News Release

Does he take sugar?: New research probes the context for conflict in conversation

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Economic & Social Research Council

A simple request, when placed in a certain context, has the potential to create conflict. This is epitomised in the phrase - 'does he take sugar"' - an approach society has learned to avoid when speaking about a disabled person. New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seeks to better understand the ways in which people strive to avoid disagreement in every-day conversation.

The results reveal our ability to choose the right, rather than the wrong form of words to avoid potentially troublesome situations. Carried out between six different European countries, the research could provide valuable guidance for improving the use of language in potentially troublesome circumstances. With increasing migrant flows across Europe, this could have an important impact on language learning in general and on improved inter-cultural relations in particular.

Professor Paul Drew of the University of York puts his findings down to what he describes as a "social cohesion principle" underlying simple conversation.

"To date, the mechanisms through which social solidarity is promoted linguistically in interaction are little understood. By focusing on speech activities likely to be associated with conflict between participants, we have come up with surprising results which show systematic, and previously undocumented, connections between the construction of a sentence and the context in which the interaction takes place"

The research focused on conversations which arise from making offers, requests and complaints - those speech activities particularly likely to cause difficulty. These include out-of-hours calls to the doctor, emergency calls to the police and other face-to-face service requests, as well as ordinary social conversations. In a novel approach to this analysis, researchers centred their investigation on the context in which conversations were generated rather than on the questions and answers.

The results show that speakers tend to use the correct or appropriate form to suit the particular circumstances and often correct themselves if they happen to select an 'incorrect;' form. Forms such as imperatives ('Pass the sugar')......could you/would you and I wonder if you.....variously encode the degree of ease or difficulty which the recipient of a request might have in agreeing to it.


Professor Paul Drew, University of York Tel: 01904 433056/01653 668303
e-mail -


1. The research 'Affiliation and disaffiliation in interaction: language and social cohesion' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was carried out by Professor Paul Drew and Dr Richard Ogden of the University of York.

2. Methodology -The project involved the investigation of recordings (audio and video) of naturally occurring interactions, through the perspectives and methods of Conversation Analysis. This was combined with how speakers change pitch, tempo, voice quality and articulatory settings in accordance with various kinds of situations. In total, data searches covered 85 cases of offers, 130 of requests, 80 of complaints and 202 of disagreements and associated actions. The research provided an input into cross-national comparative studies of 6 different EU languages (English, Danish, Finnish, French, Italian and Swedish). The outcomes of this were showcased in a major international conference in May 2006.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007-08 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'outstanding'

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