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November 24, 2004 - Lida Baker: Compliments in American English - 2004-11-23

Broadcast on VOA News Now: November 24, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: compliments in American English.

Thanksgiving (observed on the fourth Thursday in November) is a day when American families traditionally get together for a festive meal. It's a good time to hear the latest family news and acknowledge who's accomplished what. So before the holiday, we asked our friend, English teacher Lida Baker, for some analysis of how Americans compliment each other.

LIDA BAKER: "I think there are a couple of structures that are very common. One of them is 'what a ... ' What-a-adjective-noun. OK? [Laughter] So like, 'what a nice hat' or 'what a beautiful table' or 'what a gorgeous necklace.' So the what-a-adjective-noun is one structure that is I think pretty common. A little bit on the formal side, though. I think in casual conversation between friends, we tend to say things like 'I like your (blank)' or even 'I love your (blank),' so 'I like your hat,' 'I like your hair,' I like your shoes.' That's a fairly common way.

"Another one would be 'that's a ... ' That's-a-adjective-noun. 'That's a beautiful flower arrangement,' 'that's a gorgeous turkey.' I mean, we're sitting down tomorrow to Thanksgiving dinner, it's traditional for everybody to compliment the hostess on -- well, that's not fair, the hostess and the host, and/or the host -- on the beautiful table, on the flowers. And everybody oohs and ahhs about the turkey, right?"

AA: "Right."

LIDA BAKER: "'What a gorgeous turkey!' So more interesting is the question of when it's appropriate to give somebody a compliment and what it's appropriate to compliment people on."

RS: "Why don't you give us some examples."

LIDA BAKER: "Well, I think that it's always appropriate to compliment a person on something that they have done well. 'You did a good job on that presentation' or 'I'm proud of what you did.' So I think that's one circumstance where we compliment people a lot in this culture. Another situation where we compliment people is, well, when we like the way that they look. But -- "

AA: "You have to be careful."

LIDA BAKER: " -- we have to be careful about how say things like, for example, about people's weight."

RS: "A college friend of mine from Africa came up to me one day, very upset, and he said to me that he had had a fight with his girlfriend and could I help him out, that he had given what he considered a compliment. He said to her, 'My, but you're looking fight.'" And that obviously --

LIDA BAKER: "Ah, yes."

RS: " -- to an American woman was not an ideal compliment."

LIDA BAKER: "Yeah, you know it's interesting you just brought up kind of a cross-cultural comparison. Another one I was very surprised to learn that there are cultures where -- well, to give a little background, in United States culture it's very common for us to compliment people on their belongings. 'I like your hat,' what a beautiful vase,' that painting is fabulous.'"

RS: "And your response would be 'thank you.'"

LIDA BAKER: "Yes, and that's a good point. The appropriate response to a compliment is 'thank you' in the United States. But in certain cultures, if you compliment people on their belongings, they will feel an obligation to give it to you."

RS: "That happened to me in Japan. I learned not to compliment everything as if I were living in the United States. In Japan, they wanted to give everything to me."

AA: "In your classroom, do you talk about compliments at all? I mean, do you see your kids having problems, your students having problems with this ever?"

RS: "Or do you have any exercises that you use in the classroom to reinforce some of the things we've been talking about?"

LIDA BAKER: "Well, anytime we want students to learn social functions, the best way to reinforce that is through role playing. Either we give them things to compliment their classmates on, or a really fun exercise that I've done with students -- and this serves as a great icebreaker too -- is to instruct students, put them in pairs and to instruct them to find something about the other person to compliment."

AA: "We'll end with a compliment for the teacher. This is an e-mail we got from a listener named Tristan in China, who's a fan of Wordmaster and he says, 'by the way, I like Lida Baker the most. She is just the right kind of teacher in my mind.'"

LIDA BAKER: "To which I would say to Tristan: Thank you very much, that really makes me feel good."

RS: "It made her day.

AA: Lida Baker writes textbooks for English learners and teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And listen to us online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.