Adjacency pairs

Turns rarely occur alone; they are grouped into adjacency pairs, an utterance and a response. Examples:

  • greeting/greeting
  • question/answer
  • offer/acceptance or refusal
  • apology/minimization
  • request/fulfillment
  • assessment/agreement
  • complaint/apology
  • objection/counter
  • insult/riposte
  • closing/closing.

These are the building blocks of conversation, especially as they can be nested. For instance, a request may have one or more nested questions.

There are preferred and dispreferred responses for each adjacency pair; dispreferreds are marked by pauses, longer replies, explanations, and pragmatic particles such as "well."

Pauses are indeed so characteristic of refusals that silence may be taken as a negative response.


From the evidence of conversations, refusals are so distressing that strategies have evolved to head them off. One is the pre-sequence, an adjacency pair that sets the stage for another, heavier action— a request, an invitation, an offer, etc.

Very often the pre-sequence questions a felicity condition of the request. For instance, felicity conditions for accepting an invitation include not being busy, being in town, being willing to come, perhaps enjoying the type of event, etc. Any of these can be used in a pre-sequence, thus heading off a direct refusal.
The listener may choose to respond to the anticipated sequence rather than to the pre-sequence.

Pre-sequences are especially characteristic of a low-status person addressing a higher one— a nervous person may even have a pre-sequence for asking a question.

The habit of issuing a pre-sequence is so ingrained that one may be given even for an insult.

Long turns

A pre-sequence is also expected before one takes an especially long turn— e.g. telling a story or a joke, or giving news. Curiously, in this case silence is taken as assent rather than a refusal.

Stories may be followed by a contentless statement which serves to indicate that the story is over, prompts for a response, and signals that ordinary shorter turn-taking can resume.