Language in Society


On questions following questions in service encounters1

Marilyn Merritta1

a1 University of Pennsylvania


This paper is a treatment of some patterns of talk that occur in service encounters (and presumably in other conversations as well). It is an attempt to examine the contribution of discourse structures such as the question–answer adjacency pair to the coherence of everyday discourse. The customer-request–server-response sequence is examined as to its adherence to a pattern of question–answer. Though some sequences do adhere to the question–answer pattern, there are many that do not, but rather are manifested as question–question. The question–question patterns are shown to be of several kinds in terms of the relationship of the second question to the first. The analysis demonstrates the relationship of these patterns to the pragmatic interpretation of the customer-request as either a request for information or as a request for service, and leads to a tentative set of generalizations concerning the interpretation of responses to questions in general. (Questions, conversational analysis, discourse analysis, pragmatics, indirect speech acts, coherence, ritual, service encounters, American English.)


1 Portions of the analysis in this paper were presented at the summer meetings of the Linguistic Society of America, 1972, and 1973. I am grateful to Erving Goffman, Dell Hymes, Harvey Sacks, John Fought, Charles Fillmore, and William Labov for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.