Analysing Talk In Interaction
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University

Appendix to Lecture 5

[back to lecture 5]

Background material: Levinson's account of the "For whom" extract.

I've reproduced Levinson's account here in case you can't get hold of any of the Library copies of his book. It is a wonderfully intelligent demonstration of how CA can help us understand what seems to be a quirky tangle in a conversation. As Levinson shows, no 'linguistic' analysis would untangle the problem anything like as satisfactorily. 

We can go through it in the seminar too.

The "for whom" example. (From Levinson p 329 ff)

(49) Schegloff, 1976: D9 [Edited]
1B:An's- an' ( ) we were discussing, it tur-, it comes 
2 down, he ((Teacher)) s- he says, I-I-you've
3  talked with thi- si- I- about this many times. 
4  I ((speaker B)) said, it came down t' this: - our main
5 difference: I feel that a government, I- the main 
6 thing, is- th-the purpose
7 of the government is, what is best for the country.
9B:He ((Teacher)) says, governments, an' you know 
10 he keeps- he talks about governments, 
11  they sh- the thing that they sh'd do is what's right
12 or wrong.
13→A:For whom
14B:Well he says-[he-
15A:                         [By what standard
16B:That's what- that's exactly what I mean. He's- but 
17 he says

(All the commentary below is from Levinson, in case you can't get hold of the book and want to see what he says about the extract)

"The particular interest of this extract is a crucial ambiguity associated with the utterance "For whom". It is not, however, an ambiguity that lies in the linguistic structure of the utterance, nor has it to do with any lexical ambiguities of the words for and whom; and unlike linguistic ambiguities; which scarcely ever cause difficulties in context, this one demonstrably is (or becomes) ambiguous for the participants. The ambiguity is this: on one reading [which Levinson is going to call] (R1) [speaker] A, in uttering 'For whom', asks a question that we might paraphrase as 'What exactly did your teacher say - governments should do what's right for whom? Whom did he have in mind?'

On the other reading (R2), A, in asking For whom, is actually trying to show that he agrees with B against B's teacher (T), and he is trying to show this by offering a potential piece of B's argument against T. To see this consider that B is reporting T as saying that foreign policy should be based on what is morally right - to which B might have retorted by saying Yes, but right for whom?, pointing out that ethical judgements of good or bad depend upon different parties' points of view. So on this reading, or interpretation, A in saying "For whom" is providing an utterance that B might have used against his teacher, thus showing agreement with B.

That both readings of the utterance become available to B is clear. First B starts off responding to R1, the straightforward question interpretation, by beginning on a further specification of what the teacher says. But then A interrupts with a correction; we know this in part because only corrections of such sorts are priority items licensing violations of the turn-taking rules. But we also know that 13 is a correction because it utilizes a standard device for correcting misunderstandings, namely reformulation that makes the same point in different words. In the following turn, B then displays understanding of the alternative reading, by acknowledging A's agreement with him, that's exactly what I mean. We can thus show that the ambiguity is a participant's (and not merely an analyst's) ambiguity: each party deals with each reading once - A by correcting B's interpretation, and then reformulating his own intended reading, and B by first beginning to respond to the non-intended reading, and then showing understanding of the second reading as an agreement with him against his teacher, by acknowledging A's agreement.

But how does the ambiguity arise? Since it is clearly not a matter of the grammatical or lexical ambiguity of For whom, the source of the ambiguity must lie outside the utterance itself in its sequential location in the conversation. We need now to show that the structural location itself predisposes us to both of the relevant interpretations.

Stories, we noted, require the suspension of the normal turn-taking system, which then requires resumption. This could be provided for, it was argued, if story endings are easily recognizable. One recognizable and recurrent story ending format is a summing up of the story, and that is what we find occurring in our extract - B says It came down to this: our main difference is ... and the summary follows. So the slot in which A says For whom is the first slot after a story ending. Such a slot is one where story recipients can be expected to do one of two things: they may ask for further details or clarifications of the story - and this is the sequential basis for the simple question interpretation, R1; or they may show understanding and appreciation of the story (as e.g. in the expectable laughter after a joke: see discussion of (48) above), and it is this possibility that forms the basis of the second, more complex, interpretation R2. For one way of showing understanding is to express agreement in such a way that prior understanding must have taken place, and For whom does just this, by showing agreement through displaying understanding of the argument that B was having with his teacher.

But there's another element here: this agreement reading is reinforced by consideration of the kind of story that B's story is, namely an 'opposition story' or a reported argument. Such stories have as features not only an alternation of reported speakers, or an A-B-A-B structure of reported turns, but also, mapped onto the alternation of turns, the alternation of positions, or sides in the argument. So when reported speakers change, the positions being argued for change. Such structural expectations lie behind our ability to understand some minimal story like Pay the rent. I can't pay the rent as being a reported argument where one party said Pay the rent and the other I can't pay the rent. Now it is just because B's story here is an opposition story that we can hear A's For whom as taking up B's position against the teacher. For B is reporting an argument in which the teacher (T) and he alternated in turns and positions in a T-B-T-B ... sequence. Further, we can see that it is just because in addition to being an opposition story, it is one which ends with a turn by T, that A can jump in and show story understanding by taking B's turn after T's. And for A to do this is an optimal way of displaying understanding, one of the expectable things to be going on in the first slot after a story.

Analyses of this sort, which show how surrounding conversational structure can impose rich interpretations on utterances, provide important lessons for linguistic and psychological theories of language understanding. First, they indicate that semantic interpretation is only a small and not perhaps the most complex aspect of the communicational significance of an utterance. Secondly, they show that speech act theory and allied theories of utterance function can only be considered crude and (at best) partial accounts of such situated significance (consider, for example) what little of interest speech act theory could say about For whom). Thirdly, such analyses suggest that while it is correct to look for the sources of such significance outside the utterance itself, it may be a mistake to look too far afield, and specifically that it can be premature to invoke the application of large quantities of background knowledge."

All from Levinson 1983 Pragmatics, CUP, p 329 ff

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