Action Formation and Ascription


Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics & Radboud University, Nijmegen

Talk is constructed and is attended by its recipients for the action or actions it may be doing.

(Schegloff, 1996a: 5)


The ability to conduct conversation is a miracle in general, but particularly striking is the speed and apparent accuracy of action ascription. To see this, consider the following facts: it takes over 600ms to plan and execute the shortest turn-at-talk (see Levelt, 1989), while on average the gaps between turns are around 200ms, depending a bit on the language (de Ruiter, et al., 2006; Stivers, et al., 2009). As Figure 6.1 makes clear, this entails that B must plan his or her turn well before the prior speaker A’s is finished. Of course, B’s turn will mostly be tied to A’s turn via sequence organization in particular: If A’s turn was a question, B’s turn is expectably an answer; if an offer, an acceptance or rejection is in order, and so forth (see Stivers, this volume, on sequence organization). So action ascription by B of A’s turn is a prerequisite for the design of B’s turn—the very ‘proof procedure’ that makes CA possible.1 Although occasional misunderstandings of action content do occur, they are surprisingly rare.

Figure 6.1 Overlap of comprehension and production processes in conversation.


The challenge for participants, ...

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