When turns start with because: An exercise in interactional syntax

Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen, University of Helsinki

1. Background

There has been no dearth of studies on the causal connective because in Present-Day English (e.g., Schiffrin 1987, Abraham 1991, Schleppegrell 1991, Ford 1994, Couper-Kuhlen 1996, Breul 1997, Stenström 1998), not to mention on its development in the history of the language (e.g., Lenker 2007, Lenker 2010, Rissanen 1997, Markus 2000; Claridge & Walker 2001; see also Kortmann 1997). A number of these studies have examined the use of because empirically in large corpora of contemporary written and/or spoken discourse (e.g., Altenberg 1984, Breul 1997, Stenström & Andersen 1996, Stenström 1998). Yet few have taken a look at how interlocutors deploy because in the real-time emergence of talk, at how this word and the syntactic construction it is part of serve as resources for the construction of turns-at-talk and for the implementation of actions in talk-in-interaction (see, however, Ford 1993, Ford 1994 and Couper-Kuhlen 1996, Couper-Kuhlen 2009, Couper-Kuhlen forthcoming, a). This paper is a contribution to the latter body of research. It explores the use of because and its variants cuz and cz at the start of turns in everyday English conversation. In doing so, it casts light on an aspect of because which is to date poorly understood: How do speakers use because to build turns at talk? What sequential and interactional tasks do because-clauses accomplish at the start of turns? The framework within which the study is lodged is one which has come to be known as “Interactional Linguistics” (Selting & Couper-Kuhlen 2001, Fox et al. forthcoming). In contrast to large-scale surveys of grammatical structures in spoken discourse, this approach advocates context-sensitive micro-analysis of mundane conversation as a way of coming to appreciate grammar in its ‘natural habitat’, that of everyday social interaction. Grammatical structures are viewed as resources for building turns and turn-constructional units in talk; these turn units are understood to implement actions, which themselves interlock with other actions in interaction. The advantage of such a perspective is that it puts the analyst in media res, permitting a process-oriented approach to grammatical structure as it ‘emerges’ in real time. At the same time the perspective enables results which are sensitive to the orientations of the interactants themselves, in that their behaviors can be used to warrant analytic claims. As the present chapter will show, adopting such an approach can lead to new and unexpected insights into an ‘old’ and supposedly familiar grammatical phenomenon.

2. Because-clauses in conversation

The use of because in spoken conversational English is rather different from its use in expository writing. Although it introduces clauses of reason in both genres, in writing the because-clause can be positioned either before or after its associated main clause (Altenberg 1987: 50; Biber et al. 1999: 834; Diessel 2005: 450). But empirical studies of conversational English have shown that because-clauses are rarely pre-posed in conversation. Instead conversational because-clauses routinely follow the clause or set of clauses they provide a reason for (e.g., Ford 1993: 85; Biber et al. 1999: 834). For example, we are more likely to find I can't drink too much, 'cause I'm driving (adapted from Ford 1993: 95) than (Be)cause I'm driving, I can't drink too much. In Biber et al.'s survey, 90% of reason/cause clauses in conversation were postposed (1999: 834).

Conversational because-clauses are typically turn-constructional units implementing actions: they provide accounts or reasons for other actions, e.g., assertions, assessments, requests for information, refusals, etc. – often when a speaker is doing or saying something that departs from locally relevant expectations and norms (Heritage 1988: 140f; Couper-Kuhlen 2009: 6). Although accounts are not invariably positioned after the actions they account for (in fact, conversational data is rich with accounts which anticipate upcoming actions; see also Schegloff 2007: 68f, 83), it does appear to be the case that conversational accounts designed with because are post-positioned. Post-positioned accounts are linked to talk that precedes them, and the word because serves as an explicit and early mark of the fact that this link is causal rather than, say, additive (Couper-Kuhlen 2009: 9; Couper-Kuhlen forthcoming, a; Sacks 1992: 721). This not only facilitates processing (Diessel 2005: 459), it may also represent an advantage in terms of action recognition (Levinson forthcoming). [1]

Whatever the motivation for the post-positioning of because-clauses in conversation, there is one important practical consequence for participants: When a because-clause appears at the start of a turn in English conversation, it will be understood to be providing a reason for something that precedes it, rather than for something that follows it. As Schegloff (1996: 74f) puts it, turns with initial because start with something which is recognizably a ‘non-beginning’; they are in one way or another continuations of prior talk. Thus, one of the issues conversationalists must deal with when they encounter a because-clause at the start of a turn is to decide: Which prior turn is being accounted for? And one of the issues that analysts who encounter because-clauses at the start of turns must ask is: Why is this because-clause not designed to come in the same turn as what it provides a reason for? These are the questions I would like to explore here empirically, on the basis of a set of examples culled from a moderate-size collection of telephone calls to and from the home of one family in the southwest of England. This collection of calls, known informally as the “Holt corpus”, comprises approximately seven hours of talk. [2] It has been transcribed in large parts by Gail Jefferson using a set of notation conventions developed especially for Conversation Analysis (for a recent overview, see Schegloff 2007: 265). [3]

A preliminary survey of my data set suggests that turns starting with because-clauses are produced in two different sequential environments:

  1. to account for an immediately prior action by the same speaker, and
  2. to account for an immediately prior action by the interlocutor.

In other words, because-clauses at the start of turns link up to differently authored turns in prior discourse. In the following I will examine representative cases of each of these usages and try to determine why a because-prefaced reason is produced when it is and by whom it is and – since the action being accounted for is initially produced on its own – why in fact a reason is produced at all.

For reasons of clarity and expediency, I will refer in the following to the producer of the because-clause as “the speaker” and to the because-clause itself as “the account”. The recipient of the because-clause will be called “the interlocutor” and what it provides a reason for, “the accountable”. Consider, for instance, the following fragment from a telephone conversation between Lesley and a fellow substitute teacher Robbie, in which the interlocutors have been commiserating about the trials and tribulations of teaching:

(1) Independent (Holt May 1988: 1:5) Transcription conventions

01 Rob: Well thanks ever so much for listening to me and
02 letting me get it off m[y chest.]
03 Les: [Oh yes n]ice to hear from
04→ you it's nice to speak to somebody who is uhm as it
05→ were indepen:dent.
06 Rob: Ye:s.
07 (0.3)
08 Rob: Ye[s. Well (you)
09⇨ Les: [Becuz I began to think it was me::. heh hah huh
10 .hh[hhh
11 Rob: [And I'm quite relieved that you found the same.

Lesley's turn in line 9, Becuz I began to think it was me, is the account (shown in orange). It is providing a reason for her turn unit in lines 4–5, it's nice to speak to somebody who is uhm as it were independent, which is thus the accountable (shown in blue). Lesley, the producer of the because-clause, is the speaker and Robbie, the recipient of the because-clause, her interlocutor.

The production of because-clauses after completed turn units in conversation was first described by Ford (1993). The discussion here is intended to supplement Ford’s findings by highlighting the observation that when initial turns are provided without an account, they are thereby construed as not inherently ‘requiring’ one. Only if it emerges from subsequent talk that an account is ‘needed’ does the prior turn become an accountable.

3. Accounts for a prior action by the same speaker

Many actions carried out by speakers in conversation are done without an explicit account ever being given for them: e.g., greetings, farewells, offers, invitations, affirmative responses to polar questions, agreeing assessments, etc. Other actions seem by their very nature to ‘require’ an explanation or motivation: this is the case e.g. with so-called ‘dispreferred’ second actions, ones which do not do the expectable next thing but which depart in some way from what a prior turn has invited or projected: e.g., rejecting an invitation, proposal, request or offer, disconfirming what someone has just asserted, disagreeing with a prior assessment, etc. (Schegloff 2007: 68). Even some ‘dispreferred’ first actions may seem to ‘require’ an account, e.g. requests (Schegloff 2007: 89). Accounts are often delivered prior to such dispreferred first and second actions, thus serving to postpone or delay the delivery of the problematic action. Yet for many other actions in conversation, accounting is negotiable. That is, whether a reason or motivation for an action is provided or not depends on the reception of that action, i.e., on whether the interlocutor shows any sign of needing an account in order to make the action understandable, confirmable or agree-able. And this only becomes apparent once the action has been performed.

In the following I present three situations in which the reception of a speaker’s turn and of the action it implements appears to motivate that speaker to add a reason – packaged as a because-clause – at a later point in time, after the delivery of the initial action.

3.1 Account solicited by interlocutor asking ‘why’

The first situation is one in which, following an assertion by a speaker, the interlocutor specifically asks ‘why’ in next turn, i.e., requests a reason for the first speaker’s assertion. In the following case the assertion happens to be evaluative; it is assessing someone known to both participants:

(2) Charles Loft (Holt May 1988: 1:5) Transcription conventions

Lesley and Robbie are substitute teachers at the same primary school. Here they are chatting about one of their pupils.

01 Les: [.hhhh How do you get on with Charles Loft.
02 (0.6)
03 Rob: Oh he's alri:ght.[ [(Ye:s.)
04 Les: [e[Yes i- (.)if you let him-m- (.)
05 gn: just tick along in his ow:n little ge:ntle wa:y,
06 Rob: Ye[:s.
07→ Les: [.hh But I don't think he's normal do you:,
08 Rob: .hhhh (0.2) u-I think he's slo:[w,
09→ Les: [.tch I think his
10→ metabolism is, tremendously slow.
11 Rob: What what makes you th:ink of him. I mean I: obviously
12 I'm getting to know him[but what is it=
13 Les: [.hhhh
14 Rob: =tha[t worr[ies you.[
15⇨ Les: [.t [u-oo- [We:ll u becuz last yea:r I: tried
16⇨ to: put a:: a firecracker under him a little
17 Rob: Mm:[:?
18⇨ Les: .hh [A:nd umn: Denise s::aid to me specifically: i-just
19⇨ let him: tick alon:g .hh He seems happier that way
20 Rob: M[m::? [( )
21 Les: [.hhhh[So-m-but I can't remember whether I mentioned
22 it to you or not.

The fact that Lesley singles out Charles Loft as a topic for discussion in line 1 suggests that she finds him in some way remarkable. But Robbie indicates she has little of note to say on the matter (line 3), whereupon Lesley now volunteers the opinion that he’s not normal (line 7). Robbie next proposes a more benevolent interpretation: I think he’s slow (line 8), which Lesley in turn restricts but upgrades to I think his metabolism is tremendously slow (lines 9–10). The interlocutors thus appear to be having difficulty in agreeing on how to evaluate Charles Loft: it is at this point that Robbie asks Lesley ‘why’. Actually her question is what is it that worries you (lines 12, 14), but Lesley begins her answer with becuz – or more precisely, with well becuz (line 15) – showing that she interprets Robbie’s turn as asking why. The words well becuz preface a mini narrative explaining Lesley’s grounds for claiming that Charles Loft is slow.

It will be noted that Lesley’s because in line 15 is not strictly speaking turn-initial, since it is preceded by the particle well. Well here acknowledges that there is some non-straightforwardness about the answer to come (Schegloff & Lerner 2009: 101) but as a particle, it does not alter the reason relation of the following because-clause(s) to Lesley’s prior turns, I don't think he's normal (line 7) and I think his metabolism is tremendously slow (lines 9–10). In other words, these are the assessments that Lesley is providing an explanation for with her turn in lines 15–16 and 18–19; these are the turns which Lesley’s because in line 15 establishes a causal link with. So although her account is prefaced by the particle well, it starts with a ‘non-beginning’ in the sense of Schegloff (1996) due to the fact that the accountable for the because-clause is in a prior turn.

It will also be noted that Lesley says becuz here rather than cause, cuz, or cz. For the purpose of this study I am treating these forms as interactionally equivalent. If evidence should emerge that the pronunciation of because – i.e., whether it has one syllable or two, whether its vowel is reduced or not – is relevant to participants in orienting to the start of turns, then this decision would need reconsideration. So far no consistent pattern of differentiation has emerged in my data. [4]

3.2 Account invited by interlocutor signalling doubt and/or disagreement

A second situation in which an account for a speaker’s prior statement is provided later is when the interlocutor displays some problem in accepting it. This is what happens in (3).

(3) Third grandchild (Holt 1986: 1:4) Transcription conventions

Lesley is bringing her acquaintance Gwen up to date on a French exchange student, Jean-Claude, whom they both know and who has recently written a letter to Lesley announcing that his parents are divorcing. Helene and Lizbeth are Jean-Claude’s sisters.

01 Les: And he's going off to have a- a week with his siste:r
02 and you know there's a third grandchi:ld do you?
03 (.)
04 Gwe: Ah:::m (.) n:no I think I was only aware of two
05 actua[lly.
06 Les: [Mm:. There's a third one,
07 (.)
08→ Gwe: Well with Hele:ne.
09 (0.7)
10 Les: °I suppose so:,°
11⇨ Gwe: Cuz Lizbet was the one who came over to work in[London.
12 Les: [That's
13 ri:ght. Yes.
14 Gwe: Ye:s (huh).

Lesley’s announcement that Jean-Claude’s father has a third grandchild (line 2) appears to come as a surprise to Gwen, who claims to know of only two grandchildren (line 4). She now tries to work out which of Jean-Claude’s sisters will have had the child and states with some conviction that it must be Helene (line 8). But Lesley’s delayed and hesitant I suppose so (line 10) in next turn suggests that she actually doesn’t know for sure herself which sister it is. It is this display of doubt by Lesley, coming where an unproblematic confirmation of Gwen’s assertion would be expected, that prompts Gwen to explain her grounds for believing the mother of the new baby is Helene: it can’t be the other sister, Lizbeth, because she is now working in London (line 11).

More generally speaking, turns starting with because may be produced in environments in which a speaker makes an assertion but finds their interlocutor reluctant to accept or confirm it. By appending an explanation or account with because, the speaker not only substantiates the initial claim but also provides another opportunity for their interlocutor to confirm it. This is a hallmark of turn incrementation (Ford, Fox & Thompson 2002: 30; Couper-Kuhlen & Ono 2007: 508). Speaker and interlocutor are working together to achieve intersubjective understanding.

3.3 Account motivated by interlocutor’s non-enthusiastic response to ‘risky’ action

The third situation in which a speaker accounts for their own prior action at a later point in time is when that action is by nature ‘risky’ and the interlocutor’s response is less than enthusiastic or not fully committed. By ‘risky’ I mean that the action puts the speaker’s ‘face’ at stake (e.g., by being strongly evaluative) or constitutes an imposition upon the recipient in some way (e.g., by making a request or proposal). If the interlocutor’s response to this kind of ‘risky’ action is non-committal, then the speaker may be inclined to elaborate on the reasons for their action in the interest of making it more ‘agree-able’. Example (1) showed a ‘risky’ assessment, it's nice to speak to somebody who is uhm as it were independent (lines 4–5), to which the interlocutor's response was a series of ambivalent yes's interspersed by pausing (lines 6–8). The speaker then went on to provide a because-prefaced account for her prior assessment, becuz I began to think it was me (line 9), which ultimately led to agreement between the participants (see line 11). Example (4) now shows a case of a ‘risky’ proposal:

(4) Laurent (Holt 1986: 1:4) Transcription conventions

Same telephone call as (3). Here Lesley proposes to ask the Havershams, who are scheduled to accompany the local band on its upcoming trip to France, to find out more about Jean-Claude while they are there.

01 Les: .hh Well, I tell you what the Haversham:s are going
02 over there with the uh: (0.2) Castle Cary (0.2)
03 ba:n:[:d
04 Gwe: [Oh ye:[s,
05→ Les: [.hh So I'll ask them to: see if they can
06→ find out any mo:re
07 (0.2)
08 Gwe: [Ye:s.
09→ Les: [news.
10 (.)
11 Gwe: Yea[:h,
12⇨ Les: [.hhh Because uh their son Laurent is friendly with
13⇨ Jean Clau[de.
14 Gwe: [Mm hm,
15 (0.4)
16 Les: S[o-
17 Gwe: [And you know: they're fairly close knit over there
18 anyway[aren't they.]
19 Les: [e e Y e s :.]So perhaps I can let you know some:
20 more l[ater
21 Gwe: [Yeh that'd be super. You know if you hear
22 anything I'd really like to know becuz I'm (.) you know
23 very fond of them rea(h)lly a[ll of them.] [.hhehhh
24 Les: [I k n o :]w ye[:s.

Lesley’s proposal to try to find out more about Jean-Claude’s family through the band, a ‘risky’ action in the sense that it imposes an obligation on Gwen to approve and align with the action envisaged, initially encounters silence and only a weak yes from Gwen (lines 7–8). In overlap Lesley now adds an increment to her turn, specifying that what she means to find more of is news (line 9), whereupon Gwen, again after a brief delay, responds only half-heartedly with yeah (line 11). These responses hardly do justice to the way Lesley has construed her proposal, namely as a clever and resourceful idea. Her subsequent explanation Because uh their son Laurent is friendly with Jean Claude (lines 12–13) is designed to make it clear how the plan will work and thus to remedy what might be the grounds for Gwen’s lack of enthusiasm. This tactic leads to a show of support from Gwen, who now appends a reason of her own for the plan’s likely success (lines 17–18) and ultimately declares the idea and its pay-off for her super (line 21).

To summarize, what the situations shown in (1), (2), (3) and (4) have in common is that the main action, the assessment, assertion or proposal, is initially carried out on its own and treated as if it did not require an explanation. This contextualizes it as not being of the delicate or ‘dispreferred’ sort which would intrinsically need accounting. It presents the action as one whose motivation can be taken for granted. However, if the interlocutor gives some indication of not fully understanding, accepting or appreciating this action in next turn, then the first speaker adds on an explanation – in the cases examined here with a because-clause. This turn ‘increment’ not only explains, substantiates and/or motivates the prior turn but also by extending and re-completing it, provides another opportunity for the interlocutor to confirm/support/agree with the initial action. In this sense it furthers the achievement of intersubjective understanding.

The incremental construction of a turn-at-talk in response to a moment-by-moment analysis of the interactional situation is one of the hallmarks of conversation. A because-clause is admirably suited for such a task: (a) it does not require projection in advance, so it can be produced ‘on demand’, and (b) the connective marks the upcoming stretch of speech from the outset as linked to prior talk through a cause/reason relation. Because-clauses are thus ideal resources for producing explicit accounts if and when they appear expedient.

4. Accounts for a prior action by the interlocutor

Surprisingly, because-clauses are also sometimes used to account not for a speaker’s own prior turn, but for that of the interlocutor. In these cases, the because-clause speaker is not explaining their own action but is rather ‘explaining’ the other’s action from their own perspective. Three situations in which this happens will be discussed below.

4.1 Demonstrating understanding of the interlocutor’s stance

As Sacks has pointed out, one of the basic means of showing understanding of an utterance is to produce a next turn which ties back to that utterance (1992: 718). [5] In conversation we are always showing through our current turns how we have understood prior turns. Yet some turns are special in that they seem to ‘invite’ an explicit display of understanding: for instance, if the interlocutor does or says something affectively charged, this may call for a special sign of empathy or affiliation in next turn. When speakers are particularly concerned to demonstrate, or display, understanding of something an interlocutor has said or done in prior talk, they may produce a because-clause which ties back to that turn. For instance, in the following episode, Joyce is complaining to her friend Lesley about the way a mutual acquaintance, Nancy, has behaved towards her. The story Joyce tells is one in which she herself has a heavy emotional stake:

(5) Like dirt (Holt October 1988: 1:8) Transcription conventions

Lesley’s friend Joyce has initiated this storytelling episode by saying how cross she was when Nancy, a mutual acquaintance, volunteered her au-pair to help out at a charity event but then at the last minute called Joyce and asked her to do it, claiming the au-pair lacked experience.

38 Joy: But u-then: you see: at the last minute she suddenly
39 thought well she's a bit inexperienced and .hhh she said
40 I wondered if you-: uhm: .t you know as you're
41 experienced could do it. hhh(.)
42→ And I:- I was so: cr:oss Les that[I (said)
43 Les: [.t Ye:s.
44→ Joy: Well I'm terribly so[rry but
45⇨ Les: [We:ll yes becuz u-no:rmally it's
46⇨ the sort of thing she'd a:sk you an[yways::]uh wee]ks=
47 Joy: [E x a c ]t l y ]
48⇨ Les: =[befo:: :re.]
49 Joy: =[E x a c t l y.]
50 Les: Ye:s.

The climax of Joyce’s story is that she turned Nancy’s request down, an action which could be thought of as hard-hearted. Yet the way Joyce construes this rejection in her story suggests that she believes her action was justified because the request was made so late in the game. This is the point that Lesley is particularly concerned to show understanding for. In doing so, she displays strong affiliation with Joyce’s having been cross.

The way Lesley displays her understanding of Joyce’s reaction is to offer a reason or account for rejecting a request which is made at the last minute. This reason is construed as one which Lesley has arrived at based on her own world knowledge (normally…, line 45) and experience (the sort of thing she’d ask you…weeks before, lines 46, 48). Thus, Lesley is asserting epistemic rights to assess such situations, which – because the resulting evaluation is fully congruent with Joyce’s – amounts to strong support for Joyce’s position (Heritage & Raymond 2005: 23). In addition, Lesley’s turn is delivered with strong affective marking, implying that she herself is incensed at Nancy’s chutzpah or affrontery. In fact, as it later emerges, Nancy has also called Lesley and made the same request to her. [6]

In sum, by volunteering a motivation from the speaker’s own perspective for a stance or position that the interlocutor has taken in prior talk, speakers are able to do more than just claim to have understood this position. They also demonstrate their understanding by assuming the other’s position and motivating it from their own perspective.

4.2 Displaying an understanding of ‘why that now?’

One constant concern that interactants have in conversation is to make sense of what is going on, or expressed as a question, to track ‘why that now?’. The need to answer this question becomes particularly acute when something abstruse is said. One way a speaker has of trying to make sense of an interlocutor’s abstruseness is to propose their own account for it in next turn. By taking over the interlocutor’s statement and motivating it from their perspective, speakers provide evidence for how they have understood it. The following fragment is a case in point:

(6) Mary (Holt: May 1988: 1:5) Transcription conventions

Robbie is a substitute teacher at the same primary school where Lesley used to teach. In this call Lesley is inquiring about a colleague Mary, known to both, who suffers from allergies.

01 Les: Oh how's Mary keeping. Cuz of her allergies. [7]
02 Are they:?
03 (0.5)
04 Rob: Well she came in blotchy the other day an' they
05 didn't (.) couldn't decide what it wa::s
06 (0.3)
07 Les: Hm:.
08 Rob: I mean I feel
09 Les: .khh
10 (0.2)
11 Rob: uh:::::m: (0.3) I mean she seems very well she
12 certainly lost some: weight'n she looks ever so nice
13 she's g- obviously had some new: .hh clo:thes which
14 (0.2) y'know (.) suit her very well,
15 Les: Oh good.
16→ Rob: Yes. So: that- (.) that's very ni:c[e in fact we find=
17 Les: [Hm:.
18→ Rob: =we're wearing (more of/more’r less) the same colors,
19→ we have to be careful,
20 (.)
21 Les: Oh:.
22 Rob: eh[hh
23⇨ Les: [Ye:s:.[Cuz sh-
24 Rob: [(w'l) beige'n navy,
25⇨ Les: Oh yes cz she can't wear blue:.
26 (0.4)
27 Rob: She can't wear blue,=
28 Les: =No: that's one'v the colors she's allergic to.
29 (0.3)
30 Rob: Well that's funny she wz wearing all blue the other
31 da[:y
32 Les: [.hhhh Oh eh she has to wear a specific sort'v blue.
33 .hhh uh-one: (.) e-eh she can only wear thin:gs .hhh
34 that don:'t have indigo in them.
35 (.)
36 Rob: Oh:: :.

Robbie’s statement that she and Mary have to be careful because they’re wearing the same colors (lines 18–19) is at first glance rather abstruse. Lesley responds with a simple oh in next turn but when no elaboration from Robbie is forthcoming, she begins to craft her own explanation, fully developed in line 25: Oh yes cuz she can’t wear blue. As it transpires, Lesley knows that Mary is allergic to blue dye with indigo in it, so this is her understanding of why she must be careful about what colors she wears. (It is doubtful that Robbie had this meaning in mind: her surprised repair initiation, She can’t wear blue (line 27), followed by Lesley's confirmation and explanation (line 28) indicates that Robbie didn’t know about Mary’s allergy to indigo.) So in (6) it is by taking on Robbie’s statement and proposing her own explanation for it that Lesley displays how she has understood the utterance and makes this understanding accessible to Robbie.

In some ways the turn starting with because in (6) is similar to that in (5): the speaker in both situations is displaying an understanding of their interlocutor’s prior turn by offering their own account or motivation for it. However, in (6), Lesley’s displayed understanding turns out not to be the one her interlocutor had in mind, whereas in (5) the proffered understanding was congruent with that of the interlocutor. In both cases the turns starting with because are proffered in the pursuit of intersubjective understanding.

4.3 Negotiating the terms of agreement

When an interlocutor’s prior statement or assertion is evaluative, speakers may on occasion find themselves willing to agree, but only on terms they have set themselves (Heritage & Raymond 2005: 15). One of the ways of doing this is for speakers to provide their own reasons for agreeing to an evaluation. This is what happens in the following fragment:

(7) Hard work (Holt May 1988: 2:1) Transcription conventions

In this conversation Mark has called his cousin Deena but Deena’s husband Dwayne has answered the phone. Dwayne asks how Mark’s family is and Mark explains that his wife Lesley is doing a lot of teaching at the moment.

01 Dwa: O h : w e] :ll. You know: is she enjoying
02 it[(
03 Mar: [.tlk Oh ye:s:. Ye:s. Lotta hard work mind you of cou[rse
04 Dwa: [O h
05 yes. Yes.
06 (0.3)
07 Dwa: eh heh
08 Mar: Bu[(.)t uh:
09→ Dwa: [Well teaching (.) today is hard work anyWA[Y
10⇨ Mar: [Yeh well
11⇨ ye::[s.
12 Dwa: [heh heh huh
13 (.)
14⇨ Mar: .hhhh Cause there's so m:uch more you have to do. You
15 spend all your time filling out forms and messing about
16 with new ideas than you[- actually teach]the kids.
17 Dwa: [ (That's right) ]
18 Mar: But still .hhhhhhhhp (0.4)

Dwayne’s query about Lesley enjoying her teaching (lines 1–2) is formatted to invite an affirmative answer, but Mark’s response is affirmative only in a pro-forma sense. In actual fact, he implies the opposite with Lotta hard work mind you of course (lines 3–4), intimating a complaint. However, Dwayne dismisses any possible complaint in next turn when he replies Oh yes yes (lines 4–5) and then adds Well teaching today is hard work anyway (line 9). With this response he implies that all teaching is difficult and that Lesley has nothing special to complain about. In other words, he does not align with what Mark has intimated is a complainable. Mark indicates some hesitation to agree in next turn with his weak Yeh well yes (lines 10–11), while Dwayne’s weak laugh particles (line 12) hint at the awkwardness of the moment.

Mark now resolves the misalignment by agreeing to a literal reading of Dwayne’s prior assessment. He proceeds to motivate the terms under which teaching is hard work: Cause there’s so much more you have to do (line 14) and to detail the bureaucracy involved. This detailing as well as the choice of extreme formulations such as spend all your time and negatively connoted verbs such as messing about construe the work as inefficient and unproductive (lines 15–16). Mark’s turn thus re-reinforces the original complaint about Lesley’s teaching: he can be understood to be suggesting that she has every right not to be enjoying it because of the wasted time. This cleverly subverts Dwayne’s message: by taking Dwayne’s words at face value and providing an independent explanation for them, Mark gives them his own understanding – and an altogether different thrust from what his interlocutor appeared to be aiming for.

In sum, what all three of the situations in (5), (6) and (7) have in common is that a turn starting with because gives an account for a prior statement or claim made by the interlocutor, this account being offered in order to display an understanding of or for it. The speaker’s understanding of the other’s turn is made evident through the motivation provided for it. This new understanding may or may not be shared by the interlocutor: in (5) it is, in (6) and (7) it presumably is not. In all three situations, however, a fusion of perspectives results when the original speaker’s claim is taken over by the recipient and motivated from their own (independent) perspective.

5. Discussion

In some ways, the process described above may seem reminiscent of so-called collaborative completions, or joint turn construction in conversation. In these cases a speaker collaboratively completes a turn that an interlocutor has provisionally left unfinished (Lerner 1996, Local 2005, Szczepek Reed 2006 [8]). This process has also been described, among other things, as a way of ‘showing understanding’ (Szczepek Reed 2006: 188ff). Following is an example from the Holt materials:

(8) Gout (Holt May 1988: 2:3) Transcription conventions

Steve, a friend of Lesley’s husband Skip, has called to ask Skip to make apologies for a mutual friend Geoff, who will not be able to attend an upcoming meeting due to sickness.

01 Les: Oh[dea:r what's the ma]tter with Geoff.
02 Ste: [ U h I ( m e t ) ]
03 (.)
04→ Ste: Well he he's got this wretched um (0.3) he's got this
05→ wretche[d
06⇨ Les: [go[ut.h
07 Ste: [gout.
08 Les: Oh: ye[s. .hhhh
09 Ste: [And he-eh he: he's right flat on his ba:ck.
10 Les: Ah::::. Poo:r Geoff

When Steve shows signs of searching for a way to complete his answer to Lesley’s question (see his recycling and pausing in lines 4–5), Lesley collaboratively comes in to help him out in line 6. Steve confirms in overlap that this was the word he had intended, whereupon Lesley now acknowledges Steve’s information as a piece of news (line 8).

Both in the case of joint turn completion, as shown in (8), and in the case of accounting for an interlocutor’s turn with because (examples (5), (6), (7)), what the second speaker says builds on a prior turn or a component of a prior turn by the first speaker. Both represent basically collaborative processes for the production of turns-at-talk. And both are of course open to strategic exploitation for more speaker-centered goals: see Szczepek Reed (2006: 197ff ) and example (7) above. However, whereas joint turn production typically involves incomplete turn components being completed by other speakers, the speaker’s accounting with because described here invariably happens after an interlocutor’s turn has been brought to possible completion. Accounting for an interlocutor’s turn with because is thus more similar to incrementing than to collaborative turn construction. Moreover, in collaborative completions it is usually argued that despite the incoming by an interlocutor, the floor remains with the first speaker (Szczepek Reed 2006: 207f). This is in evidence in example (8), where Lesley’s production of gout is intended as a contribution from Steve’s perspective. It in no way compromises her position as the recipient of Steve’s news, as line 8 evidences. However, in accounting with because as described here, the floor clearly shifts to the because speaker, who produces their own, independent account for the action in question. We must conclude then that accounting with because is not a special case of collaborative completion. If it is a special case of anything, it might be said to be a kind of ‘other-initiated’ incrementing (see Sidnell forthcoming, who describes this phenomenon). However, the status of because-clauses as increments is itself more than questionable. [9]

6. Conclusions

Both sequential environments for turns starting with because are revealing:

The first environment, where because is used to introduce an account for a speaker’s own prior action, is instructive because it highlights the importance of a process-oriented, online understanding of syntax. This is the view of syntax which it is necessary to adopt when looking at the emergence of speech, and with it grammar, in real time. Seen atemporally as finished products, the constructions produced in (1), (2), (3) and (4) look rather like the [main clause + subordinate clause] patterns talked about in grammar books:

  • In (1): It's nice to speak to somebody who is as it were independent, because I began to think it was me.
  • In (2): I think his metabolism is tremendously slow, because last year I tried to put a firecracker under him a little and Denise said to me specifically ‘just let him tick along, he seems happier that way’.
  • In (3): (The third grandchild must be) with Helene, because Lizbeth was the one who came over to work in London.
  • In (4): So I’ll ask them to see if they can find out any more news, because their son Laurent is friendly with Jean-Claude.

However, in reality these are not pre-planned [main clause + subordinate clause] constructions at all. Instead, they ‘grew’ that way over time, i.e., they emerged as such in the course of interaction. So it is only retrospectively that they can be seen as constructions establishing a causal link between a reason, given later, and a statement, made earlier. This state of affairs is a salutary reminder that syntactic constructions are living resources which real speakers manipulate and adapt to local contingencies – as the need arises in interaction with others.

The second environment, where a turn starting with because proffers an account for the interlocutor’s prior action, is no less revealing. It shows us that what is thought of as a single syntactic construction [main clause + subordinate clause] can be ‘shared’ by interlocutors: one speaker can produce a statement and the other an explanation for that statement. This might not be so surprising if it were not for the fact that it is accomplished with a single syntactic construction, as the following reconstructions show:

  • In (5): I was so cross, Les, because normally it’s the sort of thing she’d ask you anyways weeks before!
  • In (6): We have to be careful, cuz she can’t wear blue.
  • In (7): Teaching today is hard work anyway, cause there’s so much more you have to do.

Yet the syntactic constructions shown in (5), (6) and (7) do not come from a single speaker’s head; instead, they emerge from a shared or ‘distributed’ understanding of syntax (see also Fox 1994 and Ono & Thompson 1995, both of which describe ways in which conversational syntax can be said to be distributed or shared).

Examples (1), (2), (3) and (4) provide transparent evidence of how because-constructions which are delivered as accounts for that speaker’s prior assessment, assertion or proposal in response to prompting, however inexplicit, by an interlocutor contribute to the achievement of intersubjectivity. What examples (5), (6) and (7) show, although somewhat more opaquely, is that because-constructions which are delivered to account for an interlocutor’s assertion or assessment display the speaker’s understanding of that interlocutor’s turn and thereby also contribute to achieving a mutual sharing of perspective. In fact, because in these latter cases claim and account are produced by different subjects and yet are united in a single syntactic construction, they might even be said to represent a primordial form of intersubjectivity – inter-subjectivity par excellence.

I conclude that turns starting with because, by virtue of their having ‘non-beginnings’ and of doing ‘accountability’, represent a microcosm of interactional syntax.


[1] Conversely, post-positioned accounts which lack an explicit mark of their causal link may be more suitable when what is being accounted for is a prior non-verbal action (Gohl 2000).

[2] Because of its private and personal nature, this corpus has restricted access and is not available to the larger public.

[3] I have retained Jefferson’s transcriptions but normalized the spellings for improved readability.

[4] This is not to deny that the difference between because and cuz may be sociolinguistically relevant; see Stenström & Andersen (1996) and Stenström (1998).

[5] Tying devices include, among others, the use of pronouns, pro-verbs, conjunctions, discourse markers such as well, then, now, and partial repetitions (Sacks 1992: 716ff).

[6] Couper-Kuhlen (forthcoming, a) also discusses this fragment from the perspective of how a story recipient achieves affiliation after a story teller’s display of heightened emotive involvement.

[7] The use of utterance-initial cuz here is excluded from the present discussion on the grounds that it does not instantiate clausal linkage and is not turn-initial.

[8] Szczepek Reed’s discussion (2006: 164ff) also includes cases in which a possibly complete turn is collaboratively extended by a next speaker.

[9] Couper-Kuhlen (forthcoming, b) explores some of the problems involved when postposed because clauses are considered increments.

Appendix: Transcription conventions

[   ]
[   ]
Overlapping talk
(.)Micro-pause (typically around 0.1 second)
.Final falling pitch
?Final high rising pitch
,Slightly rising, slightly falling or level final pitch
Noticeable upsteps and downsteps in intonation
CAPParticularly loud word or words
°   °Particularly soft word or words
:, ::, :::Syllable and sound lenghtenings
.h, .hh, .hhhAudible inbreaths
h, hh, hhhAudible outbreaths
(word)Uncertain hearing


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