‘Is that your coat on the floor?’ – Agency and autonomy in indirection

by Rebecca Clift (University of Essex)

Why might a parent say to a child ‘Is that your coat on the floor?’ as a means of getting them to pick it up, rather than using a directive, ‘Pick up your coat’?

Work on indirect utterances has focused exclusively on what the speaker is assumed to gain from indirectness. In contrast, this talk uses insights and data—both audio- and video-recorded—from Conversation Analysis (CA) to illuminate observable recipient conduct as a means of identifying the interactional motivations for a speaker to be indirect. Central to the analysis is the observation that recipients do work of various kinds to exert agency in response; to establish that what they are doing has a degree of autonomy, rather than being purely acquiescent in response to a prior turn. It turns out that linguistic mechanisms deployed in the pursuit of autonomy figure centrally in this empirically-grounded account of indirectness.

A video recording of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London (Senate House, University of London, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU, room G21A) on Friday, 14 October, 4.15pm.