Appropriateness in Communication

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A group of young people in a business meeting.
Appropriateness depends on context. Appropriate language might be more casual in some workplaces and more formal in others. Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

In linguistics and communication studies, appropriateness is the extent to which an utterance is perceived as suitable for a particular purpose and a particular audience in a particular social context. The opposite of appropriateness is (not surprisingly) inappropriateness.

As noted by Elaine R. Silliman et al., "All speakers, regardless of the dialect they speak, tailor their discourse and linguistic choices to meet social conventions for interactional and linguistic appropriateness" (Speaking, Reading, and Writing in Children With Language Learning Disabilities, 2002).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Communicative Competence

  • "In the mid to late 1960s awareness was increasing among applied linguists of the problem of over-emphasis on structural competence and insufficient attention paid to other dimensions of communicative competence, particularly appropriateness. [Leonard] Newmark (1966) is a clear example of this awareness, and his paper speaks of the student who may be entirely 'structurally competent,' yet who is unable to perform even the simplest communicative task.

    "In his seminal paper ["On Communicative Competence"], [Dell] Hymes (1970) provides the theoretical framework in which this issue can be addressed. He describes four parameters of communicative competence: the possible, the feasible, the appropriate and the performed. He argues that Chomskyian linguistics placed too much attention on the first of these, and there is no doubt that language teaching had done the same. Of the three remaining parameters it was the appropriate that caught the attention of applied linguists interested in language teaching, and a good part of what came to be called communicative language teaching (CLT) may be seen as an attempt to bring the teaching of appropriateness into the language classroom."
    (Keith Johnson, "Foreign Language Syllabus Design." Handbook of Foreign Language Communication and Learning, ed. by Karlfried Knapp, Barbara Seidlhofer, and H. G. Widdowson. Walter de Gruyter, 2009)

    Examples of Communicative Appropriateness

    • "The appropriateness of a contribution and its linguistic realization as one or more utterances has been defined as being calculated with regard to the nature of of the connectedness between a coparticipant's communicative intention, its linguistic realization and its embeddedness in linguistic and social contexts, as is illustrated with regard to the following examples (12) and (13):
      (12) I hereby declare this meeting closed and wish you a happy new year.

      (13) Let's call it a day, and let's hope 2003 is not gonna be as chaotic as 2002.
      Contribution (12) is undoubtedly grammatical, well-formed and acceptable, and it can be assigned the status of an appropriate contribution if particular social-context constraints and requirements obtain. Because of the verbal form gonna, contribution (13) cannot necessarily be seen as grammatical and well-formed, but it can be assigned the status of an acceptable contribution and it can also be assigned the status of an appropriate contribution in a contextual configuration which must be similar to the one required for (12). So, what contextual constraints and requirements are necessary to assign (12) and (13) the statuses of appropriate contributions? Both contributions have to be produced by the chairperson of a meeting--a fairly formal meeting in (12) and a fairly informal meeting in (13)--and the chair has to address the ratified participants of the meeting. As regards time and location, both must be uttered right at the end or right at the beginning of a calendar year, and both must be uttered in an institutional setting, a more formal one in (12) and a more informal one in (13). In spite of their different linguistic realizations, (12) and (13) require identical interactional roles (Goffman 1974; Levinson 1988). Unlike (12), however, (13) requires less fixed social roles and a less determinate setting in which it is possible to close a meeting in a less routinized manner (Aijmer 1996). As a consequence of these contextual configurations, well-formed discourse and appropriate discourse meet in their interrelated categories of communicative intention, linguistic ​realization and linguistic context, and they depart with regard to their accommodation of social contexts. Hence, well-formed discourse is not necessarily appropriate, but appropriate discourse is necessarily well-formed."
      (Anita Fetzer, Recontextualizing Context: Grammaticality Meets Appropriateness. John Benjamins, 2004)

      Appropriateness and Austin's Felicity Conditions

      • "How shall we begin an analysis of appropriateness/inappropriateness? We start with [John L.] Austin's (1962) felicity conditions. Austin's felicity conditions are usually interpreted as nothing more than the conditions for performing a speech act felicitously. We, however, claim that Austin, in describing how an act becomes felicitous or infelicitous, describes the special relationship between an act performed and its circumstances, i.e. between a speech act and its internal context. Such a description illustrates what it is for an act to be performed. . . .

        "[T]he elements of performing an illocutionary act, other than uttering a certain sentence, include certain conventions existing and applicable, along with circumstances and persons existing (conventionality); the speaker's actual, accurate performance and the hearer's actual, expected response (performativity); and a thought/feeling/intention, and a commitment personified (personification)."
        (Etsuko Oishi, "Appropriateness and Felicity Conditions: A Theoretical Issue." Context and Appropriateness: Micro Meets Macro, ed. by Anita Fetzer. John Benjamins, 2007)

      Appropriateness in Online English

      • "In this age of tremendous technological change there is great uncertainty as to the appropriateness of linguistic choices in digital writing (Baron 2000: Chap. 9; Crystal 2006: 104–12; Danet 2001: Chap. 2). . . . [N]on-native speakers of English have a double burden: deciphering what is culturally appropriate in English, while contending with the same puzzlement as native speakers regarding how to respond to the affordances and constraints of new media.

        "It would be a mistake to attribute changing linguistic patterns to technological factors alone. The trend toward greater informality was already recognized in the early 1980s, before personal computers became common. Robin Lakoff (1982) noted that written documents of all kinds were becoming more speech-like. The Plain Language in the USA and the UK pursued the reform of bureaucratic and legal language to make it, in effect, more like speech (Redish 1985). Naomi Baron (2000) showed that ideological change regarding the teaching of writing fostered a more oral style."
        (Brenda Danat, "Computer-Mediated English." The Routledge Companion to English Language Studies, ed. by Janet Maybin and Joan Swann. Routledge, 2010)