Common ground

Keith Allan
Table of contents

Human language is characteristically a form of social interactive behaviour. It may occasionally have other functions, but the motivation for its coming into existence (see Dunbar 1996; Allan 2003) and by far the majority of its usage is when S (speaker, writer, signer) addresses utterance U to audience H for an unbounded number of perlocutionary and illocutionary purposes such as to establish or maintain a social relationship, to inform, question, demand, warn, apologize, and so forth. S and H are mutually aware that, normally, their interlocutor is an intelligent being. S does not need to spell out those things which are obvious to the sensory receptors of H, or such that H can very easily reason them out using the knowledge that each of us develops from birth as we experience the world around us on the basis of communicative competence (knowing the language and the conventions for its use). These constitute common ground (CG). Our understanding of linguistic utterances rests on an assumption of CG: e.g. when S points to something visible in the situation of utterance and says Isn’t that nice? there is an assumption that H understands English and can also see it; saying Let’s go to Brisbane assumes that ‘Brisbane’ will be understood as referring to a certain city. Some CG is universal, e.g. knowledge of the sun as a heavenly body that is a source of light and warmth, rain as (among other things) a source of fresh water replenishing the earth, the physiological and socio-cultural differences between the sexes. Some CG is very restricted, e.g. between a couple who use the wicked witch to refer to the man’s second wife. Usually S can readily assess the probable CG with H, and chooses his or her words accordingly. This requires S to make assumptions about H’s capacity to understand U well enough that S’s expressed intention in the message is, in S’s opinion, more or less correctly interpreted by H (Allan 1986; Lasersohn 1999; Colston 2008: 173). S’s assumptions here are S’s estimates of the CG between S and H with respect to U; this is not something S is normally conscious of except, perhaps, when communicating with a stranger – and not often then. Assumed CG is based on an assessment of H’s competence to understand U, and it motivates such things as choice of language and language variety, style and level of presentation – because, for instance, addressing a neophyte or a child must be differently handled from addressing a group of experts. CG allows meaning to be underspecified by S, so that language understanding is a constructive process in which a lot of inferencing is expected from H.

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price.


Abbey, Edward.
1982Down the River. New York: E.P. Dutton.Google Scholar
1988One Life at a Time, Please. New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
Abbott, Barbara.
2008“Presuppositions and common ground.” Linguistics and Philosophy 21: 523–38. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Allan, Keith.
1986Linguistic Meaning. 2 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Reprint edn, Beijing: World Publishing Corporation. 1991).  BoPGoogle Scholar
2001Natural Language Semantics. Oxford & Malden MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
2003“Linguistic metatheory.” Language Sciences 25: 533–60. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
2006“Clause-type, primary illocution, and mood-like operators in English.” Language Sciences 28: 1–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Austin, John L.
1962How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Bach, Kent.
2012“Saying, meaning, and implicating.” In Cambridge Handbook of Pragmatics, ed. by Keith Allan and Kasia M. Jaszczolt, 47–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Bach, Kent and Robert M. Harnish
1979Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Bartlett, Frederic C.
1932Remembering: An Experimental and Social Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Brown, Gillian.
1995Speakers, Listeners and Communication: Explorations in Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Chandler, Raymond.
1939The Big Sleep. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
Clark, Herbert H.
1996Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Clark, Herbert H. and Thomas B. Carlson
1981“Context for comprehension.” In Attention and Performance IX, ed. by John Long and Alan Baddeley, 313–330. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Clark, Herbert H. and Catherine R. Marshall
1981“Definite reference and mutual knowledge.” In Elements of Discourse Understanding, ed. by Aravind K. Joshi, Bonnie L. Webber and Ivan A. Sag, 10–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Clark, Herbert H., Robert Schreuder and Samuel Butterick
1983“Common ground and the understanding of demonstrative reference.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 22: 245–58. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Colston, Herbert L.
2008“A new look at common ground: memory, egocentrism, and joint meaning.” In Intention, Common Ground and the Egocentric Speaker-Hearer, ed. by Istvan Kecskes and Jacob L. Mey, 151–187. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Dunbar, Robin I.M.
1996Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Duranti, Alessandro.
1997Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Enfield, Nicholas J.
2008“Common ground as a resource for social affiliation.” In Intention, Common Ground and the Egocentric Speaker-Hearer, ed. by Istvan Kecskés and Jacob L. Mey, 223–254. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Fillmore, Charles J.
1982“Frame semantics.” In Linguistics in the Morning Calm, ed. by Linguistic Society of Korea, 111–138. Seoul: Hanshin.Google Scholar
Garfinkel, Harold.
1964“Studies of the routine rounds of everyday activities.” Social Problems 11: 225–250. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Goddard, Cliff.
2006“Cultural scripts.” In Handbook of Pragmatics, ed. by Jan-Ola Östman and Jef Verschueren. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Goddard, Cliff and Anna Wierzbicka
2004“Cultural scripts: what are they and what are they good for?Intercultural Pragmatics 1: 153–166. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Goffman, Erving.
1981Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Grice, H. Paul.
1957“Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66: 377–88. Reprinted in H. Paul Grice Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1989, pp. 213–223. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
1968“Utterer’s meaning, sentence meaning, and word-meaning.” Foundations of Language 4: 225–42.Google Scholar
1969“Utterer’s meaning and intentions.” Philosophical Review 78: 147–77. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
1981“Presupposition and conversational implicature.” In Radical Pragmatics, ed. by Peter Cole, 183–198. New York: Academic Press. Reprinted in H. Paul Grice Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1989, pp. 269–282.  BoPGoogle Scholar
1982“Meaning revisited.” In Mutual Knowledge, ed. by Neilson V. Smith, 223–243. New York: Academic Press. Reprinted in H. Paul Grice Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1989, pp. 283–303.  BoPGoogle Scholar
1989“Indicative conditionals.” Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge MA Harvard University Press, pp. 58–85.Google Scholar
Gumperz, John J.
1982Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Holtgraves, Thomas M.
2002Language as Social Action: Social Psychology and Language Use. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Horton, William S.
2008“A memory-based approach to common ground and audience design.” In Intention, common ground, and the egocentric speaker-hearer, ed. by Istvan Kecskés and Jacob L. Mey, 189–222. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Horton, William S. and Richard J. Gerrig
2005“Conversational common ground and memory processses in language production.” Discourse Processes 40: 1–35. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Karttunen, Lauri and Stanley F. Peters
1979“Conventional implicature.” In Syntax and Semantics 11: Presupposition, ed. by Choon-Kyu Oh and David A. Dinneen, 1–56. New York: Academic Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Kecskés, Istvan and Fenghui Zhang.
2009“Activating, seeking, and creating common ground: a socio-cognitive approach.” Pragmatics and Cognition 17: 331–355. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
2013“On the dynamic relations between common ground and presupposition.” In Perspectives on Linguistic Pragmatics, ed. by Alessandro Capone, Franco Lo Piparo and Marco Carapezza 375–396 Cham, CH: Springer. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Keysar, Boaz.
2007“Communication and miscommunication: The role of egocentric processes.” Intercultural Pragmatics 4: 71–84. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Keysar, Boaz and Anne S. Henly
2002“Speakers’ overestimation of their effectiveness.” Psychological Science 13: 207–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Ladefoged, Peter.
1982A Course in Phonetics. 2nd edn. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Google Scholar
Lasersohn, Peter.
1999“Pragmatic halos.” Language 75: 522–51. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Lee, Benny P.H.
2001“Mutual knowledge, background knowledge and shared beliefs: Their roles in establishing common ground.” Journal of Pragmatics 33: 21–44. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Lewis, David.
1969Convention. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
1979“Scorekeeping in a language game.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8: 339–59. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Mazzone, Marco.
2011“Schemata and associative processes in pragmatics.” Journal of Pragmatics 43: 2148–2159. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Minsky, Marvin.
1977“Frame-system theory.” In Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science, ed. by Philip N. Johnson-Laird and P.C. Wason, 355–376. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Prince, Ellen.
1981“Toward a taxonomy of given-new information.” In Radical Pragmatics, ed. by Peter Cole, 223–256. New York: Academic Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Sanford, Anthony J. and Simon C. Garrod
1981Understanding Written Language. Chichester: John Wiley.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Schank, Roger.
1984The Cognitive Computer. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
Schank, Roger and Robert C. Abelson
1977Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Scheff, Thomas J.
1967“Toward a scoiological model of consensus.” American Sociological Review 32: 32–46. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Schiffer, Stephen R.
1972Meaning. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Searle, John R.
1969Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge University Press. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Solheim, Dave and Rob Levin
1989Bloomsbury Review. In Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes on Edward Abbey, ed. by James Hepworth and Gregory Mcnamee, 89–104. Tucson: Harbinger House.Google Scholar
Stalnaker, Robert C.
1973“Presupposition.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 2: 77–96. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
1974“Pragmatic presupposition.” In Semantics and Philosophy, ed. by Milton K. Munitz and Peter K. Unger. New York: New York University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
1978“Assertion.” In Syntax and Semantics 9: Pragmatics, ed. by Peter Cole, 315–332. New York: Academic Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
2002“Common ground.” Linguistics and Philosophy 25: 701–21. DOI logo  BoPGoogle Scholar
Twain, Mark
(Samuel Clemens) 1884The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Scene, the Mississippi Valley: Time, forty to fifty years ago. London: Chatto & Windus.Google Scholar