Pretty Please: The Pragmatics of Petitionary Practice

Asking, or asking for almost anything, directions, help, love, money, even for the time,  is asking for trouble, so we must take a great deal of trouble with the way we ask in order to head it off. Because asking is largely an intraspecific action, it always takes place within a landscape of relative advantage and disadvantage, and asymmetrical relations of power, which the act of asking has the capacity to confirm or disturb. ‘I only asked’, we may protest when a request goes wrong; but one rarely if ever ‘only asks’. To ask is to request some object or service, but it is always also by the same token to seek permission for one’s request, or secure it by enquiring into the acceptability of making it. To ask is usually, that is, to ask a shadow question about one’s act of asking; hence the familiarity of formulae such as ‘May I ask?’, or the use of modal forms like ‘could I take this chair?’.

The governing assumption in politeness theory is that this kind of delicacy arises from the fact that making a request may be a ‘face-threatening action’, that potentially threatens the freedom of action of one’s interlocutor. Asking anything of anyone is requesting a gift or benefit that they do not have to give. This can seem like an attempted theft, as described by Gertude Held: ‘In R[equest] situations ego takes on the role of the “illicit taker”, the person demanding a gift. This is tantamount to an attack on alter’s territory and thus to an unexpected disturbance and inconvenience’ (Held 1999, 30-1). Since, according to Robin Lakoff, one of the three most important principles of politeness is ‘Give Options’ (Lakoff 1973, 298), one must avoid giving the impression that one has any right to what one requests, while securing nevertheless one’s right to make the request. Sometimes this acceptability is secured by a kind of excuse or apology in advance for the act of asking: ‘Can I enquire whether…’; ‘Do you mind my asking if…?’ This can take subtle forms: ‘I wonder whether you would be willing to give up your seat?’ sounds like actually asking the question, but is framed in such a way as to ask for some preliminary reassurance as to whether asking the person to give up their seat is likely to offend or to achieve its end.

Asking is difficult not just because asking may seem like an aggressive imposition. For asking is an intimate act, or an act which intimates intimacy. To enquire even of somebody’s well-being is to reach into their personal space, if only in requiring them to give some sort of account of themselves, which is at the same time an affirmation of their shared commitment to the protocols of social exchange. Asking any kind of question always sings, like the Mock Turtle, ‘Will you, wo’n’t you, will you, wo’n’t you, wo’n’t you join the dance?’ (Carroll 1998, 90) Requesting or enquiring are both forms of requirement: if any asking simultaneously asks abot the acceptability of its asking, it also asks its subject to agree to give an answer, whatever the content of that answer might be.

Asking is therefore always attended by moral, emotional and political tension. Asking is difficult because of our awareness that being asked imposes, as we say, a demand; that any ask is potentially a big ask.

Like most actions, asking has both a negative and a contrary. The negative of asking is simply not asking. Like any negative, this can take a multitude of forms; I might decide to leave you in undisturbed possession of your bag of crisps, or I might simply steal them from you. But the contrary of asking is demanding, asking in such a way as to reduce the duality just defined, of asking for an object, and asking if one may ask, to nothing. A demand assumes that it need not ask any permission for its request.

The intention of this book is to enquire into the ways in which the action of asking is performed, across the full range of its modalities, across the spectrum that runs from the less self-authorising kinds of asking like begging, pleading, praying, imploring, beseeching, entreating, suing, supplicating and soliciting, through to the more self-authorising modes of asking, like proposing, offering, inviting, requesting, appealing, applying, petitioning, claiming and demanding.

The focus will be on those kinds and occasions of asking which seem especially unstable, in which entreaty and demand seem to mingle or alternate. There is one mode of asking in which this ambivalence is interesting and intense, namely petition. By petition, I mean something more than the act of addressing a formal request, usually in some public manner, in an authorised fashion and to some recognised authority. I mean a kind of asking in which the unauthorised and the authorising are compounded.

One may see this comingling in the two words claim and bid. To claim is to assert one’s right to something, usually through the assumption or assertion that it is one’s due, or that one already owns it. Indeed, so self-authorising is the act of assertion that one may use the word claim of a purely assertive action, an occupation of territory, for example. And yet claiming is from clamare, to cry out, or call upon, as in the opening words of Psalm 129 in the Vulgate version of Psalm 129: ‘De profundis clamavi ad te domine’.

To bid has an even more complex semantic profile. In Old English, bædon and biddan could mean to ask, entreat or pray. In his New World of Words, (1678), Edmund Phillips explains ‘to Bid a boon’, as ‘to ask a Boon’, while noting that it is an ‘old word’. This survives longer in German, where ‘bitte’, I beg you, is the ordinary word both for ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ (as ‘I beg you to accept my thanks’). A bead is so-called by transference from the act of gebed, prayer, which the tellng of rosary beads would accompany; so to bid a bead is to say a prayer. A beadsman could be a man of prayer, or one licensed, or bidden to beg. At the beginning of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, John Keats writes of the the ancient Beadsman that ‘among/Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,/And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve’ (Keats 1970, 195), doing the work of bidding for salvation as he has been bidden. To bid can still mean to ask for, or solicit, as in bidding at an auction, and, in the archaic ‘bidding farewell’, a praying or wishing; but it can also mean to order, enjoin or command, as well as, in ‘forbidding’, the negative form of command. Entreaty also has a buried intimation of force. To entreat is to attempt to negotiate a treaty, as between warring parties, treating in this sense deriving from tractare, trahere, to handle, manage, draw, or drag. This combination of request and requirement is at work to some degree in all the acts in which I will be interested.

In 1970, Jerrold M. Sadock proposed the term ‘whimperative’ for a question that functions as a request, or an imperative, such as ‘Can you pass the salt?’ ‘Why don’t you just shut up?’ In the online Double-Tongued Dictionary, Grant Barrett insists that the term is a portmanteau word formed from ‘imperative’ and ‘wh-’ as ‘a wildcard formative for the interrogatives which, who, when, what, etc.’ But the success of the word does seem due at least to the suggestion of whimpering in this kind of request, implying something of the deliberate and paradoxically aggressive self-lowering of the beggar. There may also be an unconscious recall of the long tradition of antagonism towards the distinctively whining or nasal intonation of the beggar’s ‘canting’.

I propose to refer to such acts of asking as petitionary actions. Less formally, one might say that petitionary actions occur when some kind of begging may be in operation. This is more than a matter of interest to students of pragmatics, or the study of linguistic use. In fact, human societies are built around a huge range of actions, structures and even institutions for the forming of petitionary actions and responses to them.

Petitionary acts belong to the category of performatives, the term introduced by J.L. Austin for those verbal utterances or expressions which perform an action, rather than, say, referring to an object or state of affairs. But they are a special kind of performative action, which is characterised as a kind of retracted action, an action that performs the act of retracting action. In this, petitionary acts are not one kind of speech act among others, but rather a special kind of exception to illocution, a speech-unact, or redaction of the act of acting in speech. They are a form of assertive yielding, a giving way (Connor 2019) or, to use the term I have proposed for the large class of such withdrawing actions, abstitution. Samuel Beckett provides an example of such an action of inarticulate begging in the story told in his radio play Embers, in which a character simply entreats: ‘Please! Please!’ without further specification.In …but the clouds… the character styled M recounts ‘I began to beg of her, to appear, to me. Such had long been my use and wont. No sound, a begging of the mind, to her, to appear, to me’ (Beckett 1984, 420). Begging need not be faint or mute, of course: indeed, it is often highly insistent or declamatory and always constitutes a demand: but it must always combine demand with the performance of incapacity, or anagential action.

Petition is a paradoxical act. Petition is a form of supplication which simultaneously emphasises the powerlessness of the supplicator and asserts a demand. Petition dramatises the petitioner’s right to a benefit that they have no right to expect. Petition partakes of the same complication as the act of suing, in which the suer is in a condition of weakness, dependence or disadvantage, and yet brings forward a formal request. Petition is an exception to the principle that beggars cannot be choosers, since petition involves the active choice of the beggar’s place. In Oxford, when you have completed the requirements for a DPhil, you are granted ‘leave to supplicate’, that is to say, to ask formally for what you in fact already have. I write these words on Maundy Thursday, 18th April 2019, the day  before Good Friday, on which Maundy Money is given out by the Queen. Maundy derives from the mandate or command of Christ, given in accompaniment with the ceremony of foot-washing at the Last Supper: ‘A new commandment (mandatum novum) I give to you, that you love one another’ (John 13:34). It therefore conjoins humility and demand. To maund came to mean to beg, and to maunder , probably under the influence of wander, to ramble idly or aimlessly, especially in speech, in the way ascribed to beggars.

It is more than curious that philosophers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, theologians, economists and cultural historians should have devoted so much attention to the theory of the gift and practices of gift-giving and so little attention to the demand side of the transaction, the supplication of gift-supply in the petitionary practices that are designed to precipitate grace and favour. Perhaps it is because we possess an illuminating and influential book by Marcel Mauss called The Gift, but not a book of similar reach and intent called The Entreaty, The Bum, or The Pitch,  that we have so failed to notice the centrality of the petitionary relation in human society.

Historians have occasionally turned their attention to the history of beggars, sometimes encouraged by what is regularly represented as the scandal of people reduced by oppression and systematic inequality to indigence. But such histories are at once insufficiently focussed and insufficently expansive. Begging and beggars are often understood as part of a larger picture involving vagrancy and the dynamics of social dissent and marginality. Such histories tend to have little to say about the styles, experiences and practices of begging in its own terms, and take for granted that we know perfectly well what begging is, and need to understand its causes rather than what it does.

On the other hand, seeing begging as part of the history of outsiders or marginal social groups massively misses the massive centrality of begging to human affairs. In the medieval world, begging formed part of a culture of petition that operated at all levels of society. It may seem easy to accept Barry Windeatt’s suggestion that the medieval culture of petition is far removed from the arrangements for seeking and delivering redress in modern societies.

From the hindsight of modern society, where most of  the contingencies and grievances that concern medieval petitioners would find resolution and redress through the regular apparatus and agencies of a modern state, the extant corpus of petitions serves to emphasise starkly the difference and distance of an earlier world where so much might depend so crucially on success or otherwise in petitioning someone with more power and resource. (Windeatt 2012, 192)

In fact, however, we should be aware that the move has not been from ‘a culture where recourse to petition is part of  how society functions’ (Windeatt 2012, 207) to a culture of abstractly administered redress, but rather from one kind of petitionary culture to another. For it is true of all cultures, if certainly true in different senses, that ‘recourse to petition is part of  how society functions’. Supplication may give way to application, but petition can be guaranteed never to be marginal in any human society. Human societies are bound together, it has sometimes been suggested, by debt. There is at least as strong a claim for the binding force of petition and favour.

An expanded view quickly discloses how huge the range of petitionary practices is. All human beings are cognitively formed in the course of an enormously extended period of essentially helpless infancy, in which the only method of obtaining nutrition, care and the attention that is essential to survival is through practices of begging, practices that we should not be at all surprised to find represented widely among very many social animals. For at least the first decade of life, the most cognitively formative of a human being’s entire life – and, in the extended infancy characteristic of developed societies which may extend into a second or third decade – the entire physical, cognitive and emotional lives of young humans are characterised by systematic relations of dependency, of which the psychosocial glue is the act of petition. Thereafter, the practice of systematic begging is a feature in different ways of most human societies, traditional and modern.

Petition is powerfully at work in the act of prayer, practised as a matter of religious duty, regularly and unselfconsciously, by millions of humans past and present. At any one time more human beings worldwide will be engaged in petition of or devotion to an absent but all-providing being than in acts of procreation. This is not a marginal or eccentric occupation. Most societes have secularised systems of formal petition, addressed in approved ways to recognised authorities, meaning that petition also encompasses acts of legal appeal, supplication and what is still called suing.

Much of the play of sexual seeking, tender and granting is driven through variations of suit, supplication and favour. The patriarchal division that has characterised almost every society we know of through human history reduces the female half of society that is denied the opportunity for productive work to the condition of sexual mendicant. The advertising industry has its roots in the supplicatory display of sexual opportunities, in which begging for custom represents itself as a display of charity.

As the stylisation of imaginary desires and satisfactions, art and literature are driven by petitionary energies and investments. Before the rise of market relations in relation to art, all artists have subsisted in relations of patronage that depend upon begging, and artists remain the most skilful and inventive exponents of the arts of beggary, in order to maintain the demand for their pseudo-supply of unwanted goods.

Much of the time of those in senior positions in many professions, and in particular the educational and academic professions, will be taken up with the distribution of resources, in the form of grants and employment opportunities, through the administration of different sorts of application process, in which the fact of competition does little to conceal its essentially please-may-I-have petitionary nature. Many large public institutions, including very powerful and prestigious organisations and wealthy universities, depend on practices of what is hard-headedly known as ‘fundraising’, but consists of the professional soliciting of gifts, recalling the systems of extractive mendicancy of the astronomically wealthy religious institutions of the medieval world.

On the largest scale of all, human beings engage in prodigous acts of production that disguise the essential relation of parasitic dependency we have to the natural world. We not only keep vast numbers of animals in a domesticated condition that enables us to make economic use of them, we also ‘keep’ them, at a ruinous environmental cost, as pets, which is to say, in a petitionary relation to us.



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Beckett, Samuel (1984). Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber.

Carroll, Lewis (1970). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Connor, Steven (2019). Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Held, Gudrun (1999). ‘Submission Strategies as an Expression of the Ideology of Politeness: Reflections on the Verbalisation of Social Power Relations.’ Pragmatics, 9, 21-36.

Keats, John (1970). Poetical Works. Ed. H.W. Garrod. London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, Robin (1973). ‘The Logic of Politeness: oOr, Minding Your P’s and Q’s.’ In Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Ed. Claudia Corum, T. Cedric Smith-Stark, and Ann Weiser. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 292–305.

Sadock, Jerrold M. 1970. ‘Whimperatives.’ In Studies Presented to R.B. Lees by his Students. Ed. Jerrold M. Sadock and A. Vanek. Edmonton: Linguistic Research, Inc. 223-228.

Windeatt, Barry (2012). ‘Plea and Petition in Chaucer.’ In Chaucer in Context: A Golden Age of English Poetry. Ed. Gerald Morgan. Oxford: Peter Lang, 189-215.