Language in Society

Research Article

Figures of speech: Figurative expressions and the management of topic transition in conversation

Paul Drewa1 and Elizabeth Holta2

a1 Department of Sociology, University of York, York YOI 5DD, England,

a2 School of Music and Humanities, Huddersfield University, Queensgate, Huddersfield HDI 3DH, England,


In conversation, speakers occasionally use figurative expressions such as “had a good innings,” “take with a pinch of salt,” or “come to the end of her tether.” This article investigates WHERE in conversation such expressions are used, in terms of their sequential distribution. One clear distributional pattern is found: Figurative expressions occur regularly in topic transition sequences, and specifically in the turn where a topic is summarized, thereby initiating the closing of a topic. The paper discusses some of the distinctive features of the topic termination/transition sequences with which figurative closings are associated, particularly participants' orientation to their moving to new topics. Finally, the interactional use of figurative expressions is considered in the context of instances where their use fails to secure topical closure, manifesting some conflict (disaffiliation, etc.) between the participants. (Figurative expressions, idioms, conversation, topic)