An Analysis of Turn-Taking in English Telephone Conversations

Term Paper, 2010

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Turn-Taking in English Telephone Conversation
2.1. Turn-Taking Model by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson
2.2. Transition Relevance Places in Telephone Conversations
2.3. Overlaps, Asking for Clarification and Back-Channel Behavior

3. The Role of Adjacency Pairs in Telephone Conversations
3.1. Preferred versus Dispreferred Second Parts
3.2. Adjacency Pairs in Opening and Closing Sequences of Telephone Conversations

4. Conclusion

5. Appendix
5.1. General Information regarding the Transcriptions
5.2. Transcription No. 1
5.3. Transcription No. 2
5.4. Transcription No. 3
5.5. Transcription No. 4
5.6. Transcription No. 5
5.7. Transcription No. 6
5.8. Transcription No. 7
5.9. Transcription No. 8
5.10. Transcription No. 9


1. Introduction

Even though the computer plays a significant role in modern communication, it could not replace the telephone as an communication tool, whose history goes back to the 19th century. In contrast to face-to-face interaction participants do not have the opportunity to involve gesture, facial expressions or eye contact in telephone conversations and therefore have lesser possibilities to manage turn-taking within these conversations.

In this paper I will have a closer look at how turn-taking in English telephone conversations works. First I will explain the turn-taking model, which was developed by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, and analyze examples from recorded telephone conversations. After concentrating on Transition Relevance Places, I will also analyze overlaps, asking for clarification and back-channel-responses. Following this, I will have a look at adjacency pais in telephone conversation. Finally, I will conclude by summarizing my findings.

The data which will be analyzed in this paper, was derived from two telephone conversations, which were recorded and afterwards partly transcribed.[1] In each case one of the participants was a native speaker of English and the other a native speaker of German. The examples found in this paper are taken from this data. However, in most cases only one or two examples are taken from the transcript, as an analysis of more examples would exceed the scope of this paper.

2. Turn-Taking in English Telephone Conversation

When we have a conversation, whether on the telephone or during face-to-face interactions, we vary the roles of speaker and listener. In order to achieve this we take turns and manage our conversation by doing so. This management of turn-taking is “essential to telephone conversation” (Hopper 1992: 7), whereas in other conversations each person’s new beginning of a turn is based on the progress of the conversation and the ongoing turn (cf. Hopper 1992: 98). The turns of each speaker may vary in length and content: While the confirmation “Yeap. [Yeah.]” of person A in T5: 3[2] is a short utterance, the recall of person B in T5: 8-12 is of longer extent. Additionally, there are no rules which determine in advance which participant will be the next speaker or how many times a participant will be in the position to talk (cf. Renkema 2004: 163). This can been seen in transcription no. 4, where person A is in the position to talk, while person B only verbalizes back-channel responses (see 2.3.) to show interest in A’s account.

This management during a conversation is called the turn-taking model and was “developed by Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson (1974)” (Renkema 2004: 163).

2.1. Turn-Taking Model by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson

The turn-taking model[3] by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson explains how the participants of a conversation achieve to take turns during a conversation. The model is composed by two main components: the turn-constructional component and the turn-allocation component.

Firstly, the turn-constructional component helps to recognize when a turn ends, and therefore allows the participants to project these “possible completion points” (Ellis & Beattie 1986: 175). The so-called turn-constructional units are the basic units, which form a turn. They can vary in length and hence the turn-constructional units can be single words, phrasal, clausal or sentential constructions (cf. Ellis & Beattie 1986: 175). The end of a turn-constructional unit, where a participant of a conversation might project an end of a turn, is called a Transition Relevance Place (see 2.2.). One example for this can been found in T2: 7-8, where participant B projects that there is one possible completion point after A’s utterance “= retiring at the end of this year â” and she steps in and comments on A’s utterance.

Secondly, the turn-allocation component helps to determine which participant is selected next for the role of the speaker (cf. Ellis & Beattie 1986: 176). Here one can differentiate between self-selected and nominated turn-taking (cf. McCarthy 1991: 127). If a speaker nominates a listener to become the next speaker, this person is expected to speak next (cf. Green 1989: 156). This nomination can either be achieved by explicit or implicit markers. Implicit markers are paralinguistic features; this can be for example a gesture towards a person, while an example for explicit markers is a direct address by the use a person’s name. While the falling tone in T5: 19 is a prosodic feature and therefore is an implicit marker, the question person A uses in T3: 1 to nominate participant B is an explicit marker. Similarly the use of the second-person singular personal pronoun “you” from person B in T1: 6 is a direct address of the other participant. If however no person is selected by the current speaker, any person may speak; this is called self-selection (cf. Green 1989: 157). An example for this can been found in T2: 7-8, where participant B realizes the fall in tone at the end of A’s utterance “= retiring at the end of this year â”. After this B self-selects and comments on A’s utterance. In the case that no participant of the conversation decides to speak, the current speaker may continue (cf. McCarthy 1991: 127): While C could but does not respond after the falling tone of “We’ll skype” (T9: 21), B elaborates on her utterance and continues to speak. The decision on which person will be the next speaker is made locally, meaning that this achieved “on a ‘turn-by-turn’ basis in the immediate setting of the interaction“ (Forrester 1996: 96).

At the next possible moment where a shift of the speaker’s role from one person to another person is possible the above described model will reapply (cf. Renkema 2004: 164). These moments are called Transition Relevance Places.

2.2. Transition Relevance Places in Telephone Conversations

Transition Relevance Places(TRPs) are the moments of a conversation when the role of the speaker may shift from one participant to another. In conversations with various participants listeners need to listen closely as to when a TRP might occur in order to not “lose the opportunity of a turn to someone lese” (Hutchby & Wooffitt 1998: 52). Hutchby and Wooffitt (cf. 1998: 52) note that for successful turn-taking the possibility of ending a turn and not the actual completion of a turn is most important for the participants. Therefore, in telephone conversations the “timing” (Hopper 1992: 98) of taking a turn is the biggest accomplishment of the participants.

One of the main differences between face-to-face conversations and telephone conversations is the absence of gesture, mimic and eye contact. In face-to-face conversations a gesture towards a person or an eye-gaze is an effective way of selecting the next speaker. This is due to the fact that participants of a conversation assume that a focus by the current speaker on one participant means that the speaker “expects that participant to make the next contribution to the conversation” (Green 1989: 159). Nevertheless, we manage to have conversations on the telephone, although we are not able to use these ways of communicating when a turn ends, and therefore, these kind of factors perhaps are not as important to turn-taking as they first appear to be (cf. Cook 2001: 53).

Duncan suggest that there are various “turn-yielding signals” (1972, as cited in Ellis & Beattie 1986: 188), of which some apply to telephone conversation. Two of those signals will be looked more closely at in the following paragraphs.

Intonation is one of the speaker’s possible ways of signaling that a TRP occurs because TRPs “are intonationally marked” (Grundy 2000: 187). The fall of the voice signals that a unit of speech comes to a possible end. In T2: 7 the fall of the tone indicates that person A has finished and participant B may start to speak. In T5: 9 however the rise of the tone at the end of the part “we saw everything in San Luis Obispo á” indicates that person B has not yet come to a possible TRP, whereas after “that’ so:: nice â” the tone is falling and participant A could predict a possible TRP.

The use of sociocentric sequences, which are “stereotyped expressions typically following a substantive statement, e.g. ‘or something’, ‘you know’ etc.” (Ellis & Beattie 1986: 188), is another possibility of signaling, that a turn comes to an end. In T2: 4 person B uses “So:::” after answering a question in order to indicated that person A may talk. Additionally, the utterance “I guess” (T3: 2) by person B, which shows uncertainty about the previously said things, gives person A the possibility to talk.

Gaps, pauses and silences can be seen as another method of signaling a possible TRP. Although there are “only very brief silences between turns” (McCarthy 1991: 127), silences are an effective way of ending a turn in telephone conversation. This is especially the case, when the telephone connection, e.g. to a country overseas, is bad. In most cases, though, gaps, pauses or silences will be perceived as strange by the participants of the conversation. Silences in order to create a TRP are not to be mistaken for silences which are used to “create an ‘unnatural break’ (e.g. in the form of a mid-sentence pause)” (Mey 2001: 217). Speakers use these silences in order to keep their current role of being the speaker because these breaks are not regarded as TRPs by the listeners (cf. Mey 2001: 217). An example of a short silence in a sentence during a telephone conversation can be found in T4: 1. Here speaker A pauses for a brief moment after uttering the proposition “of”. nevertheless, it is clear that this short silence is not marking a TRP but can be rather viewed as a moment of thinking or a pause in order to breathe. Another example of silence which should not be mistaken for TRPs can be found in T6: 1-4:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Here speaker A takes her time to answer the serious question asked by speaker B.[4] In this case the silences that occur in the turn of speaker A do not signalize a TRP. However, one may also find incidents were a TRP is indicated by silences. In T 9: 3, 9, 22-23, 28 & 30 speaker B uses silences, which vary in length from about 0.5 to 3.0 seconds, in this way. Yet it has to be mentioned in this context that the telephone connection in this conversation was bad and silences were used intentionally as a method to signalize TRPs. Although silences can be seen as a helpful way of TRP, most silences in telephone conversations, where there is no possibility of signalizing TRPs through gesture, mimic or exe gaze, were not used in order to end a turn.


[1] The transcribed parts and information on the transcription symbols can be found in the appendix.

[2] “T5: 3” is an abbreviation used to refer to the transcriptions, which can be found in the appendix. In the case of “T5: 3” the data in transcription no. 5 in line 3 is referred to.

[3] The person who currently has the turn is the speaker and “holds the floor”. That person might want “give up the floor”. In that situation another Participant can “get the floor”.

[4] Both participants of the conversation know that the person in question suffers from multiple sclerosis.

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An Analysis of Turn-Taking in English Telephone Conversations
University of Flensburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis
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Turn-Taking, English;, Telephone;, Conversation, Analysis;, Transition Relevant Places;, overlap;, back-channel behavior;, opening;, closing;, adjacency pairs;, transcription;, Pragmatics;, discourse analysis
Quote paper
Marijke Eggert (Author), 2010, An Analysis of Turn-Taking in English Telephone Conversations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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