Colorado Research in Linguistics
Colorado Research in Linguistics -- ISSN 1937-7029

Volume 23-1, 2012

Extracting Inferables Through 'No'-Initial Utterances in English Conversation

Joshua Raclaw

Abstract for paper presentation at the third Conference on Culture, Language, and Social Practice (CLASP)

As Schegloff (2001) notes, turn-initial occurrences of the English response particle 'no' are generally understood as marking disagreement or rejection. This is true of both vernacular and conversation analytic understandings of the particle. The majority of talk-in-interaction analyses of 'no' have focused on its role as a dispreferred means of rejecting or disagreeing with a prior utterance (e.g. Pomerantz 1984), as a positive response to negative-polarity utterances, or as a response to yes/no questions. As a small but growing number of recent studies have shown, however, the range of interactional functions served by 'no' (and turn-initial instances of 'no' in particular) is far greater than this. This paper examines one such use of 'no' in turn-initial position, that of denying the actions or implications of a prior utterance. As pragmaticians and conversation analysts alike have demonstrated (see e.g. Levinson 1984), there is a necessary distinction between the form of an utterance and the actions that it accomplishes. For example, a statement such as "it's cold in here" may be heard as a request for another person to close a window, what Brown and Levinson (1987) refer to as an "off-record" rather than "on-record" strategy for producing the request. One potential problem for speakers is how to address these types of "off-record" actions or implications in cases where they may wish to problematize, deny, or otherwise make them relevant for commentary. Within such instances of interaction, turn-initial 'no' can serve as a valuable resource for speakers to address these aspects of a prior turn. For example, in the following excerpt, a mother and daughter are discussing the gifts that the daughter is expecting to receive from two close family friends or relatives, Malcha and Michal. The daughter's production of a complaining turn that takes the form of a question (an off-record strategy for delivering the complaint) can be seen in lines 8 and 11, while Mom's 'no'-initial responses to these turns are seen in lines 12 and 17.

1 Mom: I said (      ) Malcha she wants to buy you a present y’know she's getting
2   around to buying a present some day ehheh .hhh I said well I can't send
3   anything more I don't think with Michal but, y’know maybe [with Bubby
4 Dau: [why Michal
5   said he’s pick up a whole suitcase for me=
6 Mom: =he ↑is but the ya know the things add up and I'm also sending
7   something for Shamita too so I [already
8 Dau: [what are you sending for him?
9 Mom: walked over with hu- a huge bag yesterday I almost buckled under the
10   weight ya know. [W-
11 Dau: [What are you sending for Shamita?
12 Mom: ↑No some a a couple of outfits I bought and I I looked through some
13   boxes (0.8) so I have a couple of uh things of clothing and he told
14   Shamita that he would take his suit and and (.) that he
15   [brought (for him)
16 Dau: [right.
17 Mom: .hh ↑no don't worry there's plenty in there for you uh:: [(heh)
18 Dau: ↑know I'm
19   just ↑asking [stop.
20 Mom: [yeah he basically has a duffelbag set aside but y’know I
21   mean even these shampoos and salad dressings an whatever they’re heavy

In lines 1-3 Mom explains the lack of room in Michal's suitcase for the extra presents that Malcha wants to send. The mother later reveals (in lines 6-7) that part of the reason for this is that the suitcase will also be filled with gifts for the daughter's brother, Shamita. The daughter responds to this in line 8 by asking what the mother is sending for Shamita, repeating the question in line 11 after the initial asking doesn't receive any uptake by Mom. Mom's turn in line 17 ("no don't worry there's plenty in there for you") clearly shows an orientation to her daughter's questions not as simple questions, but as complaints about the amount of gifts that the daughter is receiving. As these complaining utterances are produced 'off the record' as questions ("what are you getting for him/Shamita?") rather than as directly hearable complainables (e.g. "that's not fair!"), Mom is constrained in the types of responses that can be relevantly produced in response to them. Thus, in response to these questions, we see the first instance of a stressed, high-pitched turn-initial 'no' by mom in line 12, after which she clarifies the mundane or boring nature of Shamita's gifts (i.e. hand-me-down clothing). After the daughter's monotone production of "right" in response in line 16, Mom produces yet another turn-initial 'no' in line 17, after which she clearly displays her orientation to the daughter's prior turns as complaints. The use of a 'no'-initial utterance in cases like this allows the second speaker to make relevant the action or implications of the prior turn (here, complaining), which in turn allows Mom to deny the daughter's initial complaints without using a dispreferred turn format. As this and other examples to be analyzed illustrate, turn-initial 'no' can serve as a valuable resource for speakers to address off-record aspects of a prior turn, and highlight the need for further research on those uses of 'no' that all outside of its more canonically understood functions.

Joshua Raclaw is a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.   He can be reached at

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