Identifying speech acts from contextual and linguistic information

Leonard J Abbeduto, Laurie Furman, Betty Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


We conducted an experiment to examine the comprehension of interrogatives such as Could you make the pencil roll?, which can be intended as yes-no questions, as directives to perform an action, or as both. Clark (1979) has claimed that the comprehension of such sentences is governed by, among other things, the answer obviousness rule; that is, listeners are more likely to interpret such a sentence as a question if the question posed is non-obvious to the speaker. One purpose of the present experiment was to test Clark's claim. A second purpose was to begin identifying the types of contextual information listeners use in comprehending speech acts. The final purpose was to provide data relevant to the controversy about whether listeners evaluate the syntactically direct, literal meaning of a sentence in the course of arriving at a syntactically indirect interpretation. We found that listeners follow an answer obviousness rule, utilize their knowledge of objects and the actions they allow as context for sentence interpretation, and do sometimes evaluate the syntactically direct reading of a sentence before arriving at an indirect speech act.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-203
Number of pages15
JournalLanguage and Speech
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1989
Externally publishedYes


  • comprehension
  • context
  • interrogatives
  • speech acts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Speech and Hearing


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