Thursday, February 21, 2013

Suzette Haden Elgin - A New Verbal Attack Pattern?

Those of you who are familiar with my Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense materials are also familiar with the set of English Verbal Attack Patterns (VAPs). (Like "If you REALLY loved me, YOU wouldn't [X]....." and so on.) I think I've found a new one, and that pleases me; that doesn't happen very often, and it hasn't happened in years. This pattern -- "Don't tell ME [X]...." -- came to my attention when I saw an example in one of the books on intonation that I've been reading. As with "EVEN a...." and "If you REALLY...", the opening words appear to be all it takes to signal that the utterance is a verbal attack.

The item seems to me to meet all the criteria for a VAP, but I'd like some peer review, please; let me know if you agree or disagree. Here's my evidence for you to judge, with examples.

**All VAPs must have two parts:

  1. the bait, which is the open attack that's supposed to get the targeted person's attention and provoke a response; and 
  2. one or more other attacks that are sheltered in presuppositions. 

For example:

  1. "Don't tell ME you didn't know it was Friday!"
  2. "Don't tell ME you cleaned this house!"


  1. You did know it was Friday, and you're lying if you claim otherwise.
  2. You didn't clean this house, and you're lying if you claim otherwise.


1 and 2. Lying to me would be useless; there's no way you could fool me!

**All VAPs must have a neutral non-attack counterpart -- an utterance that contains the same words but isn't an attack, and that differs from the attack only because it's set to a different tune. For example: 

       3a. "Don't tell me you've forgotten your ticket!"

       3b. "Don't tell ME you've forgotten your ticket!"

Sentence #3a just means that I'm horrified because it has suddenly dawned on me that you may have forgotten your ticket; I'm saying, "Oh no! Please say you haven't forgotten your ticket!" It's not an attack, and it says nothing at all about your truthfulness. (Like any English utterance whatsoever, it could of course be made hostile; it could be said sarcastically or viciously. But that wouldn't make it a VAP.) Sentence #3b, on the other hand, accuses you of lying and tells you not to bother; it means, "You didn't forget your ticket, and you're lying if you claim that you did -- and don't bother trying that with me, because there's no way you could fool me."

**Finally, a special "attack tune" is characteristic of the VAPs. The "Don't tell ME" utterances have a very distinctive melody, with a sharp rise in pitch on "ME" and then a sharp drop in pitch for the rest of the utterance. 

Copyright © 2002 Suzette Haden Elgin



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