Communicating likelihood and managing face: Can we say it is probable when we know it to be certain?


Different functions can be performed by probability phrases such as ‘it is probable/possible/likely that x.’ Mainly, speakers may communicate a vague judgment about the likelihood of event x, or they may wish the recipient to focus on reasons for the occurrence of event x. We argue that there is another communicative function which has yet to be documented, namely, the face-management function. Such function consists in mitigating threat to the addressee when x is a criticism or an imposition. Data show that the phrases ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ are indeed understood differently (have different membership functions) depending on whether they modify neutral or face-threatening contents. We consider the potential misunderstandings and judgmental mistakes that may arise from ambiguity about which function of verbal uncertainty is being performed.

Proceedings of the 27th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
JF Bonnefon
JF Bonnefon
Behavioral Scientist