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Review of  Requesting Responsibility

Reviewer: Nicolas Ruytenbeek
Book Title: Requesting Responsibility
Book Author: Jörg Zinken
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 28.3039

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Reviews Editor: Robert A. Coté


In this monograph, “Requesting Responsibility: The Morality of Grammar in Polish and English Family Interaction,” author Jörg Zinken offers a detailed analysis of the most frequent grammatical forms used in the social actions of requesting (in a broad sense, including recruitment) in Polish and English daily family interactions. Requesting Responsibility (RR) puts forward an original take on cross-cultural comparisons of language practices. Assuming a conversation analysis (CA) framework, Zinken also takes into account non-verbal aspects of communication.

Chapter 1, “Studying Language and Mind in Action”, introduces the differences between traditional linguistic relativism and the view advocated in the book. Assuming that the primary function of language is to enable the performance of social actions, meaning emerges from the interaction of grammatical form and context, and interactional context is dynamic, Zinken’s primary purpose is to show how the details of a language shape the variety of social actions in that language.

In Chapter 2, “Requesting, Responsiveness, and Responsibility”, Zinken explicitly differentiates the directive speech act of requesting and the more general type of social actions that he calls Requesting (with small capitals). The text focuses on Requesting, defined by Enfield (2009) in terms of a speaker’s interactional move that makes relevant a responsive action from a recipient (a practical action typically involving the manipulation of an object). In the spirit of the subtitle of the book, Zinken highlights the deontic aspects of Requesting sequences, i.e., responsiveness, which relates to the notion of preferred response move of an adjacency pair (cf. Schegloff 2007), and responsibility, which concerns the rights and obligations of people directly or indirectly involved in a conversation (cf. Niebuhr 1963).

Zinken starts his analysis of particular types of Requesting in Chapter 3, “Nudging and Appealing: Two Imperative Actions for Requesting”. On the basis of their typical home environment, regularities of turn design, and orientations of the request recipient, he compares two types of imperative actions -- imperative nudges and imperative appeals. Zinken proposes to explain the frequent use of imperatives in daily interactions in terms of people’s knowledge of the grounds on which they can expect one another to cooperate. This explanation is in line with recent findings in CA concerning the link between imperatives and immediacy of the requested action and recipient’s entitlement (see, for instance, Curl & Drew 2008, Heinemann 2006, Mondada 2011).

In Chapter 4, “The Comparability of Social Actions across Languages”, Zinken puts forward the view that linguistic practices can be compared across languages on the basis of the local contexts that are relevant to speakers. He shows, for instance, that imperative nudges exist both in Polish and in English, and that requests for assistance are much more frequent in English than in Polish families. He also makes a strong case against the method consisting in comparing similar linguistic expressions in different languages without taking into account the whole contexts of interaction.

Chapter 5, “Two Forms of Responsibility: Contribution and Assistance”, further deals with cultural differences between Polish and English daily family interactions. These differences bear on how speakers and hearers orient towards one another; in situations where English speakers typically ask for assistance, Polish speakers prefer to presume the other person’s availability. Such differences arise because, in similar situations, English and Polish speakers make different assumptions about others’ intentions and ongoing activities.

Chapter 6, “Building Occasions for Another’s Initiative: The Impersonal Deontic Declarative trzeba X (“it is necessary to X”)”, examines the action of pointing to an objective necessity in Polish, and how it can be distinguished from requests for assistance, and how it resembles imperative appeals in some respects. This chapter also includes a comparison between trzeba X and musimy X (“we must X”), which expresses a necessity related to what the conversational participants are currently doing.

Another construction which, like imperative appeals and trzeba X, treats features of the environment as relevant grounds for expecting compliance, is discussed in Chapter 7, “Calling Another to Social Reason”. Here, Zinken demonstrates that this construction, the double imperative weź-V2 (take-V2), is not properly analysed in the literature, which should have paid more attention to interactional data. He also contrasts take-V2 in Polish with another imperative construction that has an English equivalent, i.e., go-V2.

Chapter 8, “Directing Animation of Pre-Authored Actions”, addresses the distribution of perfective and imperfective imperatives in Polish. The author takes as the starting point of his discussion Lehmann (1989) and Benacchio (2002), which he criticizes on the grounds that they fail to account for the interactional components of aspect. More precisely, Zinken provides evidence that these constructions express different claims about the authorship and animacy of the requested action. In addition, these two constructions typically do not occur in the same sort of situations and have distinct behaviours in adjacency pairs. However, when they both are acceptable in a given situation, they convey very different attitudes and expectations concerning the request recipient.

The conclusion, Chapter 9, summarizes the main findings of the book and provides the reader with a global picture of the connection between imperative and deontic constructions and the claims expressed concerning the recipient’s responsiveness/responsibility. In this final chapter, Zinken also stresses that cultural differences in linguistic practices should be sought neither in the grammar of the languages or in contextual parameters of the interaction, but, rather, that culture is the point where grammatical forms and local environments converge. Defining a social action as the combination of a particular linguistic construction with a particular type of interactional context, Zinken concludes that “speakers of Polish and speakers of English do not just do the same things in slightly different ways; they do subtly but consequentially different things” (p. 225).


In the text, Zinken convincingly achieves his initial goal. In particular, he demonstrates in a subtle and coherent way the relevance and viability of cross-cultural comparisons of language practices, with a focus on the social actions of Requesting. The method used and the conclusions drawn should be of interest to any scholar in the field of conversation analysis and socio-pragmatics. “Requesting Responsibility” provides a valuable contribution to interactional linguistics, and an interesting (albeit indirect) contribution to the study of speech acts and (im)politeness.

Throughout the book, one finds a fine-grained level of analysis of natural conversational data, resulting in very interesting theoretical and methodological discussions, and supported by a critical review of the available literature. Zinken systematically provides appropriate background information about the participants of the conversations and their activities. It is useful to know that the video recordings referred to in the text can be accessed on

Quite rightly, Zinken warns against equating a linguistic form, such as an imperative construction, with a type of social action, such as a directive speech act. He also stresses that one should not detach a linguistic expression from the context of interaction in which it occurs, because they are interdependent. He proposes instead that different constructions have different relationships with the local contexts in which they are used. A construction used in the performance of a social action of Requesting typically conveys particular assumptions about the recipient(s) of the request, their availability, what they are doing at the moment, etc., which Zinken calls the “home environment” of the construction.

Another important methodological claim made in the book is that out-of-context interpretations of grammatical forms do not allow a proper characterization of these expressions. For instance, instead of minimal pairs differing only in one respect, such as a Polish sentence with an imperfective imperative and the same sentence with the perfective counterpart, Zinken insists that one study the relationship between imperfective vs. perfective imperatives and the features of the contexts of interaction they belong to. From such a perspective, impoliteness is not a property of imperative constructions, but a possible consequence of the inappropriate use of an imperative in a context that does not correspond to its home environment.

In his discussion of spoken interactions, the author makes use of several important notions such as cooperation, compliance, commitment, (in)directness. Some of these notions are directly relevant to the topic of Requesting Responsibility, but the way Zinken refers to them does not always make explicit the definitions he is assuming. For instance, even though he is not explicit on this, the “scale of directness” he is referring to (Chapter 6, pp. 109-10; see also Chapter 9, p. 224) originates in Brown & Levinson (1987) and Blum-Kulka & Olshtain’s (1984) Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Project (CCSARP), which raises the issue whether such a notion of (in)directness is relevant to the analysis of the social actions of Requesting. Furthermore, the connection between the social actions analysed by Zinken and considerations of (im)politeness remains unclear. Another example is the concept of obligation in the sense of Alston (2000), which is relevant to the discussion of Requesting. The connection between appealing to A’s responsibility and the creation of an obligation for A to carry out some action (or, at least, to provide some acceptable reason for not doing so), remains unaddressed. A third illustration concerns the author’s sometimes inconsistent appeal to compliance. Since he explicitly differentiates the social action of Requesting and the speech act of a request, saying that “some Requests can be accomplished (and understood, and complied with) without words” (p. 26) and that “addressed persons fit their compliance to different Requests” (p. 36) is confusing, since compliance applies to requests and not necessarily to Requesting in the more general sense (see also pp. 162-163).

Zinken provides very detailed discussions of conversational interactions in British and Polish families, and the local contexts of the interactions are well-described. That being said, two remarks are in order.

First, the author offers no quantitative analysis to support his claims -- a few exceptions concern rare or unattested patterns (e.g., Chapter 5, p. 82; “virtually absent”, p. 83; “predominantly”, and Chapter 7, p. 159; “The next two cases are the only take-V2 Requests in the collection that can be analysed as […]”) -- and when he does provide quantitative information, it is with rather vague terms (e.g., Chapter 6, p. 128; “As with Polish musimy, we need x is more often than not used in contexts in which both you and I need to do something […]). In the absence of sufficient information about, e.g., sample size, (dis)preferred linguistic strategies and frequencies of use of the constructions involved in Requesting, the account developed in “Requesting Responsibility” has little predictive power. This issue is not too worrisome, however, insofar as Zinken’s primary aim, and primary achievement, is to offer a qualitative analysis of the use of different grammatical constructions in daily family interactions.

Second, little information about the socio-cultural background of the participants is available; other interesting details that are missing concern their age, who let the video camera record the interaction, how household tasks are divided in a family -- all parameters that may influence the choice of linguistic forms for Requesting, but do not seem to have systematically been controlled for in “Requesting Responsibility”. As a result, it is unclear whether the conclusions drawn in the book can be extended to a different population.

A minor shortcoming of the text has to do with the role of silent pauses in the shaping of different social actions. Zinken does not systematically propose an interpretation of silence between conversational turns, and it is unclear what he counts as a “noticeable” or “substantial” silence (pp. 210-11). When silences are addressed, as in Chapter 8, additional justification would have been welcome to support the points made.

The author briefly addresses the “invariant meaning of grammatical resources” (Chapter 9, p. 222), which leads the reader to wonder what the invariant meaning of the other Polish imperative constructions addressed in “Requesting Responsibility” would be. However, an interesting aspect of the book is that it straightforwardly opens the path for further research both in theoretical and experimental pragmatics. First, imperative constructions are central to Requesting Responsibility, and Zinken’s analyses seem compatible with recent minimal-semantic accounts of the imperative (e.g., von Fintel & Iatridou 2015, Hanks 2015). Second, RR contains clear hypotheses than can be tested in experimental studies devoted to the production and the comprehension of the action of requesting. These hypotheses concern, for instance, what people infer about others’ responsibilities and activities, and which linguistic expressions they prefer in some situations.

A proofreading evaluation reveals few errors or typos: p. 42, second paragraph; “Wotton” for “Wootton” (twice), p. 64, first sentence of the paragraph; “comes in a the kind of…”, p. 73, final sentence of the second paragraph; “that cannot to be taken for granted”, p. 84, first sentence of the third paragraph; “quick an easy”, and p. 143, the first sentence of the second paragraph; “line 13” for “line 15”.

Summing up, “Requesting Responsibility” is a very well-written book that provides highly valuable insights into the cross-linguistic and interactional aspects of the variety of social actions belonging to the category of requesting.


Alston, William P. 2000. Illocutionary acts and sentence meaning. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Benacchio, Rosanna. 2002. Konkurencija vidov, vežlivost’ i ètiket v russkom imperative. Russian Linguistics 26: 149-178.

Blum-Kulka, Shoshana & Elite Olshtain. 1984. Requests and apologies: A cross cultural study of speech act realization patterns (CCSARP). Applied Linguistics 5 (3): 196-213.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Curl, Traci S. & Paul Drew. 2008. Contingency and action: a comparison of two forms of requesting. Research on Language and Social Interaction 41: 1-25.

Enfield, Nick. 2009. The anatomy of meaning. Speech, gesture and composite utterances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hanks, Peter. 2015. Propositional content. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heinemann, Trinne. 2006. “Will you or can’t you?”: Displaying entitlement in interrogative requests. Journal of Pragmatics 38: 1081-1104.

Lehmann, Volkmar. 1989. Pragmatic functions of aspects and their cognitive motivation. In L. G. Larsson (Ed.), Proceedings of the second Scandinavian symposium on aspectology, pp. 1-11, Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Mondada, Lorenza. 2011. The situated organization of directives in French: Imperatives and action coordination in video games. Nottingham French Studies 50 (2): 19-50.

Niebuhr, Helmut R. 1963. The responsible self: An essay in Christian moral philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.

Schegloff, Emanuel. 2007. Sequence organization in interaction: A primer in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Von Fintel, Kai & Sabine Iatridou. 2015. A modest proposal for the meaning of imperatives. In Modality across syntactic categories, edited by Ana Arregui, Marisa Rivero, & Andrés Pablo Salanova. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nicolas Ruytenbeek recently completed a PhD in Linguistics at the Université libre de Bruxelles (2017). In his dissertation, he investigates the mechanics of indirect directive speech acts, both from a theoretical and experimental perspective. His main research interests are linguistic approaches to politeness, speech act comprehension and production and, more generally, issues bearing on the semantics/pragmatics interface.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780190210724
Pages: 272
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