Magazine July 1, 2021, Issue

Phatic Language

Detail of an engraving from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, published by John G. Murdoch (bycostello/Getty Images)

How fares your Grace? / How do you do, sir? / Why, how now, ho! / How does thy Honor? / How fares my gracious Sir? / How now, Sirrah? / How do you, man?

Those greetings are but a few examples of phatic language from Early Modern English (1500 to 1699). They’re all from Shakespeare. Only one is conceivable in today’s speech: How do you do, sir? It’s formal but still natural-sounding.

So what is phatic language? It’s the everyday talk that begins and ends our conversations. Hello and goodbye are archetypal examples. Phatic language is used for the general purpose

Something to Consider

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Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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