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Responding indirectly

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Publication details

JournalJournal of Pragmatics
DatePublished - Jul 2011
Issue number9
Number of pages18
Pages (from-to)2434-2451
Original languageEnglish


In this research, we analyse the sequential environments in which indirectness is used in everyday conversations. This is a distinct break with traditional research into indirectness, which often focuses on the psychological conditions for felicitously doing and/or comprehending an indirect speech act. This innovative approach allows us to show what interactional pressures there are to respond indirectly – in effect, why speakers sometimes respond indirectly. One of the interactional pressures we note is that utterances consisting only of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are often not treated as adequate responses, even to syntactically polar questions. Upon receiving such responses, participants regularly pursue further information. So, rather than produce responses that are only superficially matched to the syntactic structure of the prior inquiry, speakers can and do produce responses that display their analysis of the activity being pursued in that inquiry – so-called indirect responses. We show that by responding indirectly, one participant can uncover the prior turn's agenda, or can display that a previous inquiry is inapposite in some way. Such explanations for why indirect responses are produced can come only from the analysis of naturally occurring conversations. For certain activities, in specific sequential locations, responding indirectly may be the most efficient form of communication.

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