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THE

DISCOURSE FEATURES OF CONVERSATION


Oral discourse is interested in the interpretation of language in its socio- cultural context which
implies the study of language and its social factors. Among the different existing approaches,
what they all share is a belief in the social nature of language (conversation builds social contexts
at the same time as those contexts guide and shape conversation).
Discourse analysis focuses on:
a) Who the participants in the discourse are, the equality among them, differences in power or
knowledge, their goals (unlike text grammarians who work with out of context sentences).
b) How we know what writers and speakers mean. (what does this piece of discourse mean in this
context? And what does the speaker/writer mean by this piece of language, what factors help up
to interpret the context.
Coherence: The extent to which a stretch of discourse means or makes sense is a measure of
coherence. The sense of a text is recoverable by reference to a two levels of context: the context
of the surrounding text (co-text) and the context of the situation in which the interaction takes
place.

Features that contribute to the texts cohesion:
A cohesive relation is one in which the interpretation of one element in the discourse
presupposes, and is dependent upon, another.
Halliday and Hasan (1985) distinguish between grammatical and lexical cohesion devises. Among
the former are the various ways referring principally through the use of demonstratives and
pronouns.
Sometimes the referent may not be a specific person or thing, but a proposition that has been
previously introduced, as when Odele responds to the suggestions that the school might be
closed.
Oh my god I hadnt thought about that
Odiles use of that to refer to the proposition expressed by another speaker also demonstrates the
fact that, in spoken language, cohesion is achieved across speaker turns as well as within them.
So far, all the examples of reference we have look at have referred back in the discourse. In other
words, their reference has been anaphoric. But the reference can be forward (e.e. cataphoric) as
in this example:

My idea is this. We all go to the airport we all meet them we bring them back to Trafalgar
Street everyone stays there the night and the next morning Carl goes on the train you take
the girls and Fuzz up in the car and we go back to MacMasters Beach.
(OZTALK)
In each of the above examples the referent is recoverable by reference to what has just been said,
or what is about to be said. The reference is said to be internal to the text (or endophoric). But
some references can only be interpreted by reference outside the co-text, that is , to the
context of situation-including the knowledge that is shared by the speakers. An example of this
exophoric type of reference is Odiles mention of that hole:
Im so glad the kids were not there because you know that hole is just above Debbies
head.
It is a characteristic of spoken language that many of the references are exophoric, that is, their
interpretation is context dependent. This quality- called implicitness by Hasan (1996)-
distinguishes spoken text from written text, which is typically more explicit. The production and
interpretation of spoken discourse is facilitated by reference both to the here and now of the
immediate context, and to the speakers shared knowledge. In conversation among friends, the
amount of shared knowledge is lively to be high, allowing a proportionally high degree of
implicitness. This is evidenced in the frequency of the use of the definite article the, the most
common word in spoken English. The is commonly used as a form of exophoric reference, as in
the kids (above)and the school, in Graces question.

Is the school OK?

Here, the intended reference goes beyond the immediate context, and assumes knowledge that is
mutually shared, which, as Hasan puts it, argues for the existence of interaction in the past, and
for a consequent rapport between the speaker and the addressee (1996:204).
Other grammatical means of achieving cohesion include the use of substitution and ellipsis. An
example of the former is the use of does in the following exchange, where does substitutes for the
verbal element come:

Speaker 1: He has to leave Helen in Britain because shes she doesnt want to come.

Speaker 2: But I thought she said shed come for

Speaker 1: Well if she does shes got to give up her job.


(OZTALK)

In the following extract, Speaker 3 used did to substitute for the italized clausal element in the
previous speakers utterances:

Speaker 1: I believe you bought a lovely Dawn Allen lamp at the school fete.
Speaker 2: At a bargain price.
Speaker 3: We did!

(OZTALK)

Ellipsis is a form of substitution whereby a previously mentioned element is replaced by zero as


in this utterance, where the ellipted element is in square brackets:
You know he feels he should be able to provide for his family and he cant [privde for his
family].
As we saw in Chapter 3, ellipsis is used frequently in conversation, and extended across speaker
turns, it contributes to the contingency of much spoken language, i.

INTERACTION IN CONVERSATION
Discourse analyst identify how interactivity is achieved in the conversation (roles take, positioning
of roles, turn-taking and topic changes, as well as feedback strategies). They do this by describing
the to and of micro patterns of conversational interaction.
That is the field of conversation analysis whose primary concern is to explain how it is that every
day talk makes sense.
In this section, the concept of adjacency pairs from the Ethnomethodologists, the exchange from
the Birmingham School and the speech function from the Systemic Fucntional school are
explained.








Adjacency pairs
It is composed to two turns produced by different speakers which are placed adjacently and where
the second utterance is identified as related to the first. They have the following characteristics:

They consist of two utterances.


The utterances are adjacent, that is the first immedialty follow the second; and
Different speakers produce each utterance.


Examples:
Question/answer
A: You dont like the fish?
B: No, its not that I dont like it, its the way
it is done.
Request/grant
A: Jerry hi, wheres our cake?
B: Its coming, its coming. [laugh]

Offer/ accept
A: Now, who can I make an iced coffee for?
B: Oh, I think you could make one for my
stomach.
Compliment/response
A: Great haircut.
B: Do you think? The hair colour burnt my
scalp!

Challenge /rejection
Instruct /receipt
A: Mmm, dont speak with your mouth half A: Hand me the knife from the bench, will
full, pull the bloody thing out.
you.
B: I will do what I bloody well like.
B: Here you go.


When there is a choice of response, the listener can accept or refuse. The first is less
threatening than the second, that is why it is called a preferred response. The second is called
a dispreferred response. In such case, mitigating strategies are used to ensure conversational
cooperativeness.
There are sequences that are longer than two units and a more complex sequential
organization than a strict adjacency. A sequence is an adjacency pair and any expansion of
that adjacency. There are three types of expansions: pre-sequences, insertion, sequences,
and post sequences. For example:
1. pre-sequence
2. pre-sequence
3. base adjacency pair
4. Insertion sequence
5. insertion sequence
6. base adjacency pair

First pair part


Second pair part
First part pair
First pair part
Second pair part
Second pair part

A: What are you doing tonight


B: Nothing
A: Do you want to have drink
B: Where?
A: Down the pub
B: Great

The concept of adjacency pair has been extremely significant as it provides a way of capturing
the local organization of talk. However, it is limited as it can only describe the relationship
between the base adjacent utterance and its expansions. It cannot account for the structure
of extended stretches of conversation, including the relationship that exists between the
different moves made by the same speaker in longer turns of talk. In short, it cannot account
on its own for the discourse structure of conversation.


Moves and exchanges in conversation
It this section the unfold of conversational exchanges is explained. To account for the
interactivity of conversation, it is necessary to go beyond the analysis of vocabulary and
grammar and give functional labels to the different roles speakers can assume, and to the
roles they assign to others. The Birmingham School and the Systemic Functional Linguistics
describe what function each speakers move achieves in that context (functional description).
Each utterance in a conversation can be described as a move which is the basic semantic unit
in interactive talk (it is the smallest unit of potential interaction see Slade, 1996; Eggins and
Slade, 1997). It indicates a point of possible turn-transfer, and therefore carries with it the idea
of it could stop here .
According to Hallidays functional description (1994:69), the basic initiation moves in
conversation are the four primary speech functions of command, statement, offer and
question.
With each speech function there is an expected response and a discretionary alternative, with
each of these examples constituting an interactive move in conversation.
Initiating speech function
Offer
Do you want to get married?

Command
Get married first

Statement
I am getting married

Question
Are you getting married?

Expected response
Acceptance
absolutely

Compliance
Okay

Acknowledgement
Wonderful news

Answer
Yes.

Discretionary alternative
Rejection
Certainly not!

Refusal
Under no conditions

Contradiction
Over my dead body

Disclaimer
What do you mean?

(adapted from Halliday, 1994:69)

Every move in dialogue can be assigned a speech function. So, a move can be defined as the basic
semantic unit in interactive talk that selects for speech function. Speech function then describes
the adjacency pair structure of dialogue.
Expected and discretionary responses engage with the initiating move. However, the difference is
that the expected responses tent to finish the exchanges are there is a resolution. Discretionary
responses, on the other hand, tend to open out the exchange because, for example, if an offer is
rejected or a statement contradicted, further negotiation is needed- such as a reason, an excuse or
an apology. Expected responses support the proposition of the speaker and thereby serve to
create alignments and solidarity. By contrast, the discretionary responses are either disengaging
and non-committal or openly confronting.
Discretionary moves occur more frequently in casual conversation than do expected responses.
This is because the social role of conversation is not only to affirm likenesses and similarities but
also to explore differences.
Martin (1992) and Eggins and Slade (1997) have extended the analysis of the different types of
discretionary moves that can occur. There are two categories of discretionary moves: tracking
and challenging moves (see Martin, 1992: 70, and Eggins and Slade, 1997: 207).
Tracking moves monitor, check or clarify the content of prior moves. For example:
A: Im just going to the shop.
B: Where did you say?
Or confirmation..
A: Im just going to the shop.
B: To the shop?
Challenging moves challenge the speakers initiation move in some way. For example, in the case
of one speaker trying to terminate the interaction:
A: Im leaving tomorrow.
B: I dont want to hear about it.
Or where the proposition is countered in some way. For example:
A: Im leaving tomorrow.
B: I thought you said next week.

The tracking and challenging moves tend to trigger sequences of talk that interrupt, postpone,
abort or suspend the initial speech function sequence. These kinds of moves are characteristic of
conversational English.
Major types of moves that can occur in conversation in English:
Initiating moves (I)
Statement: I:S
Question:
Rhetorical question:
Offer:
Command:

Expected responding moves ( R)
Answer:
Acknowledge: R:K
Response acknowledge offer:
Response to command:
Discretionary moves
Tracking:
Response to tracking:
Challenging:
Response to tracking:


I:S
I:Q
Q:R
I: O
I: C


R:A
R:K
R:O
R:C

Tr (confirming, checking, clarifying)
Rtr
Ch (disengaging, challenging, countering)
rch

A single move will often make a distinct contribution to the development of the exchange. It may
serve to initiate a new exchange; it may serve to respond to an exchange that has been initiated;
or it may serve to complete an exchange after a response has been supplied.
At other times, these functions in a an exchange wil be achieved by a group of moves, this is called
a move complex (Slade, 1996). For example, in this extract form a coffee-break conversation
between a group of women supervisors in a hospital, Jessie asks a question that elicits gossip
about Richard:
Exchange structure
I:Q
Tr
R:A


I:Q

move
1
2a
2b
2c
2d
3

speaker
Jessie:
Judy:



Jessie:

Transcript
Mmm, what happened about Richard?
Ah about Richard
Ah nothing [laughs]
Hes been spoken to,
Itll be a sort of watch and wait===something..
== Yeah, what do you reckon is going to
happen?


Judys response in the exchange is not a single move but three grammatically related moves that
form her answer to the question. This then is followed by a new exchange, initiated by Jessie

asking another question. For this reason, functional linguistics refers to this basic interactive
pattern as an exchange (rather than to an adjacency pair).
An exchange can be defined as a sequence of moves concerned with negotiating a proposition
stated or implied in an initiating move. An exchange can be identified as a beginning with an
opening move, and continuing until another opening move occurs




Turn taking in conversation
Sacks (1974) describes how turn taking works in English: the current speaker can either select the
next speaker, by for example, naming them, looking at them, directing a question to them, or the
next speaker can self select with many possible strategies, such as that reminds me of or have
you heard what Mary did yesterday?
Taking or allocating turns is not at random. It is systematic and the way people take and the
signals which may not be explicit are clearly understood by speakers familiar with the cultural
context. CA is interested in uncovering how it is that conversation keeps making sense and how
people know when and how to make a contribution.
Accoridng to Sacks (1974) interactants in the conversation recognize points of potential speaker
change indicated by linguistic units called turn-constructional units (TCU). In this example each of
these turns is a TCU.
A: Do you want to have a drink?
B: Great idea.
However in the following example each utterance could constitute a complete turn in its own
right. Hence there are two turn-constructional units within the one speaker turn:
A: Do you want a drink? We could go somewhere after work.
It is at the end of the turn-constructional unit that interactants in conversation recognize points of
potential speaker change.
There are two possibilities for interactants to determine who the next speaker will be. One is
that the current speaker sleects the person who is to be the next speaker, and the second
possibility is that the next speaker self selects. Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974/1978) argue

that speaker change needs to be negotiated at every turn; partly motivated by the need to avoid
the possibility of a lapse.
The function of turntaking in conversation is to assign turns to interactants in conversation. Unlike
formal conversation in which a person with a higher status assigns the turns, in informal
conversation the turn is not assigned by a particular person. Overlapping, interruptions and back
chanelling are very common. They all demonstrate that the speaker is collaborating and actively
participating in the conversation.



Topic management: topic development, topic change and topic choice.
The way speakers introduce, develop and change topics is an important dimension of
conversational structure.
When a topic starts to flag: the participants may change topic or reintroduce (or recycle)
sa topic from earlier conversation.
If a new topic is introduced, then a link with the previous topic is made through initiating
moves such as this reminds me of, or that is what happened to me, but they can also be
introduced without those words.
Topics. Expectations of appropriate and acceptable topics for conversation differ from
context to context as well from culture to culture. There are studies that show how
topics of conversation differ according to the gender make-up of the group, class, age and
ethnicity, as well as the degree of familiarity or distance between the participants.
Group 1
Jocking and teasing each
Supervisors in a car factory other. Teasing the most
between 40 and 60 yrs. Old frequent.
Telling danger, violence,
heroic deeds stories.
Leisure and entertainment.
Group 2
Gossiping or chatting about
All female group supervisors others..
of a hospital kitchen. 20- Personal information.
30s. Mainly Anglo- Exchanging opinions.
Australian.
Leisure and entertainment.
Telling stories (amusing

Friendly
ridicule
(not
gossip).

Few story telling texts.
No teasing at all.
Gossip and storytelling.
Personal details and future.
More storytelling than men.

stories
involving
embarrassing or worrying
situations).
Group 3
Narratives and anecdotes
A clerical staff in a hospital (amusing ones).
in their 20s.
Employment
Leisure and entertainment
(what they did on the
weekend).
Personal information
Chatting about others.
Future plans.
Illness and death.

Amusing and surprising


stories:
anecdotes,
narratives, accounts, and
exampla.

Jock telling more the
women group. A little
teasing, less than in men
group.

The primary goals for people who work together but are not friends is to share opinions
and attitudes about the world, to explore similarities and likenesses.
Gossip implies saying implicitly saying what the appropriate way to behave is.
Disagreement rarely occurs among workmates which is different from close friends who
are not only exploring similarities but also differences.
In language teaching contexts it is obviously important to be aware of what topics and
genres the learners will need when speaking English. The textbooks cover a limited range
of topics an genres and some of them may not be relevant to students.

Discourse strategies

Opening and closing are culturally and contextually dependent. Opening and closing in casual
conversation are rarely achieved through a simple adjecancy pair structure, but they are achieved
through exchanges of three or more moves.
Closing are preceded by pre-closings such as anyway, I have to go now or look at the time, a have
to rush.
Pre-closing doesnt always lead to closing. The closing is not abrupt.

Feedback in conversation

The way in which listeners show that they are following the conversation ans wys that the speaker
checks on the attention of the listeners. Feedback conveys agreement, disagreement, interest,
and attention. It is essential for maintaining coherent and smooth conversation. The form and
rate of feedback is culturally specific because the lack of it can lead to the breakdown of
communication. Kinds of feedback:
1. continuers (mm, uh, juh)
2. Achnolegement (agreement or understandin of the previous turn)
3. Assessments. (how awful, shit, wonderful)
4. news markers. Really, is it!
5. questions to ask for further details, or to repair misunderstanding
6. collaborative completions: to finish or repeat anothers utterance.
7. non-verbal vocalizations: laughter, sighs, tec
Feedback is culturally specific and changes from context to context (gender, formality level of
contact between participants.
Cross-cultural variation and the use of discourse strategies
Interactional sociolinguistics (branch of sociolinguistics): studies relationship between language,
society and culture. Gumperzresearch into cross-cultural communication.