While learning English students not only learn vocabulary, grammar, etc. but they also find out more about cultures, traditions. They might come across an interesting phenomenon, which is called distance building devices. Distance is recognized as a positive value in American culture, as Americans are known for being individualistic, they focus on the individual’s rights, wishes and never impose their will on the others. On the contrary, Russian culture is a collectivistic one. They usually impose their thoughts, ideas on the other people. And here distance is a negative value.

So how can we learn to shorten the distance between speakers in English?

Among linguistic means building distance there are ways of addressing people (Mr, Mrs, Miss, darling, dear, honey), diminutives (Lizie, auntie, Charlie), whimperatives (Would you please…?) and tag questions (will you?, won’t you?, ok?).

mr and mrs Skyteach

Let’s look at the conversation between Mr. Hamilton and Mrs Hastings from “The Ultimate Gift”.

Mr Hamilton: “Do you think I am old, Miss Hаstings? I think it’s about time I retire from this law firm”.

Though they have known each other for a long time, they still go on speaking to each other in a formal way with the second person plural. The English ‘you’ can be seen as a distance-building device, as it keeps everybody at a distance. American address forms such as Bob, Jim, Kate have nothing to do with closeness but imply informality and friendliness. They show less distance than Dr. Smith, but they do not show intimacy as the Russian ‘you’.

названия 1 Skyteach
In some languages the central place of warmth is reflected in the highly developed systems of diminutives, involving not only nouns but also adjectives and adverbs. Once I heard from my student the following example:

Olga: “Take some more dear-little-salad”

The praise seems to embrace the food, the guest, and the action of the guest desired by the host. The diminutive and the imperative work hand in hand in the attempt to get the guest to eat more.

In English, productive diminutive derivation hardly exists at all. Here you can find some additional information about diminutives in English and their types.


HE In the News Making Time for Family Meals Skyteach
Family Eating Lunch Together

Whimperatives may make the distance between the speakers bigger as well. In English, if the speaker wants to get the addressee to do something and does not assume that he could force the addressee to do it, the speaker would normally not use a bare imperative, but simply a whimperative.

Will you please halt at the stop?

Could you please halt at the stop?

Tag Questions

SkyteachThe next point to be mentioned is the use of tag questions as a distance building device. As the speakers don’t want to impose anything to the listener, they leave a chance of agreement or disagreement thus making a distance between the speaker and the listener. English speech is characterized by an all-pervasive presence of tag question.

“Close the door, will you?”

“Close the door, won’t you?”

“Close the door, could you?”

“Close the door, can’t you?”

“Close the door, why don’t you?”

“Close the door, why can’t you?”

“Close the door, would you?”

Here is a worksheet to practise these distance building devices.

Have great and interesting lessons!

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