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Communication Accommodation Theory

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Review of  Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication

Reviewer: Daria Dayter
Book Title: Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication
Book Author: Susan C. Herring Dieter Stein Tuija Virtanen
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2982

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The volume under review is the ninth, and final, addition to the comprehensive series Handbooks of Pragmatics edited by Wolfram Bublitz, Andreas Jucker and Klaus Schneider. “Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication” (CMC), however, is different from other books in the series. It deals with a relatively young field and therefore grapples with an emergent picture, rather than presenting canonized knowledge. The format of contributions is also different from that typically found in the genre of a handbook – the majority of articles in the volume combine a review of existing research with case studies.

29 contributions are written by specialists in the field of CMC, and established names such as Jannis Androutsopoulos, Christa Dürscheid, Susan Herring, Theresa Heyd and many others immediately recommend the volume to the reader. The introductory chapter by Susan Herring, Dieter Stein, and Tuija Virtanen is an insightful review of the key issues and trends in the field and provides a perfect point of entry into the study of CMC. The rest of the handbook is divided into 5 parts:

Part I (“Pragmatics of computer-mediated modes”, Chapters 2-9) is devoted to characterizing individual modes of CMC such as synchronous chat, blogging etc. with particular focus on the pragmatic implications of the medium. For instance, in “Email communication” Christa Dürscheid and Carmen Frehner, along with naming the oft-cited structural markers such as lexical abbreviation, syntactic reduction, non-standard punctuation and emulated prosody (p.42), bring to attention the novel usage of greeting and farewell formulae and explicit indicators of illocutionary force such as emoticons (pp.43-45). Continuing with an overview of two key theoretical models, Koch and Oesterreicher's (1985) orality-literacy model and Herring's (2004) computer-mediated discourse analytic approach, the authors conclude that a number of factors have a bearing on email's future development: move of email to mobile devices, growing amount of spam, and rise in popularity of personal social networking services. The subject of email is taken up by Helmut Gruber in “Mailing list communication,” where he reviews studies based on data from electronic mailing lists. Chapter 4, “Blogging,” by Cornelius Puschmann, discusses difficulties of defining a blog. These are aggravated by the skewed image of blogs in public discourse, which ”often implicitly takes highly visible topical blogs and casts them as typical or model instantiations” (p.88). Importantly, Puschmann recognizes that many key issues, such as the motivation to blog, the role blogging plays for a community, and the reflections of practitioners on their practice, lie outside the scope of purely linguistic analysis and call for interdisciplinary attention. The following two chapters, “Real-time chat” by John Paolillo and Asta Zelenkauskaite, and “Instant messaging” by Naomi Baron, are devoted to synchronous communication online. While the former deals with pragmatics of various multiparticipant chat modes (Multi-User Dungeon, Multi-User Dungeon object-oriented, AOL chat, Internet Relay Chat), the latter zooms in on personal instant messaging and specific phenomena such as away messages. Finally, the data in the last three chapters in this section is comparatively new to CMC and comes from interaction mediated by mobile devices, as well as non-text-based interaction (although the distinction between CMC and mobile communication has been blurring for some time (Tagg 2012)). Crispin Thurlow and Michele Poff in “Text messaging” provide a wide overview of existing research and come to the conclusion that since most commentary on texting as discursive practice is a-pragmatic, further research in this direction is warranted. Rich Ling and Naomi Baron in “Mobile phone communication” identify factors affecting pragmatics of everyday mobile phone use: cost issues, emancipation of adolescents, fashion, cultural expectations regarding availability, and choice of mode of communication (p. 199). “Synchronous voice-based computer-mediated communication,” by Christopher Jenks and Alan Firth, takes a conversation analytic approach to Skypecasts and similar audio chat rooms.

In Part II (“Classic pragmatic phenomena in computer-mediated communication”, Chapters 10-15) traditional pragmatic concepts of relevance, performativity and speech acts are examined in CMC environments. Looking at chat data, Susan Herring in “Relevance in computer-mediated conversation” finds that requirement of optimal relevance is relaxed in recreational CMC and that this loosened relevance is often exploited for playful effect. Synchronous chat makes another appearance in Tuija Virtainen’s “Performativity in computer-mediated communication” along with informal online discussions on a discussion board. Virtainen construes third-person emotes in social MUD and IRC and “mock performatives” (p.280) in forum postings as two types of the same phenomenon: an etiolated (“parasitic”) performative (p.273). Chapter 12, “Address in computer-mediated communication,” by Sandi Michele de Oliveira, provides an overview of the study of address from both general and pragmatic perspective. In conclusion, Oliveira raises research concerns such as preponderance of the essentialist view of identity, interpretative imprecision and lack of studies taking a discursive approach to address. The final three chapters of this section explore how CMC environment affects strategic language use. Sandra Harrison and Diane Allton in “Apologies in email discussion” report a case study that demonstrates that some apologising patterns, especially those accompanying trivial offences, deviate from offline interaction. In contrast to face-to-face interaction, the offence cannot be deduced from the physical context and has to be mentioned in the message along with the apology; the apology itself is often formulaic, and constitutes a symbol of adherence to group norms rather than genuine expression of regret. Miriam Locher in “Internet advice” examines advice-giving in a health advice column online and finds three main types of advice realization: declaratives, interrogatives inviting introspection or action, and imperatives inviting introspection or action (p. 346). Locher explains specific features of advice-giving in this environment (non-directness, lack of emoticons and non-standard spelling etc.) by referring to medium and situational factors, e.g. anonymity, message format, participant characteristics, purpose and tone, and hypothesises that advice-giving patterns might differ in other CMC environments. The section ends with Jaffrey Hancock’s and Amy Gonzales’ chapter “Deception in computer-mediated communication”, which first reviews feature-based approaches to deception and technology, and then addresses the linguistic aspects of deception on the internet. As research demonstrated, people tend to be more verbose when telling the truth than when lying. In regard to pronouns, lies online include more other-references but less self-references. Finally, emotive terms, especially negatively loaded ones, occur more frequently in online deception.

Part III (“Pragmatics of computer-mediated communication phenomena”, Chapters 16-19) mostly focuses on issues of authenticity and self-presentation in CMC. Theresa Heyd in “Email hoaxes” outlines distinctive features of the genre and discusses the communicative status of hoax emails against the backdrop of Grice’s Cooperative Principle and speech act theory. Martin Gill in “Authentication and Nigerian Letters” addresses contradictory linguistic practices of so-called ‘419’ scams, fraud emails in which the author purports to be a fugitive politician or financier from an African contry, asking the addressee to transfer some emergency funds in exchange for generous reward in the future. These letters include an abundance of authenticating features but fail to create a consistent and coherent authentic identity. “The maxims of online nicknames” by Loukia Lindholm applies Grice’s Conversational Maxims to the analysis of screen names on a forum for parents and another one for photographers. The last contribution of this section, “Micro-linguistic structural features of computer-mediated communication” by Markus Bieswanger, places emphasis on structural rather than pragmatic features of CMC. Bieswanger reiterates the thought that has frequently appeared throughout the volume – there is no single Netspeak variety (see Crystal 2001 for the original Netspeak argument), and language use online is shaped by a host of use- and user-related factors.

Part IV (“Discourse pragmatics of computer-mediated interaction”, Chapters 20-26) subsumes conversation analytic approaches to the subject matter. Rodney Jones opens the section with an account of a little-researched conversational phenomena, “Rhythm and timing in chat room interaction”. He observes that turn-taking in chats is organized in a complex system of quickening and slowing rhythms – “bursts and breaks” of interaction (p. 500) – that allows for conversational synchrony in several simultaneously maintained chats. The following four chapters -- “Conversational floor in computer-mediated discourse” by James Simpson, “Conversational coherence in small group chat” by Kris Markman, “Repair in chat room interaction” by Jennifer Baker Jacobs and Angela Cora Garcia, and “Responses and non-responses in workplace emails” by Karianne Skovholt and Jan Svennevig – all, in their own way, warn against blindly taking over the analytical toolkit from the study of face-to-face communication despite apparent similarities across online and offline contexts. Amelie Hössjer in “Small talk, politeness, and email communication in the workplace” demonstrates through a comparison of two email corpora, one of a virtual and one of a physically based community of practice, that small talk has a much more prominent position in the online communication of the former type of community. The last empirical chapter of the volume is “Flaming and linguistic impoliteness on a listserv” by Brenda Danet. This chapter comprises a short overview of research on flaming and a study of a conflict on an electronic mailing list of Israelis in the US.

Part V (“Broader perspectives”, Chapters 27-29) broadens the scope by tackling the overarching concepts of code-switching, genre and narrativity. Jannis Androutsopoulos in “Code-switching in computer-mediated communication” notes that traditional frameworks may not be entirely suitable to the analysis of CMC. A handy summary of existing research on code-switching in CMC in a table form is expanded and discussed in the remainder of the chapter. Androutsopoulos concludes with a call for more research on a private dyadic data which has been underrepresented in CMC scholarship so far. Alexandra Georgakopoulou in “Narrative analysis and computer-mediated communication” traces the development of research on narrative from fictional storytelling to everyday life narratives by ordinary people, which are prevalent in social media. Finally, “Genre and computer-mediated communication” by Janet Giltrow presents a review of genre study off- and online, and throws a glance back at the Part III articles from a genre standpoint.


If, as the title suggests, the aim of this handbook was to provide articles for ready reference on a broad variety of topics in CMC, it definitely has succeeded. The scope of the book, which spans description of individual CMC modes, analysis of traditional and CMC-specific pragmatic phenomena, and wider theoretical and methodological issues of Internet studies, makes it potentially useful as a course book or a reference work. While readers from outside the discipline will appreciate the comprehensive treatment of the topic, the original research and critical perspectives will make the volume interesting to the experienced CMC scholars as well.

As mentioned earlier, contributions are somewhat heterogeneous and range from encyclopedic articles reviewing existing research (e.g. Ch. 2, 19, 27, 29) to articles with minimal literature reviews and basis on case studies (e.g. Ch. 13, 18, 20, 25). Many theoretical sections overlap in their account of such key issues as speech act theory, Cooperative Principle, or Brown & Levinson’s (1987) Politeness Theory, which is understandable given the pragmatic focus of the volume. Indeed, this is an advantage for a reader who treats the book as a reference work, since it enables each article to stand alone. However, the fact that this is not a typical handbook (as authors admit in the introduction) places it between two chairs: on the one hand, case study-based articles may be too in-depth for a reader from outside the discipline; on the other, introductions covering the same issues may get repetitive for a CMC scholar reading the volume from cover to cover.

That said, many contributions succeed in achieving a perfect balance of original research and an overview of theory. For instance, the chapter on blogging by Cornelius Puschmann provides a comprehensive collection of references on every issue connected with blogging and a graphic representation of the existing research in the area by field, methodology, research questions and ‘implicit conceptualization’ (p. 86) – both of which would be invaluable to a reader seeking introduction to the subject matter. At the same time, in the remainder of the chapter Puschmann offers an insightful account of the pragmalinguistic dimension of blogs, illustrating his points about deixis, audience design and addressivity with help of two blog posts.

Organisation of articles by thematic blocks allowed the editors to make visible the trends and generalities that appeared again and again in contributions by different authors. For instance, all conversation analytic chapters emphasized the importance of looking at the process of turn construction, e.g. by video recording of the participants typing their turns. Also interesting in this regard are the different transcription solutions reflecting the multimodal data.

Concerning the technological modes dealt with in the volume, the net has been cast so wide that mobile phone outputs (Ch. 7 and 8) have also been included. This reflects the growing concern in the field that the classic term Computer-Mediated Communication may be too restrictive and should give way to a more inclusive one such as, possibly, Digital Media Communication or Networked Communication (see e.g. recent discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list, “CMC – mobile phones included?”). It is regrettable that while the established genres of email or chat received a lot of attention across the sections, newer modes such as microblogging and social networks did not make an appearance. The editors remark that “significant bodies of language-focused research have yet to accumulate” on these topics (p. 5). However, both Twitter and Facebook have attracted a lot of scholarly attention in the last years (Androutsopoulos 2013, Bolander and Locher 2010, Zappavigna 2012), and their omission is quite noticeable.

Several issues are raised by authors throughout the book: the existing imbalance towards research on public domain CMC and in English language, as well as the danger of mindlessly transferring offline frameworks onto online data. These can be considered as guidelines for further work in this new, dynamic field, a snapshot of which is portrayed in this book. On the whole, the volume offers a broad and interesting sample of CMC research and would be of interest to advanced students and researchers alike.


Androutsopoulos, Jannis. 2013. Networked multilingualism: Some language practices on Facebook and their implications. International Journal of Bilingualism prepublished 11 June 2013. 1-21.

AoIR Mailing List. CMC – mobile phones included? Accessed on 16 July 2013.

Bolander, Brook & Miriam Locher. 2010. Constructing identity on Facebook: report on a pilot study. In: Junod, Karen and Didier Maillat (eds.), Performing the Self. Tübingen: Narr. 165-187.

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Crystal, David. 2001. Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Herring, Susan. 2004. Computer-mediated discourse analysis: An approach to researching online behaviour. In: Barab, Sasha, Rob Kling and James Gray (eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning. New York: Cambridge UP. 338-376.

Koch, Peter and Wulf Oesterreicher. 1985. Sprache der Nähe – Sprache der Distanz. Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im Spannungsfeld von Sprachtheorie und Sprachgeschichte In: Daniel Jacob et al. (eds.), Romanistisches Jahrbuch 36. Berlin: DeGruyter. 15-43.

Tagg, Caroline. 2012. Discourse of Text Messaging: Analysis of SMS Communication. London: Continuum.

Zappavigna, Michele. 2012. Discourse of Twitter and Social Media. London: Continuum.
Daria Dayter received her first degree from the Russian Christian Academy for the Humanities, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and her M.A. from the University of Bayreuth, Germany. She is a research assistant in the English Linguistics department, University of Bayreuth, Germany. At the moment she is working on a PhD project on self-praise and indirect complaints in microblogging. Her research interests include language in the internet, computer-mediated communication, youth language, and politeness theory.

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