Question Design in Conversation


Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Ochanomizu University


Questions are pervasive in ordinary conversation and institutional interaction, alike. Questions typically initiate sequences as in Extract (1).

(1) Heritage (1984a: 311)

Here, N requests information that she lacks (whether ‘he’ has his own apartment or not), making an answer that provides this information a relevant response. H’s answer confirms that he does have his own apartment, and N receipts this as informative with “change-of-state token” oh (Heritage, 1984a). This basic structure of question sequences led Bolinger (1957: 4) to say that a question “is an utterance that ‘craves’ a verbal or other semiotic response (e.g. a nod). The attitude is characterized by the speaker’s subordinating himself to his hearer.”

However, this characterization proves to be too limited to embrace all that questions are used for in social interaction. Depending on such factors as how they are designed, who is asking them, and the social and sequential context within which they are asked, questions bring about diverse interactional consequences. In fact, contrary to Bolinger’s comment, questions are a powerful tool to control interaction: they pressure recipients for response, impose presuppositions, agendas and preferences, and implement various initiating actions, ...

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