English Language and Linguistics


Are clefts contagious in conversation?1


a1 University of Reading, Quantitative Biology and Applied Statistics, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, Berkshire, RG6 6AH acalude@gmail.com

a2 Trinity College Dublin, Department of Statistics, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland stmiller@tcd.ie


It is well known that conversationalists often imitate their own body language as a sign of closeness and empathy. This study shows that in spontaneous, unplanned conversation, speakers go as far as emulating each other's grammar. The use of a family of focusing constructions (namely, the cleft), such as it was my mother who rang the other day, or what I meant to say was that he should go Thursday, was investigated in a corpus of conversation excerpts in New Zealand English. Findings show that clefting is contagious. In other words, if one speaker uses a cleft, others will be likely to do so too.

(Received July 29 2008)

(Revised September 09 2008)


1 We are grateful for the comments and suggestions made by the editor, Bas Aarts, and the two anonymous referees. Additionally, the article has been greatly improved by comments received from the audience of the Language, Communication and Cognition Conference held in Brighton, UK, 4–6 August 2008. Any remaining errors are, of course, our own.