What does grammar tell us about action?

Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen

Abstract

Using cases of misalignment and realignment in the unfolding of interactional sequences in which future actions and events are being negotiated in everyday English conversation, this paper demonstrates that participants distinguish between the initiating actions of Proposal*, Offer*, Request*, and Suggestion*, if these labels are understood as technical terms for distinct constellations of answers to the questions (i) who will carry out the future action? and (ii) who will benefit from it?. The argument made is that these different action types are routinely associated with different sets of recurrent linguistic forms, or social action formats, and that it is through these that speakers can frame their turns as implementing one action type as opposed to another and that recipients can recognize these actions as such and respond to them accordingly. The fact that there is only a limited amount of ‘polysemy’, or overlap in the formats commonly used for Proposals*, Requests*, Offers*, and Suggestions* in English conversation, means that these formats deliver often distinctive cues to the type of action being implemented. When misalignments and realignments occur, they can often be traced to the fact that ‘polysemous’ linguistic formats have been used to implement the initiating action.

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