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Telephone Conversation

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CA analysis of a telephone conversation

This article provides an example analysis of a telephone conversation between two people, using the techniques and methods of conversation analysis.

The transcription of the interaction is set out in Appendix A below.

General comments

It is apparent that the transcription is that of a telephone conversation. This is evidenced by:

  • the first utterance representing an answer to a summons, i.e. the telephone ringing (see ‘Opening sequence’ below)
  • paired greetings, displays for recognition and explicit self-identification (e.g. “this is Arthur speaking” (L06)) which are typical of telephone call openings
  • the use of tokens such as “rang” and “couple of times”

The primary function of the discourse represented by the text seems to be transactional (Brown and Yule, 1983), i.e. it appears to be predominantly goal-oriented, being concerned with making arrangements for a meeting.

One interesting feature of the conversational structure is that there is no overlapping talk. In addition, other than a few filled pauses (e.g. “m” in L19 and L60), there are no pauses, gaps or lapses in the conversation. The following conversation analysis will highlight some of the text’s more salient features in terms of turns, adjacency pairs and topics.

Opening sequence

At the beginning of telephone calls mutual identification of the interlocutors is a principal concern. Lines L01-L07 demonstrate an opening summons-answer sequence followed by reciprocal greetings and recognition/identification of the conversational partners.

Whilst L01 is cited first in the text it, in fact, represents the second interactional move, the ringing of the telephone representing a summons (Levinson, 1983: 310). L01 is, therefore, the answer to the summons. Simultaneously, however, L01 is also a display for recognition purposes, i.e. it provides a voice sample which should assist the caller to identify A.

L02 is a greeting token uttered by B. Greeting tokens are adjacency-paired and the L02 utterance, therefore, constrains the next turn at talk such that it is conditionally relevant that a greeting token should be produced. Indeed, the second pair part greeting token “hello” is produced by A in L03. In addition to this token, A goes on to explicitly claim recognition of the caller B with the name token “Arthur” (L03).

It is evident that B has been unable to recognize the recipient A on the basis of the voice quality samples offered in L01 and L03 as B explicitly requests identification of the recipient through the name token “Valerie” (L04).

In L05, B overtly confirms her identity with the acknowledgement token “yeah”. In addition, A appends her second greeting token “good morning”. The L05 utterance, therefore, also serves as another display for recognition and another claim that she recognizes caller A.

In L06, B explicitly self-identifies himself with, “this is Arthur speaking”. At the same time, this utterance can be seen as a claim that B can now recognize A (this is evidenced by the fact that B does not initiate a request for clarification, misapprehension sequence, or similar).

L07 concludes the opening sequence with the claim that A can indeed recognize B.

The opening sequence may be represented schematically as follows:

        [telephone rings]                [SUMMONS]

01  A:  highview double three four five  [ANSWER TO SUMMONS]

                                         [DISPLAY FOR RECOGNITION]

02  B:  good morning                     [GREETING 1st PART]

03  A:  hello Arthur                     [GREETING 2nd PART]

                                         [CLAIM THAT A CAN RECOGNISE B]

04  B:  Valerie                          [REQUEST FOR IDENTIFICATION]

05  A:  yes, good morning                [CONFIRMATION OF IDENTITY]

                                         [CLAIM THAT A CAN RECOGNISE B]

                                         [DISPLAY FOR RECOGNITION]

06  B:  thi this is Arthur speaking      [SELF-IDENTIFICATION]

                                         [CLAIM THAT B CAN RECOGNISE A]

07  A:  hello                            [TERMINATION]

First topic slot

Subsequent to the opening sequence of a telephone call it is expectable that the caller (B) will announce the reason for the call. This B does in L08 by filling the first topic slot with the reason for the call, “getting in touch with you”.

B’s L08-L09 utterance is interesting as a reason for the call in that it is presented as a mitigated apology, “sorry…I rang a couple of times yesterday and you weren’t in”. The preferred second pair part to a first part apology is an acceptance (Pomerantz, 1984). Indeed, A provides acceptance in L10 with an unmarked utterance which provides an explanation as to why B would not have been able to contact her. This explanation is carried on into L14 and A instructs B “not to worry”.

L11-L13 has some structural similarities to what Jefferson (1972) describes as a side sequence. As A provides the new information in L10, “I was in college yesterday”, B appears to produce a request for clarification, “you were” (L11). Requests for clarification serve to initiate the resolution of some problem of hearing or understanding of the just prior talk of another. They precisely signal a trouble source which requires repair before the current speaker can continue with a stretch of talk which continues to be understandable to the listener for the current purpose. Whilst requests for clarification do not in themselves constitute a claim to take over the turn, they generally oblige the current speaker to deal with the trouble source before proceeding with the stretch of talk. It is conditionally relevant, therefore, that subsequent to the request for clarification A should attend to the trouble source. Indeed, A does so in L12 with the acknowledgement token, “yes”. A then continues with her stretch of talk begun in L10 with, “and I”. The side sequence is then terminated with B’s minimal turn, “aha” in L13. This L13 utterance serves both to accept the clarification of misunderstanding and to pass over the next turn at talk to A. By passing over the next turn at talk to A this can be seen as betokening B’s current intention to remain in a recipient role. A does indeed continue her stretch of talk in L14-L18.

Main topic

As discussed above, B’s reason for the call is that he is “getting in touch”, as requested previously by A. Once an open channel for communication has been established through the opening sequence and filling of the first topic slot, A moves on to what is for her, the main reason for the conversation, i.e. that she needs to confirm B’s acceptance of her previous invitation.

L17-L18 appears to be functioning as an invitation. In effect, however, it is a re-statement of the invitation as B is already aware of its particulars. This is evidenced by the fact that, in response to A’s invitation, “could you make it the following saturday” (L17-18), A had already formulated a considered acceptance as demonstrated by his subordinated response, “two we can make it the following saturday” (L22).

In L19, B commences his response to A’s immediately prior invitation with what at first appears to be an upcoming dispreferred second pair part, i.e. a refusal. This possibility is suggested by the potential markedness of the delay, “m” and the preface, “well”. However, as B continues with his utterance, it becomes apparent that he is, in fact, accepting the invitation, “we were coming” (L19-L20). A acknowledges this acceptance with the token, “yes” and the assessment “splendid” (L21). B goes on to indicate that he can also make the meeting, “the following saturday” (L22).

Interestingly, B’s acceptance demonstrates the use of an incompletion marker (Sacks, MS, cited in Coulthard, 1985:64). In L19, B uses the subordinator, “one” which serves to indicate to A that she can expect at least two clauses before the first possible completion. Generally, the use of such a device would serve to suspend the normal turn-taking mechanism. It is evident, however, that A does, in fact, talk at the first transition relevance place, i.e. upon completion of “…we were coming” (L19-L20). However, A takes only a minimal turn (L21) and this has the effect of handing the next turn at talk back to B. Consequently, B continues in L22 with the projected second clause.

Explanation for altered arrangements

Having accepted B’s invitation, B appears to initiate a stretch of talk (L23-L36) designed to provide A with an explanation as to why her invitation has to be taken up “the following saturday”. From a reading of the text it would appear that A had had to alter some of the details of an earlier invitation such that not only did she need to confirm whether or not B “could come” but also if he could make it “the following saturday”.

B commences her explanation in L23. This utterance contains two filled pauses (“m”) and a repetition (“it’s it’s”). This would appear to present either a difficulty of misunderstanding or a mishearing for B, as B produces the request for clarification, “sorry didn’t get that” in L24. As stated earlier, it is relevant that the current speaker should attend to the current listener’s requests for clarification. In fact, A does not appear to directly attempt to resolve the misunderstanding or mishearing in L24 but continues to complete the syntactic unit commenced in L23. According to Clark and Schaefer (1989), however, the current listener is required to provide positive evidence of his or her state of understanding. Note that B accepts A’s L25-L26 presentation with the acknowledgement token, “yes” (L27). This token can be seen as a claim to understanding in that the option to initiate further repair on A’s immediately prior talk is not taken up. Thus, B provides an indication that he has understood to a criterion sufficient for the current purpose.

Subsequently, A continues with her explanatory stretch of talk from L28 to L35. Her talk is punctuated in L30 and L34 by what appear to be back channel tokens (Duncan, 1974). These serve to pass up the opportunity to take a full turn at talk and, in that they do not initiate a repair on the immediately prior talk, they are seen as betokening understanding (Schegloff, 1982). The token, “oh” in L30 appears to be functioning as a change of state token (Heritage, 1984:299), i.e. it marks a ‘strong’ recipiency, in that it does not invite or request further information, and it signals B’s change of state in knowledge and awareness as a result of the prior talk.

In L35, A concludes her explanation with a tag question, “you know”. B’s L36 “yep” may, therefore, be considered to be a full turn at talk (as opposed to a minimal turn such as in L30 and L34) in that it is the answer to the immediately prior tag question. This signals the termination of this stretch of talk (also evidenced by the boundary marker, “so” in the next (L37) turn).

Possible closing sequences

L37-L40 appears to be structurally similar to a closing sequence. A’s “so” in L37, whilst serving as a boundary marker which signals the termination of the prior ‘explanation topic’, also functions as a possible pre-closing item. It is tied to a potential closing implicative, i.e. the making (or confirmation) of arrangements, “we’ll make it the following saturday then”. There then follows what appears to be a topic-less pair of passing turns (L38 and L39) before B’s final terminal element, “good” in L40. As is common in pre-closing sequences, the exchange of topic-less passing turns specifically provides the opportunity for either interlocutor to raise any deferred mentionables. In fact, A does raise a mentionable in L41 by asking the name of a “chap” in B’s “department”. Consequently, the conversation is not closed down but, rather, A re-opens the conversation with a mentionable which is fitted to the prior topic of her upcoming meeting with A.

Having collaboratively confirmed the name of the “chap” (L41-L46) a second possible pre-closing sequence is again opened up by A in L47. Again, the boundary marker, “so” appears to be functioning as a pre-closing item. This is again tied to the making of arrangements, “could you mention it to him”. Again, this is followed by a pair of topic-less passing turns (L49 and L50). Subsequent to A’s “ok fine” (L50), A self-selects herself as next speaker at the ensuing transition relevance place with, “everything alright”. This mentionable is possibly interpretable as being directed as an enquiry after B’s well-being. This possibility is given further force when one considers that it is potentially a typing of the call, within the pre-closing sequence, which attunes to A’s earlier utterance for B “not to worry” (L14). However, B answers this enquiry with the minimal response, “oh fine” before seemingly returning to the transactional thrust of the conversation with, “was there anything else” (L51). Remember that B has been requested to “get in touch” with A and, therefore, it seems plausible that B would not wish to terminate the conversation before he is satisfied that all possible reasons for him needing to contact A have been realized. The L51 utterance overtly provides an opportunity for A to raise any deferred mentionables and passes the next turn at talk to A.

Deferred mentionables

B’s L51 utterance constrains A to answer her question. A obliges and begins a stretch of talk (L52-L68) in which she explains: that she has “left some records in Smart’s room” (L52); that these do not belong to her; what the records are, and that she has to “take special care of them” (L65-L66). The topical cohesion of this stretch of talk is evidenced by such items as, “Smart’s room” (L52 and L60) which appears to be a category of the device “department” (L43). There do not appear to be any difficulties with A membershipping the listener B in this stretch of talk (Schegloff, 1972). B accepts the new topic without explicitly requesting further clarification of the newly-introduced information. In fact, B marks his claim to ongoing understanding through the utterance of a series of back channel tokens (L55, L62, L64). As these minimal turns serve to forgo the opportunity to initiate repair on the immediately prior talk they can be seen as betokening understanding.

An interesting structural feature of this stretch of talk is B’s possible interruption in L58. It is apparent that A is involved in a stretch of talk in L56-L57, “… I just wanted to”. It is at this juncture that B takes up a turn at talk. What is evident is that this does not occur at a transition relevance place, as B’s talk commences within A’s prior, incomplete syntactic unit. In L58-L59, B indicates that he is “not sure whether” Neil “got the message” and he asks, “would you tell me again please”. A accepts this potential interruption and provides the conditionally relevant, and preferred, second pair part to the request with the acknowledgement token, “yes” (L60).

L60-L68 represents a re-telling of the “message”. As B has overtly selected A as next speaker and invited A to engage in a story-telling, we would expect the usual turn-taking machinery to be suspended whilst the story is told. This is indeed what happens. B signals her recognition that A is engaged in a stretch of ongoing talk, and that she intends to remain in a recipient role, through the use of the back channel tokens, “yes” in L62 and “mhm” in L64. B’s, “yes” in L68 appears to be functioning as the final acceptance in this sequence and it serves to explicitly claim understanding of the foregone talk.

Closing sequence

Subsequent to B’s acceptance of the message re-telling, he goes on in L68 to produce what appears to be a closing implicative, i.e. the making of arrangements (in this case through the use of the direct question, “do you want me to get hold of them for you”). A provides the conditionally relevant answer to the immediately prior question in L69 and the arrangements are made. L70, L71 and L72 appear to be topic-less passing turns, with the pre-closing items “yeah” (L71) and “yes” (L72). B restates the arrangements in L72 with “I’ll do that”. None of these utterances (L70-L72) add anything new to the conversation and neither participant introduces any further mentionables. The way is, therefore, open for the conversation to be closed down. The conversation is closed with the final terminal element, “thanks very much Arthur” in L73. It is evident that the terminal element is typed, i.e. a favor was requested and a commitment to oblige was subsequently extended, hence, “thanks”.


The text evidences how the telephone conversation is collaboratively achieved. For example, the interlocutors can be seen to collaborate in the opening sequence in order to establish their identities, and they have collaborated to resolve possible misunderstandings or mishearings. Such sequential features demonstrate that the conversation does not proceed according to some predetermined cognitive map but that, rather, it is locally managed on a turn-by-turn basis. The turn-taking system can be shown to constrain the next turn at talk. For example, it has been shown that a question sets up the conditional relevance that the question should be answered by the listener. In contrast, we have seen that a minimal turn/back channel can function to pass up the opportunity to take a full turn at talk. In addition, in as much as the token passes the opportunity to initiate a repair on the immediately prior utterance it can be seen as betokening understanding. Finally, there is evidence that the conversation is structured by formal sequences (e.g. opening, first topic, pre-closing) and the use of devices to mark such sequences (e.g. boundary markers such as “so”, and terminal elements such as “thanks very much Arthur”). The conversation is, therefore, highly organized.


Brown, G. and Yule, G. (1983) Discourse analysis Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, H.H. and Schaefer, E.F. (1989) “Contributing to discourse” Cognitive Science 13, 259-294.

Coulthard, M. (1985) (2nd edn) An introduction to discourse analysis London: Longman.

Duncan, S. (1974) “On the structure of speaker-auditor interaction during speaking turns” Language in Society 2, 161-180.

Heritage, J. (1984b) “A change of state token and aspects of its sequential placement” in Atkinson, J.M. and Heritage, J. (eds) Structures of social action: studies in conversation analysis Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jefferson, G. (1972) “Side sequences” in Sudnow, D. (ed) Studies in social interaction New York: Free Press.

Levinson, S.C. (1983) Pragmatics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pomerantz, A. (1984) “Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes” in Atkinson, J. and Heritage, J. (eds) Structures of social action Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schegloff, E.A. (1972) “Notes on a conversational practice: formulating place” in Sudnow, D. (ed) Studies in social interaction New York: Free Press.

Schegloff, E.A. (1982) “Discourse as an interactional achievement: some uses of ‘uh huh’ and other things that come between sentences” in Tannen, D. Analyzing discourse: text and talk Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics. Georgetown: Georgetown University Press.

Appendix A

01  A:  highview double three four five

02  B:  good morning

03  A:  hello Arthur

04  B:  Valerie

05  A:  yes, good morning

06  B:  thi this is Arthur speaking

07  A:  hello

08  B:  sorry I’ve been so long in getting in touch with you

09      I rang a couple of times yesterday and you weren’t in

10  A:  no I was in college yesterday

11  B:  you were

12  A:  yes and I

13  B:  aha

14  A:  thought that might happen but not to worry

15      what I wanted to say to you really was m- I didn’t

16      know whether you were going to say that you could

17      come or you couldn’t but I was going to say could

18      you make it the following saturday

19  B:  m yes well – one I was going to say that I that we were

20      coming

21  A:  yes splendid

22  B:  and two we can make it the following saturday

23  A:  can you only m it’s it’s a minor complication but m

24  B:  sorry didn’t get that

25  A:  the point is that my children are going away for the

26      weekend

27  B:  yes

28  A:  and it was going to be this weekend and now it’s

29      going to be next and

30  B:  oh

31  A:  it’s really more convenient for me if they’re not

32      here because otherwise I have to keep flapping

33      around and

34  B:  mhm

35  A:  dealing with them you know

36  B:  yep

37  A:  so m we’ll make it the following Saturday then

38  B:  that’s fine yes the same time

39  A:  same time yes

40  B:  good

41  A:  m do you think I don’t even know which I can’t even

42      remember what the chap’s name is the other chap in

43      your department Bernard is it

44  B:  Bernard Blu m Greenfield

45  A:  yeah not Bloomfield (laughs)

46  B:  yeah

47  A:  so could you mention it to him cos I’ve invited him

48      as well

49  B:  yes, ok

50  A:  ok fine, everything all right

51  B:  oh fine, was there anything else m

52  A:  no I just I’ve left some records in Smart’s room

53      last night which I was all panic stricken about cos

54      they’re not mine

55  B:  m

56  A:  but I told Neil and I hope he m got the point so I

57      just wanted to

58  B:  I don’t I’m not sure whether he quite got the

59      message. Would you tell me again please.

60  A:  yes, there’s m records in Smart’s room it’s Measure

61      for Measure in in an album

62  B:  yes

63  A:  and m I left them last night by mistake

64  B:  mhm

65  A:  and they’re not mine so that means I’ve got to take

66      special care of them and I want to collect them

67      tomorrow

68  B:  yes do you want me to get hold of them for you

69  A:  could you just put them somewhere carefully for me

70  B:  put them safe

71  A:  yeah

72  B:  yes, I’ll do that

73  A:  thanks very much Arthur

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