The Structure of Conversation
Natural conversation has a definite structure that the participants within the conversation
follow, usually without realising it.
Firstly, conversation follows 2 general functions as defined by Brown and Yule (1983)
Interactional function - used when speakers are socialising
Transactional function - used when the participants are exchanging services, buying,
going to the doctor etc.
There are 3 main features of conversation structure that are to be looked at:
Openings of conversation
Closings of conversation
Turn-taking within a conversation
Openings of conversation
Adjacency pairs - these can come in different forms, such as greetings:
'hello, how are you?'
'I'm fine thanks, how are you?'
or questions and answer sequences:
'have you got the time?'
'yes it's 10 O'clock'
They set up the expectations of the conversation.
Closings - William Downes (1988) said that for a conversation to end naturally, all of the
participants must be in agreeance that the conversation has ended and there must be
build up to it, such as the finishing of telling a story.
Turn-taking - Sacks, Schlegoff & Jefferson (1979) said turn-taking is determined within
the conversation by transition relevance points; i.e. points in the conversation where
the current speaker is willing to give up the turn. These transition relevance points are
found by looking at:
change in pitch
change in intonation
a momentary silence
the end of a syntactic unit of language
They also said there are 3 techniques for turn determination:
1. 'current speaker selects next' - 1st part of the adjacency pair that is directed at another
2. 'self-select' - any participant looks for the transition relevance points then starts speaking
at the next available one
3. 'speaker continuation' - the current speaker decides to carry on with their turn
Politeness within Conversation
One feature of natural, unscripted language is the desire to be seen as being
polite. One of the politeness conventions is face theory.
Politeness is important because it shows that the participants have respect for
the person they're talking to, whether it is in a formal or informal setting. As
face theory proved, there is an inherent desire within a conversational setting to
be seen as being polite.
Brown and Levinson (1987) describe a phenomenon called positive and
negative politeness in conversation.
Positive politeness is where you claim common ground with other
speakers and convey your assumption that all participants wish to be co-
operative. Some strategies are:
pay attention to the other speaker(s), show interest, sympathy, approval
seek agreement (choose safe topics)
avoid disagreement (pretend to agree, use white lies, hedge your own
presuppose or assert common ground
assume or assert agreement between each other
Negative Politeness means you are indirect, don't presume or assume
anything, don't force your point or impinge on the other person. Some
strategies for this are:
question and hedge
go on record as being indebted etc.
Grice's 'Co-operative Principle
The linguist H. P Grice (1975) saw co-operation between the participants of a
conversation, as the fundamental principle underlying conversation. He said
that conversations proceed on the assumption that those taking part have
common goals and agreed ways of achieving those goals. This is what he
called the co-operative principle
He proposed 4 maxims (rules or principles) which he says people follow for a
1) The maxim of quantity - when you make a contribution to a conversation,
say neither more nor less than you actually need to. For example, if you ask
a stranger for directions to the nearest post-office and they say 'it's not far',
they're not telling you enough. However, if they tell you the name of every
shop you will pass on the way, they are telling you too much.
2) The maxim of relevance - what you say needs to be relevant to the current
topic and context of the on-going conversation. If a participant keeps
returning to a topic that has been finished with, this will disrupt the
3) The maxim of manner - this is where pragmatics can come into the
equation. The maxim of manner states you should avoid ambiguity and
obscurity (think Orwell); you also need to be clear and coherent
4) The maxim of quality - this states you should be truthful, have enough
evidence to back up what you are saying, and not say anything that you
suspect to be false.
When these maxims are not followed in conversation, we say they are flouted.
This can lead to conversational difficulties and breakdown.
There's one extra point to be added to this theory.
Go back to the analogy of the post office and the stranger. If the stranger who
was asked the way to the post office replied 'It's Sunday today', this may
seem on the face of it not to be very co-operative. However, if this reply means
'It's Sunday today so the post office will be closed', this is implied by the
answer and not immediately obvious. This is linked to the pragmatic study of
language and Grice called it implicature
Labov's Narrative Structure theory
A very famous linguist called William Labov (1972) developed his theory of
narrative structure during a study of oral story telling in New York in the
1970s. He focused on the structure of story-telling and decided there were 6,
necessary functions to it:
ABSTRACT What is the story about?
ORIENTATION What? Who took part? Where and when did it
COMPLICATING ACTION Then what happened?
RESOLUTION What was the final outcome?
CODA The story is over and I'm returning to the
EVALUATION What is the point of the story? Why have you
been telling me this? This feature can occur
throughout the narrative, not only at the end.
Labov also asserts that oral narratives are usually told in the same order in
which the events happened (chronologically) so it is probable that speakers will
use a high proportion of co-ordinating conjunctions, such as 'and', 'then', 'so',
Other characteristics of oral narrative include:
Tense Storytellers are most likely to use the simple past tense.
However, there is a tendency to move into the present
tense at the most crucial part of the story to create a
sense of immediacy and involvement with the story e.g.
'so he drove all the way to see her and then she says …
Demonstratives story-tellers tend to use singular and plural forms that
denote nearness rather than remoteness from
themselves as grammatical determiners e.g.
'there was this woman' (not 'there was that woman')
'so these monkeys…' (not 'so those monkeys')
Hyperbole hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect is common in
natural speech e.g.
'it was so awful'; 'horrifying story' etc.
The Problem-Solution Pattern
A linguist called Michael Hoey developed the 'problem-solution pattern'
which works along the same lines as Labov's narrative structure theory.
This, however, is more general and can be applied to both spoken and
Hoey identified 4 aspects of narrative:
SITUATION What was the situation of the event? (i.e. where did it
take place and why?)
PROBLEM What was the problem faced by the participants?
SOLUTION What was the solution or the response?
EVALUATION How successful was the solution?
You can apply this theory to magazine stories for example, as they follow a
strict structure, especially for articles such as 'five-minute fiction' in 'More!', or
the 'true-life' stories in magazines such as 'Cosmopolitan'.
Lakoff's Politeness Theory
Robin Lakoff in 1973 said that the majority of conversation is governed by what
she called the politeness principle. Similar to Grice (but before him) she
claimed there are 3 maxims or rules that speakers follow in conversation to
Don't impose - this is similar to the theory of negative politeness - trying
not to impose on people or disrupting them in any way. It can be seen
through such expressions as:
I'm sorry to bother you…
Could you possibly…?
I know it's asking a lot…
Give options - quite typical of female interaction, it's avoiding forcing the
other participant into a corner with the use of such expressions as:
It's up to you…
I won't be offended if you don't want to…
Do you want to go first?
I don't mind if you don't want to…
Make the receiver feel good - We say things that flatter the other
participant and make them feel good, rather in the same way we pander to
positive face. This an be seen through the use of such expressions as:
What would I have done without you?
I'd really appreciate your advice on this…
I owe you one for this.
As you can see, this theory is similar to all of the other theories that we have
previously looked at (face, positive & negative politeness, Grice's maxims).
This is a recurrent aspect of language studies; linguists take an initial idea and
develop in their own way. You must be aware that there are similarities and
differences between them and know who argued for which theory.
With reference to the appropriate theories, and examples, explain some of the
ways in which the participants of a conversation show politeness.