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Review of  In Other Words

Reviewer: Frédérique Passot-Boeuf
Book Title: In Other Words
Book Author: Deborah Schiffrin
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 18.476

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AUTHOR: Schiffrin, Deborah
TITLE: In Other Words
SUBTITLE: Variation in Reference and Narrative
SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics, 21
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2006

Frédérique Passot, Department of English (Institut du Monde Anglophone),
University of Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle, France.

The purpose of _In Other Words: Variation in Reference and Narrative_ is to
analyze second position referrals and narratives. The book specifically
focuses on repairing, repeating, rephrasing, altering, reframing and
restructuring in story telling. It comprises a table of contents, a list of
figures and a list of tables, a preface, nine chapters, three appendices, a
list of references and an index.


Chapter 1: Variation

The introductory chapter deals with variation, i.e. with how the same thing
can be said in different ways. It starts by defining to what extent the
goals and methods of variation analysis apply to the author's study of
reference and narratives. Schiffrin discusses the two directions taken by
the extension of variation analysis to discourse: discourse variation and
variation in discourse. Discourse variation is the study of socially
motivated language uses, while studies in variation in discourse, like
Schiffrin's, concentrate on what varies in specific sites of language use
(form or meaning).

The first chapter provides a definition of referrals. Theoretically
construed as either word-to-world (external) or word-to-word (internal,
textual) connections, but less clearly divided in practice, they are
relevant to the problem of variation and order of mention in a text. They
rely on speaker, hearer and context, which makes them complex objects of study.

Narratives are then defined. Two perspectives on narratives are confronted:
the very influential code-based perspective (Jefferson 1978, Labov 1972,
1997), which studies the language of narratives, and the competence-based
perspective (Polkinghorne 1988), which focuses on the logic behind how
experience is structured in narratives. In Schiffrin's view, the two
approaches are complementary and useful for analyzing variation in
reference and narratives when they appear a second time.

Chapter 2: Problematic referrals

Chapter 2 is about repairs due to problematic referrals. It analyzes four
cases where the relationship between the referent and the referring
expression is problematic: both can be continued despite the problem, or
modified, or either one can be altered. A quantitative analysis allows the
author to compare the four problem types in terms of frequency, grammatical
function of the referring expression within the sentence, informational
status of the repair, and location of the repair within the turn at talk.

The most frequent type of repair in Schiffrin's corpus (type 1) is one in
which both referent and referring expressions are continued. The author
suggests that this type of repair, located at the intersection between
grammar (subject position in the sentence) and interaction (initial
position in the turn), helps in managing preparation time for the rest of
the utterance.

Chapter 3: Anticipating referrals

Chapter 3 deals with repairs located within the noun phrase, and
specifically with articles (''a'' and ''the'') after self-interruption. Three
possible outcomes for article repairs are presented: the whole noun phrase
can be abandoned (about a third of all self-interruption self-completion
article repairs), the article can be replaced by another article (about 12%
of all repairs), or it can be repeated (more than 50% for both articles).
The focus of this chapter is on the last two kinds of repairs: switching
and repeating articles.

Articles are viewed as indicators of both the epistemic status (degree of
knowledge assumed) and information status (degree of accessibility) of the
following noun. Article switching is presented not only as a sign of
problematic evaluation of the information status of the following noun, but
also as a way to correct an anticipated mismatch between word and world in
the context of the utterance. Article repetition is a sign of dysfluency:
in both cases, the repair allows speakers more time to find the appropriate
referring expression considering the referent they have in mind. It may
also be helpful on a broader scale with sentence or even turn preparation.

Chapter 4: Reactive and proactive prototypes

In this chapter, Schiffrin examines cases where the hearer's familiarity
with a referent is erroneously assumed by the speaker and gives way to a
repair (other- or self-initiated self-completed repair). She discusses two
strategies applied by speakers to deal with this type of problematic
referral, which both involve resorting to a ''pragmatic prototype.''

The notion of prototype used by the author is based on existence, location
and possession (hence the attention to 'there is' and 'they have'
structures). It is a combination of two constructs: the prototype itself,
i.e. a representation of the core of the category the referent belongs to,
and an event schema, i.e. a set of attributes derived from the
stereotypical situations where the referent appears.

The reactive strategy consists in breaking up the information contained in
the referent into several units, and organizing it according to the
principle of end focus to ensure that new information is anchored to
background knowledge and can be received by the hearer. The proactive
strategy uses the same principles to pre-empt familiarity problems.

Chapter 5: Referring sequences

Chapter 5 deals with both referring expressions and narratives. It actually
compares the use of nouns and pronouns for next mentions in narratives and
in lists. The two textual genres are defined as follows: a list places a
referent in a collection of other somewhat related referents, while a
narrative recounts an event in which the referent was involved. The author
describes the constraints impacting next-mention in narratives and in
lists. Four constraints are discussed: recency, potential ambiguity,
topicality and boundaries. The first two have more impact in narratives,
while topicality and boundaries are more relevant in lists.

The author then goes on to analyze an example of problematic referral with
the term ''concentration camp.'' She discusses the different meanings the
term can take, whether applied to the World War II American internment
camps for Japanese Americans or to the extermination camps used against
Jews by Nazi Germany. She argues that the name of a 1998 exhibition about
the Japanese American camps, and the language used in the exhibition
booklet, was the center of a controversy among Jewish Americans because the
term ''concentration camp'' is so intrinsically linked to their collective
stories that it comes with a broader social, cultural and political meaning
than less informative referring expressions.

Chapter 6: Reframing experience

This chapter presents the analysis of four versions of a Holocaust
survivor's capture story during World War II. It focuses on self and other
as sources of story material and discusses the concepts of positioning,
footing and stance.

The author shows how different sources are incorporated in a single
narrative (or reframed): the experience of others becomes part of the
fabric of the story, whose language reflects the teller's epistemic stance
regarding second-hand information. The four versions of the story, their
characters and sequences of events, are compared in this light.

Chapter 7: Retelling a story

Based on the same corpus of narratives as the previous chapter, chapter 7
examines the structural and evaluative differences between the four
versions of the story. It looks at three sequences: the plan, anticipation
(i.e. expectations), and the capture. The overall structure of the
sequences either follows a stanza (recursive) style or a linear
(chronological) style.

Schiffrin analyzes the role and distribution of event clauses vs. non event
clauses and dependent vs. independent clauses in the construction of the
four stories. She shows that independent clauses and event clauses at
temporal junctures typically ensure a linear construction.

Chapter 8: Who did what (again)?

Chapter 8 concludes the analysis of the Holocaust stories by examining the
referrals to the eight characters in the stories, their roles in the action
and their integration in the stories. The author shows how the constraints
delineated in chapter 5 apply, and how the expected next-mention using a
pronoun is performed using a noun in critical locations in the stories.

Another narrative is analyzed in this chapter: the story of a prank played
by the narrator and a friend of his when they were children. The story was
told once and immediately retold and elaborated upon.

Despite the differences, the two sets of stories share common
characteristics regarding speaker stance: they both deal with deceptive
anticipations, and they both rely on the central role of the speaker as a
character, conveyed by the pronoun ''we'' in its inclusive use.

Chapter 9: Redoing and replaying

The final chapter looks back at the key concepts, hypotheses and results
delineated in the book.

Appendices include transcriptions of the corpus studied: four versions of a
Holocaust survivor's capture story during World War II, and the story of a
childhood prank.


Even though the topic of the book might seem very specialized (next mention
in narratives), _In Other Words_ is highly readable and accessible. This
owes in part to the structure of each of the nine chapters, which includes
an introduction stating the question under examination and a conclusion and
recapitulation of the points made in said chapter. Indeed, each chapter is
meant to be read either on its own or as part of a set. This relative
independence of the chapters can also be viewed as detrimental to the unity
of the book. Although the same overall topic, spirit and structure is kept
throughout, some chapters seem to less integrated within the fabric of the
book: chapter 5 works as a transition chapter between two different ways of
dealing with next mention, and potentially two different books altogether.

While chapters 1 to 4 focus on next mention within text, the following
chapters extend next mention analysis to reference management across texts
and over time. This shift translates into a change in the scope of the
study, in the method and tools used and indeed, to some extent, in the
interest of the book. The first four chapters are very stimulating and will
undoubtedly be useful to anyone interested in reference, reformulation and
repair: Schiffrin's minute analyses of conversational data are backed by
statistical calculations and illustrated by a large number of figures and

Chapter 5 has a different status and seems to incorporate previous and
somewhat loosely related work by the author, on the controversy posed by
the use of the term ''concentration camp'' in the booklet of a 1998
exhibition in New York city. Starting in chapter 6 (and in fact in the end
of chapter 5), the analytical approach gives way to a rather descriptive
and arguably less interesting one on historical discourse. When the focus
turns to narratives, the introductory sections are home to lengthy
historical inserts about the Holocaust. Background information concerning
the corpus used is enlightening insofar as it serves the linguistic
analysis. In the case of this book, it is debatable whether the author
should have dwelled on such a well-known period of the 20th century in so
much detail and for so many pages. Incidentally, very little background is
given about the corpus of sociolinguistic interviews used in the first part
of the book. Generally speaking, the second half of the book will probably
be less useful to researchers because it lacks some of the theoretical
grounding and the practical approach of the first half which enables one to
generalize from the hypotheses and results presented. Where present,
statistical analysis is much less convincing than in the first half of the

From a presentation point of view, the book is very nicely typeset, and
features clear figures and tables, especially in the first few chapters.
However, some chapters seem to have been less carefully proofread than
others: some typos remain, mostly in chapter 4, and one paragraph is
repeated twice in chapter 5 (p.189). The serious reader is left wanting
with the index: there are few entries, which remain very general and of
very diverse nature. In the index appear linguistic theories (e.g.
pragmatics, semantics, variation analysis), linguistic analytic concepts
(e.g. constraints, footing, markedness), discourse genres (e.g. narratives,
lists), parts of speech or syntactic structures (e.g. articles,
existentials, nouns and noun phrases), and thematic entries (e.g. the

Overall, _In Other Words_ meets its goal of bringing together analyses
about variation in reference and narrative, be it within the same text,
across different contemporary texts, or over time. Throughout the book,
terminology specific to one linguistic school of thought is kept to a
minimum and explained where used, which makes the book very accessible. The
shortcomings pointed out here do not prevent it from being a
thought-provoking read.


Jefferson, G. (1978). Sequential aspects of storytelling in conversation.
In J. Schenkein (ed.), Studies in the organization of conversational
interaction. pp.219-248. New York: Free Press.

Labov, W. (1972). The transformation of experience in narrative syntax. In
Language in the inner city. pp.354-396. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, W. (1997). Some further steps in narrative analysis. Journal of
Narrative and Life History 7, 395-415.

Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany,
NY: SUNY Press.

Frédérique Passot is an assistant professor at the University of Paris III
– Sorbonne Nouvelle, France. She teaches English linguistics and phonology,
and is involved in the distance learning department. Prior to taking this
position, she taught French at Girton College, Cambridge and the University
of Sussex, Brighton in the UK. She also worked for the Rosetta Project in
San Francisco in 2004-05. In 2004, she completed a Ph.D. dissertation
entitled "On the hierarchical ordering of discourse constituents in a
corpus of spontaneous English speech" (La hiérarchisation des constituants
discursifs dans un corpus d'anglais oral spontané). Her current research
interests include speaker and hearer stance in conversation in English,
discourse markers, and reformulation.

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