Degrees of Understanding of Verbal Fun Exhibited in Romantic Comedies

(A research-based presentation paper originally; by one NEB; left as such)


In daily life, it is not always the case that parties involved in a conversational  exchange will always cooperate, that is, adhere to what is termed “cooperative principle” (Grice 1975 in Yule 1996). There are apparently various reasons for this, some of which are unwillingness to talk to strangers, feeling of being disturbed, and manufacture of fun.

In many cases, in fact, cooperative principle is exploited in such a way that the exchange in which the principle is to be observed manufactures fun solely. This is especially the case of romantic comedies. My previous project on investigating this kind of exploitation sampling the comedy While You Were Sleeping reveals that this kind of exploitation of cooperative principle does exist. Building on its findings, this research now seeks to reveal students’ degrees of understanding of verbal fun in romantic comedies.

Theoretical Framework

Exploitation of Cooperative Principle Maxims (CPM)

When a speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, and therefore flouts the maxim, he or she may not necessarily do it “with any intention of deceiving or misleading, but because the speaker wishes to prompt the hearer to look for a meaning which is different from, or in addition to, the expressed meaning” (Thomas 1995: 65). It is the hearer him- or herself who has to work the implied meaning out, basing that on the context in which the utterance occurs. In many cases, this exploitation is so attempted that not only does it cause the hearer to have to work hard trying to infer the meaning, but it also manufactures fun. Therefore, Yule’s (1996) example of conversational exchange below

Man     : Does your dog bite?

Woman: No

(The man reaches down to pet the dog. The dog bites the man’s hand)

Man     : Ouch! Hey! You said your dog does not bite

Woman: He doesn’t. But that’s not my dog (p. 36)

exhibits as much wrong inference on the part of the man as it does fun in the whole context of exchange. This simply happens out of the woman’s not supplying adequate information regarding the dog, resulting in her flouting the maxim of quantity. Yet, Yule contends that if the woman had mentioned the last information earlier, the story wouldn’t be as funny. For the event to be funny, the woman has to give less information than is expected.

Thomas (1995) further details how CP maxims can be exploited, the result of which may potentially produce fun.

1. quantity,

when a speaker blatantly gives more or less information than the situation requires.


A         : Is she nice?

B         : Well, I wouldn’t mind marrying her

(Less information is given)

2. quality,

when the speaker says something which is blatantly untrue or for which he or she lacks adequate evidence. In the words of Stevenson (1987), this exploitation results in what he calls “intentionally exaggerated lie” or “tall tale” “told with a sincere, straight face” (110). He gives an example of a used-car salesman who, upon trying to sell the used car to a potential customer, says that the car “was driven only on Sunday afternoons by a shy ballet dancer” (110).

3. relation,

when the speaker makes a response or observation which is very irrelevant to the topic in hand (e.g. by abruptly changing the subject, or by overtly failing to address the other person’s goal in asking a question [or making a statement]).


I finished working on my face. I grabbed my bag and a coat. I told my Mother I was going out.. She asked me where I was going. I repeated myself. ‘Out’ (quoting George 1994: 91).

4. manner,

when the speaker gives an extremely long-winded and convoluted response in place of a short, brief one.


Int.      : Did the United States Government play any part in Duvalier’s departure?

Did they, for example, actively encourage him to leave?

Official: I would not try to steer you away from that conclusion

Exploitation of CPM in Romantic Comedies

Romantic comedies are movies depending not so much on actors and actresses’ actions as on their lines or utterances. Therefore, romantic comedies expose a lot of utterances whose speakers potentially exploit CP maxims in order to manufacture fun. My previous project on investigating this kind of exploitation sampling the comedy While You Were Sleeping reveals that this kind of exploitation of cooperative principle does exist and that it numbers 57 cases. The maxims exploited, put in order of most through fewest occurrences, are relation (31), quality (21), quantity (5), and manner (2).

An example of exchange of this kind presented by Thomas (1996) taken originally from the movie Splash explains this

A         : Do you want a coat?

B         : No, I really want to stand out here in the freezing cold with no clothes on (p. 63).

Exploiting the maxim of quality, of course B doesn’t really mean what he or she says. And it’s up to A to know or not to know his or her intention. Yet one can see the fun exhibited by B here. Surprisingly , Thomas contends that this is the sort of sarcastic reply we encounter everyday and have no problem at all interpreting.

Understanding Verbal Fun in Romantic Comedies

To understand the fun exhibited by romantic comedies through the actors and actresses’ exploiting their lines or utterances, one needs more than just good English. Stevenson (1987: 108) asserts, “…speaking a language does not necessarily mean that someone understands social and cultural patterns…” This includes the culture and cultural patterns of how verbal fun is produced. One, therefore, has also to know the culture in which the language is used to express ideas and produce fun. He can do this by watching situational comedies to learn how certain lines or utterances produce fun, hearing the live audience laugh at them. He can also watch romantic comedies on a regular basis and try to understand the fun exhibited by the actors and actresses’ manipulated lines or utterances. He can read books on verbal jokes. He may have (English) friends to joke around with, etc.

Limitation of Problem

The problem this research tries to address is formulated as follows:

1. To what degree do students understand verbal fun exhibited by romantic comedies?

2. What does it take to understand the verbal fun in romantic comedies?

3. What do students do to better understand the verbal fun in romantic comedies?

4. How are the findings to affect the EFL teaching-learning practices?

Purpose of the Research

The purpose of the research is to find out the students’ degree of understanding of verbal fun in romantic comedies, the requirements they should fulfill to understand the verbal fun in romantic comedies, the efforts they make to better understand the verbal fun in romantic comedies, and the implication on EFL teaching-learning practices.

Research Methodology

Sample and Subjects

The research samples conversational exchanges taken from the romantic comedy titled While You Were Sleeping. The reason for choosing this movie is that it is a popular romantic comedy not depending on its actors and actresses’ actions. Yet it is very romantic and produces a lot of fun in many funny scenes. This owes to the utterances spoken by the actors and actresses manipulated in such a way as to produce fun.

The subjects involved in the research are 22 Advanced students. The reason for choosing them is that they are believed to have adequate English mastery given their level and that they constitute young people at whom romantic comedies are usually targeted.

Research Instrument

There are three pieces of instrument devised for this study. The first instrument is a questionnaire administered to assess the subjects’ general understanding of romantic comedies and verbal fun exhibited by them. The second is another questionnaire containing four sample excepted exchanges from the selected romantic comedy representing four different exploitations of CPM (quality, quantity, relation, and manner) the questions of which the subjects have to answer. The last is interview the guiding questions of which have been prepared before hand.


The subjects are first of all given the first questionnaire. Upon finishing answering this and keeping the questionnaire, they are handed over the second questionnaire. On completing this and keeping both questionnaires and answers, the subjects are then called one by one for the interview. The researcher collects the questionnaires and the answers and jots down the subject’s answers to the interview questions.

Data Analysis and Discussion

Most respondents (82%) maintain that romantic comedies are movies depending more on the actors and actresses’ lines or utterances. This suggests that most of them know that in order to understand the comedies and the fun exposed by them, they have to understand the language. 87% of them believe that the actors and actresses exploit the lines or utterances to produce the fun. 90% of them believe that the manipulation of lines of utterances may take the form of inadequate information, exaggerated lies, irrelevance, and long-windedness. 93% of them believe that in order to understand the fun, they have to have good English mastery, accustomedness to English spoken at a normal speed, and knowledge on English culture of how verbal fun is produced. 93% believe that watching situational comedies will make them better understand romantic comedies and the fun produced by them, yet only 65% say that they either have (English) friends to joke around with or watch situational comedies. 79% of them say that they often watch romantic comedies. 65% of them say that they find understanding romantic comedies and the verbal fun in them fairly easy. 87% of them say that on understanding the verbal fun in a romantic comedy, they smile or giggle. 97% of them believe that understanding romantic comedies requires good English, knowledge on English culture of how verbal fun is produced, and regular habit of watching romantic comedies. These statistics reveal that in general the respondents have a good understanding of what constitutes romantic comedies and verbal fun in them.

Do the statistics stay the same when the respondents have to analyze the lines or utterances for themselves? Amazingly, some do. Given the first excerpt, for example, most respondents (90%) say that Saul’s response is irrelevant. Some say “ga nyambung.” Therefore, they know that the utterance violates the maxim of relation though they are not aware of the term. They say that the fun starts from that point and climaxes at Saul’s response of I didn’t say … Yet, only 67% say that they would react by smiling or giggling. Given the second exchange, 94% believe that Jerry is not telling the truth. Somehow they know that the utterance violates the maxim of quality. They say that Jerry says that because he means to advise Lucy not tell Peter’s family about the mix-up. And this is how they say it is fun. 73% say that they would smile at this. In the third excerpt, 98% believe that Peter’s friend’s response to Lucy’s statement is both irrelevant and too long. Thus, they know that this violates the maxim of relation and manner. They think the fun starts from Lucy’s saying Accident? and on. As for the last excerpt, 91% say that it’s too much for Lucy to say that all utterance to Peter. He wouldn’t be able to hear her, being unconscious. They know that the utterance violates the maxim of quantity. They say that’s how the fun is produced. And 98% say that they would smile at this. All these statistics further confirm that the respondents understand what makes romantic comedies, how verbal fun is produced, and they analyze the lines to show all that.

The respondents’ answers in the interview more or less last confirm their understanding of romantic comedies, verbal fun in them, requirements to know all that, and efforts to be made to better understand them. Some highlights are as follows:

– Most respondents say that their English is adequate enough

– They sometimes read books on jokes

– They know how English people joke around through situational comedies and romantic comedies

– They watch situational comedies and romantic comedies

– They know it takes more than good English mastery to be able to understand English verbal fun

– They learn how verbal fun is produced through situational comedies and romantic comedies

– They can smile at the fun produced by the actors and actresses’ manipulating lines or utterances

– They know they should watch situational comedies and romantic comedies on a regular basis to better understand them and the fun exhibited

Implication on EFL Teaching-Learning Practices

It is imperative that pragmatics, i.e., real language use be incorporated into classroom EFL teaching-learning practices. In the context of the research topic, this can be done by once in a while showing students a romantic movie demonstrating how the language is used in context. After watching the movie, the students can be assigned to discuss a selected scene with regards to the lines or utterances spoken by the actors and actresses as to whether they suggest request, order, fun, etc. This will train them to be better able to use and understand English in the framework of intercultural communication.


Understanding romantic comedies and the fun exhibited by them requires more than simply good English mastery as the language used is much more cultural and it is structural. Thus, it necessitates students’ English mastery, knowledge on how English verbal fun is produced, and regular habit of watching such movies. As far as real language used is concerned, this gives way to pragmatics being introduced into classroom EFL teaching-learning practices.


Alwasilah, A. C. 2002. Pokoknya Kualitatif: Dasar-Dasar Merancang dan Melakukan Penelitian Kualitatif. PT Dunia Pustaka and Pusat Studi Sunda.

Grundy, P. 2000. Doing Pragmatics (2nd ed.). NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Stevenson, D.K. 1987. American Life and Institutions. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Schulbuch Verlage GmbH u. Co. Kg.

Thomas, J. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. NY: Longman Group Limited.

Yule, G. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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