A diplomatic editor knows how to balance directness and politeness in order to effectively communicate with authors.

As editors, we want to be diplomatic—we want to communicate our edits and our suggestions to authors in a kind, clear, and helpful manner. We want to make sure that we are polite and respectful to authors and to the work they have entrusted to us. But we also have to be direct enough to ensure that authors will understand our suggestions. These two things—politeness and directness—can sometimes feel like opposing forces. How can we learn to better balance directness and politeness in order to maintain productive relationships with authors?


Shoshana Blum-Kulka, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conducted four experiments that asked native speakers of both Hebrew and English to rank sentences in order of most polite to least polite and most direct to least direct. The participants were given example sentences in their native language from each of nine categories, ranging from direct sentences like “Move your car” to indirect sentences like “We don’t want any crowding” (133). The nine categories come from the CCSARP (Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Patterns) Project, which studies speech acts in eight different languages. Blum-Kulka (1987) presents the results of this research in her article “Indirectness and Politeness in Requests: Same or Different?” published in the Journal of Pragmatics.  

In both languages, the most direct category (mood derivables) was considered the least polite, but the least direct category (mild hints) was not considered the most polite (Blum-Kulka 1987, 131). According to the data, the most polite category in both languages was query preparatories, such as “Would you mind moving your car?” (133, 137). Query preparatories ranked sixth most direct in English and seventh in Hebrew. Similarly, although hedged performatives (such as “I would like to ask you to move your car”) ranked fourth most polite in English and second most polite in Hebrew, they ranked fifth most direct in English and sixth most direct in Hebrew (133, 137). 

A certain adherence to the pragmatic clarity of the message is an essential part of politeness.

—Shoshana Blum-Kulka (19887)


Blum-Kulka (1987) argues that in both languages, “indirectness does not necessarily imply politeness,” because “a certain adherence to the pragmatic clarity of the message is an essential part of politeness” (131). This means that to be polite, we should strive to be direct enough to be understood while still maintaining a level of indirectness. According to Blum-Kulka’s research, the sentence types that balance these values the best are query preparatories and hedged performatives. As editors, we should use these kinds of syntactic formats when we frame our suggestions to authors. By balancing directness and politeness, we will be more diplomatic as editors, and we will maintain more polite and direct relationships with authors. 

To learn more about the relationship between indirectness and politeness in requests, read the full article:

Blum-Kulka, Shoshana. 1987. “Indirectness and Politeness in Requests: Same or Different?” Journal of Pragmatics 11, no. 2 (April): 131–146. https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(87)90192-5

—Sam Niven, Editing Research


Find more research

Read Shoshana Blum-Kulka and Elite Olshtain’s (1984) article to learn more about the categories used in Blum-Kulka’s 1987 study: “Requests and Apologies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Speech Act Realization Patterns (CCSARP).” Applied Linguistics 5, no. 3 (October): 196–213. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/5.3.196

Read Jo Mackiewicz and Katherine Riley’s (2003) article to learn more about how to apply Blum-Kulka’s research to the editing field: “The Technical Editor as Diplomat: Linguistic Strategies for Balancing Clarity and Politeness.” Technical Communication 50, no. 1 (February): 83–94. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/stc/tc/2003/00000050/00000001/art00009

Check out Erin Nightingale’s Editing Research article to find out what authors think about their relationships with their editors: “The Key to Understanding Authors.”