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Review of  Syntax and Lexis in Conversation

Reviewer: Maria Averintseva-Klisch
Book Title: Syntax and Lexis in Conversation
Book Author: Auli Auli Margret Selting
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Danish
Issue Number: 17.493

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Date: Tue, 14 Feb 2006 10:33:01 +0100
From: Mascha Averintseva
Subject: Syntax and Lexis in Conversation

EDITORS: Hakulinen, Auli; Selting, Margret
TITLE: Syntax and Lexis in Conversation
SUBTITLE: Studies on the use of linguistic resources in talk-in-
SERIES: Studies in Discourse and Grammar 17
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

Maria Averintseva, University of Tübingen, Deutsches Seminar


This book is a collection of 14 papers presenting current work at the
interface of linguistics and conversational analysis. The papers are
brought together by an Introduction by the editors, and divided into
two subsections headed ''Syntactic resources in conversation'' (first 8
papers) and ''Lexico-semantic resources in conversation'' (6 papers).
As stated in the Introduction, the book ''aim[s] at a description of
language or particular linguistic structures as resources in
conversational interaction''. In particular, this book concentrates on the
syntax and lexical semantics and their role for the interaction, as these
linguistic fields have been so far underestimated by conversational
analysis. The book shows, that
(1) syntax and lexical semantics are important resources for
(2) syntax and lexical semantics interplay in such manner, that it is
sometimes difficult to assign a phenomenon to one of the both, as e.g.
the paper by Couper-Kuhlen & Thompson demonstrates; and, most
(3) the work at the interface of linguistics and conversational analysis
is most promising, as it allows important insights in the way language
is used for communication.

In the book, material from the following languages is discussed:
English (Wootton, Schulze-Wenck, Drew, Couper-Kuhlen &
Thompson), German (Selting, Auer, Scheutz, Günthner, Deppermann,
Steensig & Asmuß), Swedish (Lindström), Danish (Steensig & Asmuß,
Heinemann), Italian (Monzoni) and Finnish (Duvallon & Routarinne).
The authors used audio/video data from natural interactions as their


The first part, ''Syntactic resources in conversation'', opens with a
paper by Margret Selting ''Syntax and prosody as methods for the
construction and identification of turn-constructional units in
conversation''. She turns to the problem of the classical definition of
the main unit in the conversational analysis, turn-constructional unit
(TCU). Traditionally, a TCU is on the one hand explicitly stated not to
be a linguistic unit, but is on the other hand defined with reference to
syntactic units. Selting argues that a TCU is a genuine linguistic unit
that is constructed in sequential context and is interactionally relevant.
She shows that syntax and prosody play an equally important role in
defining of a TCU. So, on the one hand, a TCU should be a possible
syntactic construction in a given language. On the other hand,
syntactically similar, but prosodically different utterances do perform
different functions with respect to the storytelling under construction.

The next five papers focus on phenomena that are often regarded as
being marginal occurrences of the spoken language: parenthesis in
Finnish, repair, pivot and non-temporal 'where'-clauses in German, as
well as syntactically marked Italian constructions. In each case it is
shown that these are (1) real linguistic constructions with distinct
syntactic, prosodic and functional features, and (2) far from being
deficiencies of the spoken language, they are in fact efficient and
elaborated conversation strategies.

The second paper of the book, ''Parenthesis as a resource in the
grammar of conversation'' by Outi Duvallon and Sara Routarinne is
concerned with parenthesis in Finnish. The authors show that
parenthesis is not a simple ''aside'', but a strategy used for
manipulating the topic of conversation. A parenthesis temporarily
suspends the progression of another syntactic construction or wider
action sequence, and thus enables metatextual comments of different
kinds without giving up the main story line. Syntactic and prosodic
characteristics of the parenthesis in Finnish are introduced, and its
several interrelated functions in the conversation are described.

In his paper ''Delayed self-repairs as a structuring device for complex
turns in conversation'', Peter Auer deals with the phenomenon of self-
delayed repairs, i.e. cases, when the speaker interrupts an emerging
syntactic pattern, starts a new TCU, and then returns to the broken-off
structure. Auer shows that this construction is used as an option to
linearize complex and hierarchically structured units, e.g. when a
speaker has several goals that he wants to achieve simultaneously.
Auer distinguishes between self-delayed repairs and parenthesis, as
the latter involves a continuation of the pre-parenthetical utterance,
whereas self-delayed repairs entail a complex hierarchical structure.
He argues that self-delayed repair is not a deficiency of spoken
language, as sometimes claimed, but a highly efficient method of
coping with the linearization problem.

Another construction that is traditionally seen as a deficiency of
spoken language is the subject of the paper by Hannes
Scheutz, ''Pivot constructions in spoken German''. He analyses a pivot
construction in German, i.e. a construction of the type A-B-C, where
AB and BC are each grammatically correct, while A-B-C is actually
incorrect, as in [[A that is] [[B something awful]AB] [C is that]BC]. He
shows that although pivot construction is most often regarded as a
syntactic break-off, it is actually a genuine syntactic structure with
clear formal and functional properties. Thus, he contrasts pivot
constructions with break-off and a new beginning as well as with
parenthesis. Scheutz describes the main types and functions of the
pivot construction in German. He argues that pivot construction is a
means of establishing cohesion and shows, that as such this
construction is found cross-linguistically in spoken language.

Chiara Monzoni deals in her paper with the so-called marked syntactic
constructions in Italian, i.e. left and right dislocations and
topicalization. After beginning with a short introduction into Italian
syntax, she argues against the common assumption made by Italian
linguists that syntactically marked constructions are, due to their
frequency in informal speech, not pragmatically marked any more. In
her study, based on a corpus of multi-person conversations, she
shows that left dislocation, right dislocation and topicalization still
display specific pragmatic and conversational functions. They serve as
what she calls ''disconnected interjection'', i.e. producing a turn that is
not connected with the immediately preceding talk (and most often
also involves the change of the speaker). In this case, topicalization
and left dislocation enhance the topic shift, whereas right dislocation,
on the contrary, smoothes it.

Susanne Günthner in her paper ''Grammatical constructions in 'real
life practices': WO-constructions in everyday German'' is concerned
with the ''wo''-clauses ('where'-clauses) in German. She shows
that ''wo'' initiates not only local, but also temporal, causal and
concessive clauses. Still, there are no interpretation problems.
Günthner shows that ''wo''-constructions have different interactive
functions depending not only on the context but also on their position
in the sentence (whether they precede or follow the main clause). In
spite of the broad functionality of the ''wo''-construction, with particular
inferences depending upon the context, there is one common
characteristic: the interactive function of the ''wo''-construction is to
provide evident, presupposed material.

The next two papers are concerned with the form requests may take
in conversation.

Anthony Wootton investigates in his paper requests done by children
and the connection between the grammatical form and the sequences
in which requests occur, focusing on the ''can you...''-construction
used by a 5-year-old child. He investigates in which environments this
construction is used and in which it is never used, what other
constructions the child uses for request in similar circumstances and
what is the role the turn-initial ''please'' plays in this construction. He
shows that ''(please) can you...'' is used when the child expects that
what she is asking the recipient to do is a departure from the line of
action projectable by her recipient. When this is not the case,
imperatives or other constructions are used. ''Please'' is used to
enhance the pleading aspect of the action. Thus, ''can you...''-
construction is shown to be a distinctive interaction configuration,
which also proves that the assumption that requests are sequence-
initial objects, coming out of the blue, is highly misleading, as the
preceding sequences are defining for the from of the request. The
analysis Wootton presents is very convincing, so that it would be
tempting to test it on a larger corpus, with more than only one child

Requests are also the subject of the next paper, ''Language as social
action: A study of how senior citizens request assistance with practical
tasks in the Swedish home help service'' by Anna Lindström. An
important point Lindström makes is that whether an utterance is to be
understood as a request or not must not be set in advance by the
speaker, but can be a matter of negotiation between the speaker and
the recipient(s). Lindström shows how different syntactic forms of
requests - imperative, interrogative or declarative sentences -
correspond to different contextual factors. Imperatives are used when
the speaker believes himself to be entitled to request assistance,
whereas questions are preferred when this issue is open. Declaratives
are used as a means of negotiating a request with the recipient,
especially if recipient is currently engaged in another action and his
attention has first to be attracted.

The papers of the second part ''Lexico-semantical resources in
conversation'' concentrate on the role the particular word selection
and the semantics of lexical items play in a conversation.

The first paper of the second part, ''The interactional generation of
exaggerated versions in conversation'' by Paul Drew is concerned with
the cases, where a claim turns out to be an exaggeration. Drew shows
on English material that the ''exaggerated'' version is produced to fit
optimally in the sequential environment where it is produced, and is
formulated so that it can optimally perform an action required in this
environment (confirmation, disagreeing, reporting etc.). After
achieving this action the speaker minimally adjusts the exaggerated
version to the real situation. This is apparently done in a planned way.
This enables the speaker first to achieve his action in the best
possible way, and then to give an accurate description of the state of
affairs. Thus the paper shows that ''descriptions are shaped by the
action sequences in which they are produced'' in that they are
produced conforming to the requirements imposed by the previous
speaker, even if the claim thus made is not quite correct.

Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen and Sandra A. Thompson in their paper ''A
linguistic practice for retracting overstatements: 'Concessive repair'''
are concerned with the same phenomenon as Drew, and even use the
same corpus. They show, that 'concessive repair' has emerged from
the common interactional task of retracting overstatements and has
grammaticized into a certain lexical-grammatical pattern construction.
Thus, the paper illustrates clearly that there is no strict division
between syntactic and lexical phenomena, but that syntax and lexical
semantics interplay by the production of conversation. So, this paper,
which belongs to the second part of the book, would as well suit in the
first one.

Arnulf Deppermann argues in his paper ''Conversational interpretation
of lexical items and conversational contrasting'' that contrast in
conversation is not something holding context-free, but emerging from
participant's work (i.e. speaker's intention and hearer's interpretation).
He shows how lexical items that do not inherently build a contrast can
be provided with a local (i.e. valid only in a certain context) meaning
inducing a contrast. He describes two general strategies for the
interpretation of contrasting items: 'frame-based interpretation' leading
to a pragmatic opposition within a frame, and 'maximization of
contrast', according to which the hearer recognizes that the speaker
intends to contrast two words and thus interprets them so as to
maximize their contrast in meaning. Deppermann argues that local
contrasting interpretation achieved in this way might then become
available independent of the activity of contrasting. This is evidence
that routine interactional activities might get grammaticalized as
linguistic structures also at the level of the semantics.

Stephanie Schulze-Wenck concerns herself with a group of lexical
items sharing certain features: the so-called ''first verbs''. This is a
term for a certain use of verbs like ''wanted to /tried to'' etc., indicating
that sequentially for this turn another TCU with another verb will come.
She claims that ''first verbs'' pragmatically project further talk, i.e. they
are a linguistic resource for producing of multi-unit turns. She
describes morpho-syntactic, lexico-semantic and pragmatic features
of ''first verbs'', as well as their interactional purposes. So, first verbs
might be for example a resource for storytelling, being a take-off for a
(next component of) a story, or for justification / explanation,
complaining / criticizing as well as for counter-suggestion.

The following two papers concentrate on dispreferred responses in
conversation and their linguistic form.

The first one is ''Notes on disaligning 'yes but' initiated utterances in
Danish and German conversations: Two construction types for
dispreferred responses'' by Jacob Steensig and Birte Asmuß. They
show that ''yes but''-initiated sentences occur after turns which call for
agreement or acceptance, and are thus dispreferred responsive
actions. They distinguish between two variants of ''yes, but''-
responses, which are used for actions differing in their social
character. In the 'integrated version', ''yes but'' is produced
prosodically as one token. Thus, nothing in the format shows any of
the features normally associated with dispreference, although a
dispreferred action is still implemented. 'Integrated ''yes but''' is used
preferably for correcting and updating the prior speaker's knowledge.
In the 'non-integrated version', ''yes'' and ''but'' are produced as two
tokens, and show certain design features associated with
dispreference (e.g. pause, hesitation etc.). This variant is used for
disputing and opposing an assertion by casting doubt on the rationale
in it, which is clearly a more socially problematic action. Thus,
grammatical features of a certain construction are shown to be
responsible for the social character of an action performed by this

The last paper, ''Where grammar and interaction meet: The
preference for matched polarity in responsive turns in Danish'' by
Trine Heinemann, describes the phenomenon that in Danish the
negative response particle ''nej'' (no) is not only used for dispreferred
actions like disagreement, but also, and even preferably, for preferred
actions like agreement, confirmation or acceptance. The latter is the
case when the utterance responded to was negatively framed. That
means that Danish has a grammatical preference for having a
response mirror the polarity of the prior turn. Heinemann argues that
grammatical preference for having the negative polarity mirrored in the
response is a tendency that might be observed in other Indo-
European languages as well.

The part of the title of the last paper, ''Where grammar and interaction
meet'' might be chosen as the subtitle for the whole book, as it shows
convincingly, how linguistics and conversational analysis can profit
from one another.

Maria Averintseva is a research assistant in the Department of
German Linguistics at Tübingen University. She is working on a Ph.D.
project about German right dislocation and its function in discourse.
Her research interests are lexical and formal semantics, syntax, and
especially discourse and text linguistics.