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Contingency and action: A comparison of two forms of requesting

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Publication details

JournalResearch on Language and Social Interaction
DatePublished - Apr 2008
Issue number2
Number of pages25
Pages (from-to)129-153
Original languageEnglish


In this article, we explore the syntactic forms speakers use when making requests. An initial investigation of ordinary telephone calls between family and friends and out-of-hours calls to the doctor showed a difference in the distribution of modal verbs (e.g., Can you...), and requests prefaced by I wonder if. Modals are most common in ordinary conversation, whereas I wonder most frequent in requests made to the doctor. This distributional difference seemed to be supported by calls from private homes to service organizations in which speakers also formatted requests as I wonder if. Further investigation of these and other corpora suggests that this distributional pattern is related not so much with the sociolinguistic speech setting but rather with speakers' orientations to known or anticipated contingencies associated with their request. The request forms speakers select embody, or display, their understandings of the contingencies associated with the recipient's ability to grant the request.

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