language and linguistics Abstracts 13/1:5-24

Levinson, S.C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: CUP.

Manes, J. (1983). Compliment: A mirror of cultural values. In N.Wolfson and E. Judd (eds.), sociolinguists and language acquisition. Rowley: Newbury Hones 96-102

Manes, J., and Wolfson, N., (1980). The compliment formula. In F. columns (ed.), Conversational routines. 115-32

Olshtain, E. (1989). Compliments and compliments from a "pay-off" perspective. Paper presented at the annual meeting of TESOL, San Antonis.

Pomerantz, A. (1978). Compliment responses: Notes on the co-operation of multiple constraints. In J. Schenlein (ed.), studies in the organization of conversational interaction. New York: Academic.79-112

Schegloff, E.A., and Sack, H., (1973). Opening up closing. Semiotica 814:289-327.

Stalnaker, R.C., (1972). Pragmatics. In D. Davidson and G. Harman. Semantics of natural language Dordrecht: Reidel. 380-97.

Wolfson, N., (1983). Rules of speaking. In Richards and Schmidt (eds.), Language and communication. 61-87

Wolfson, N., (1981). Compliments in cross-cultural perspective. TESOL

Wolfson, N., and Manes, J. (1980). The compliment as a social strategy. Papers in linguistics 13: 391-410.

Published - February 2013

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