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date: 27 May 2017

Sequence Organization

Summary and Keywords

The adjacency pair is the most basic and normatively accountable sequential structure in interaction. This structure can be expanded through pre-sequences, insert-sequences, and post-expansions, which can be seen to be relevantly oriented to by interactants themselves. Various forces drive this normative organization, including issues related to epistemics, intersubjectivity, progressivity, and affiliation. Larger structures—for example, sequences of sequences, overall structural organization, and storytelling—also exist in interaction but are nonetheless composed of smaller units of talk. While potentially open to a certain amount of cultural variation, sequence organization exists cross-linguistically and cross-culturally as a general structural feature of human social interaction.

Keywords: conversation analysis (CA), conversation/talk, language in social interaction (LSI), interpersonal communication, sequence, adjacency pair, preference, epistemics, intersubjectivity


When persons engage in talk with one another, they produce actions. Whether it be greeting a neighbor, inviting a friend to dinner, or announcing a bit of news, humans are inevitably “doing things with words” (Austin, 1962). Conversation analysis (CA) distinguishes itself from other approaches to discourse by underscoring that social actors not only understand one another to be producing actions in and through their talk, but that these actions are occurring within and simultaneously constituting sequences of action. This is part of the “now” in CA’s omnirelevant inquiry, Why that now? (Schegloff & Sacks, 1973, p. 299): What is this turn-at-talk doing, how is it composed, and how does its placement within the sequential progression of the talk affect those features of its production and interpretation?

This entry provides an overview of sequence organization, focusing primarily on the structure and communicative function of the adjacency pair—the most basic and normatively accountable sequential structure in interaction. Ways in which adjacency pairs can be expanded through pre-sequences, insert-sequences, and post-expansions are also described in detail, with various examples of naturally occurring talk-in-interaction included to illustrate interactants’ own orientations to these structures, in addition to their relevance to the particulars of human social conduct. Once this fundamental sequential structure has been introduced, we turn to a discussion of the driving forces of sequences, reviewing recent research on epistemics and the mobilization of response. Finally, comparatively “larger” sequential structures of interaction are also briefly described, including sequences of sequences, overall structural organization, and storytelling.

Although the majority of examples reproduced here are taken from American and British English conversation for ease of presentation, data from a variety of other languages are included as well, including Japanese, Korean, Russian, Argentine Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Swedish, and Yélî-Dnye (spoken on Rossel Island in Papua New Guinea). This is to demonstrate that, while potentially open to a certain amount of cultural variation, sequence organization exists cross-linguistically and cross-culturally as a feature of human social interaction (Kendrick et al., 2014; Stivers, Enfield, & Levinson, 2010; Stivers et al., 2009).

Adjacency Pairs

The sequential nature of interaction has been classically evidenced by the existence of adjacency pairs. Adjacency pairs, as characterized by Schegloff and Sacks (1973), are composed of two actions that are:

  1. (i) adjacent,

  2. (ii) produced by different speakers,

  3. (iii) ordered as first-pair parts and second-pair parts, and

  4. (iv) pair-type related.

First actions can be conceptualized as setting up an interactional “slot” in which a pair-type-related second action should (optimally) occur and be interpreted (Sacks, 1987 [1973]; Schegloff, 1968, 2007; see also Stivers & Rossano, 2010). Examples of adjacency-pair actions can be seen in Figure 1 below:

Sequence OrganizationClick to view larger

Figure 1: Examples of Adjacency Pairs

A few concrete examples, from various typologically distinct languages, are seen in (1)–(6) below.


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Sequence Organization

In describing adjacency pairs, Schegloff (1968, p. 1083) writes, “Given the first, the second is expectable; upon its occurrence it can be seen to be a second item to the first; upon its nonoccurrence it can be seen to be officially absent—all this provided by the occurrence of the first item.” Thus, the existence of adjacency pairs is not predicated on the fact that each and every first-pair part utterance receives a corresponding second-pair part. Such an argument would, of course, be easily falsifiable: It is obvious that questions sometimes do not receive answers, greetings are not always returned, and so on. So this argument is not one of invariance or even statistical regularity, but rather a social norm: Interactants hold one another normatively accountable for adhering to the adjacency pair rule. Indeed, the most striking forms of evidence for the existence of the adjacency pair structure comes in interactants’ orientations to the “official absences” when a second-pair part is not forthcoming. For example, if one speaker greets another, and the greeting is not returned, the first speaker (privately or publicly) “explains away” the case of noncompliance—for example, the second speaker did not hear the greeting, his/her mind was somewhere else, s/he is angry with the first speaker, etc. So rather than constituting evidence against the existence of adjacency pairs, such deviant cases in effect are the exceptions that prove the socio-normative structure of rule (Heritage, 1984b).

Interactants routinely display, in various ways, their understanding as to the accountability of second speakers to produce a second-pair part utterance in response to a first (Heritage, 1984b; Stivers & Robinson, 2006). One way that first speakers can publicly orient to this normative accountability is by overtly pursuing a response from second speakers in the environment of a lack of uptake from first-pair part recipients (Pomerantz, 1984a). In the brief exchange (7) below, for instance, a child reformulates her question twice in search of an answer from her mother. In line 6, then, Mom provides a second-pair part to the question, thereby closing the adjacency-pair sequence.


Sequence Organization

It is crucial to note that what the question actually was is not judged as problematic in this exchange: The child’s reformulations do not repeat the main verb (“cut”) or its object (“these”), but rather elide these initially semantically indispensable elements of the utterance and only include the auxiliary verb (“won’t”), subject (“we”), and vocative (“Mummy”). The questioner thereby demonstrates her interpretation that Mom has heard and understood the first-pair part question despite failing to provide a response. This then gives the child the interactional license to “push” for a second-pair part in subsequent turns, to complete the adjacency-pair sequence.

Second speakers too can be seen to orient to the normativity of the adjacency-pair structure. One way this is done is through the provision of non-answer responses. If a first speaker asks a question, for instance, and the recipient does not know the answer, hypothetically one could imagine a world in which the second speaker remains silent. After all, s/he does not have the information that has been requested by the first-pair part speaker. However, in such instances, second speakers routinely do not simply remain silent, but rather use their turn to account for their failure to comply with what was elicited by the first action, frequently using non-answer responses such as I don’t know (Heritage, 1984b; Keevallik, 2011; Stivers & Robinson, 2006; cf. also Stivers, Enfield, & Levinson, 2010). Excerpt (8) below includes two Question-Response adjacency pairs. Although the son is not able to provide an answer to his father’s second question (lines 4–6) as he was to his first one (lines 1–2), he nonetheless orients to the conditional relevance of a second-pair part by providing an account for his lack of answer, thereby closing the adjacency-pair sequence.


Sequence Organization

The same “I don't know” account is seen in the following Japanese example in which S and Y are discussing a decorative spoon. Although Y’s line 2 does not provide the information requested by S’s question in line 1, the responsive utterance nonetheless serves to close the adjacency pair sequence.


Sequence Organization

Far from being isolated speech acts with no relation to one another, first-pair part actions set up an expectation that second-pair part actions will be produced (and produced in a certain form; Sacks (1987 [1973]); see Pillet-Shore, this volume); and second-pair parts are then dependent on first-pair parts for their interpretation.

Sequence Expansion

Thus far we have focused exclusively on the adjacency pair as a two-utterance sequence. However, a single adjacency pair can be expanded by the occurrence of other adjacency pairs (or other structures) that precede, occur in the middle of, or follow the components of some base adjacency pair. Nonetheless, these surrounding turns can be seen as linked to the base adjacency pair—for example, paving the way for the base sequence to occur, acquiring additional information before ultimately providing a second-pair part, etc. This is known as sequence expansion and includes pre-sequences, insert-sequences, and post-expansions, with these first two being further subdivided as we will see below. Though this structural framework is quite technical and therefore may initially be somewhat intimidating, concrete examples render the phenomena and accompanying terminology much more apparent.

Pre-Expansion Sequences

Pre-expansion sequences—or pre’s—are adjacency pair sequences that are designed to occur prior to a base adjacency pair sequence, in the service of launching the base sequence. For example, a base sequence that is an Invitation-Acceptance/Declination adjacency pair might have a pre-invitation before issue of the actual invitation; similarly, a pre-request may occur prior to the request itself, a pre-announcement before the announcement of some news, and so on. This can be diagrammed as follows:

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Figure 2: Pre-expansion sequence

A pre-invitation is seen in the following example (10).


Sequence Organization

The actual invitation in this excerpt does not appear until line 3, the adjacency pair in lines 1–2 constituting a pre-sequence in the service of launching that inviting action.

There is data-internal evidence that interactants recognize pre-sequences as such—that is, as preliminary to, and in the service of, some to-be-produced base sequence. For instance, in (11) below, A asks what B is doing, just as we saw in the above example (10). Here, B orients to this question as preliminary to some other action by responding with: “Well we’re going out. Why?”


Sequence Organization

Because pre-sequences are, by definition, designed to occur before a base sequence, it is often difficult to determine what specific sort of action the pre is preliminary to. In (11), for example, is A going to invite B over for dinner, in which case line 2 would be a pre-invitation? Or is A going to request a ride to the store, in which case line 2 would be a pre-request? In such instances, the use of simply “pre” (as opposed to “pre-something”) reflects the ambiguity not only from the perspective of the analyst, but also from the perspective of the recipient of the pre upon its occurrence in the interaction. It is easy to imagine how this action-based ambiguity can be designedly accomplice to the work the pre-sequence is mobilized to accomplish in the first place. It is also relevant to mention here the case of Summons-Answer sequences, which Schegloff (2007, pp. 48–53) calls “generic” pre-sequences: These are used to secure the recipient’s attention such that the summoner can produce some forthcoming base sequence, but the pre-sequence does not itself project a particular type of base action in the way that, for example, a pre-announcement does.

Pre-sequences perform a variety of functions in social interaction, but always in the service of launching some base sequence. This is because pre’s work to stave off dispreferred responses to the base sequence’s initiating actions (see Pillet-Shore, this volume, on Preference more generally). For example, in (10) above, the pre-invitation in line 1 allows A to check B’s availability before actually doing the invitation. B’s response that he is doing “nothin’” (line 2) illustrates his openness to participating in some activity with A (especially given that we are always doing something, even if it’s just breathing, sitting, etc.). A is thereby given a “go-ahead” to produce the invitation proper, with acceptance of the invitation now being a more probable outcome.1 By contrast, in extract (11) above and (12) below, A’s pre does not receive a “go-ahead” response, but rather a “blocking” response.


Sequence Organization

When a pre receives a blocking response, it allows the speaker of the pre not to produce the base sequence action that would have likely resulted in a dispreferred or otherwise face-threatening action (Brown & Levinson, 1987). In (12), if A had simply invited B to do something on Saturday, without the pre-sequence, her invitation might have been rejected given that B has plans with her sister. In this instance, rather than going on to produce the invitation proper in line 3, A produces an assessment of B’s sister’s visit.2 Thus, through the structure of the pre-sequence, A never actually invited B to do anything, and B never actually rejected A; both participants thereby had a face-affirming social exchange as opposed to one that might have otherwise been face threatening.

Pre-sequences of all sorts (not just requests and invitations, as seen above) receive either a “go-ahead” response, a “blocking” response, or some hedged version between these two.3 For instance, when one speaker wishes to close a telephone call, s/he does not simply say “Goodbye” and hang up the phone. Rather, it typically looks something like (13):


Sequence Organization

In such pre-closing sequences, initiated with turns like “Okay” and “Alright,” the first speaker passes on his/her opportunity to introduce any other “unmentioned mentionables” (Schegloff & Sacks, 1973, p. 303) into the conversation. If the second speaker does the same, then both parties have effectively conveyed to one another that they have nothing more to say at this point and are therefore ready to close the conversation, and the base adjacency pair of a farewell can occur (lines 5–6 above).

Pre-announcement sequences, as initially described by Terasaki (2004 [1976]), allow the would-be teller of the news to determine whether the purported news is known or unknown to would-be recipients. If the news is already known (and the pre-announcement is blocked), then the announcement itself can be aborted; if the pre-announcement receives a go-ahead, then the announcement can continue. In (14) below, one couple (A and B) projects that it has news for the other couple (C and D) with whom they are conversing (line 1). While C gives the pre a go-ahead response in line 2, in overlap D blocks the announcement by claiming foreknowledge of the news (line 3). This then causes the would-be tellers to abort the telling (lines 5–6).


Sequence Organization

Pre’s can also serve to inform news recipients what sort of uptake will be expected once the announcement, informing, etc., is complete. For example, in (15) below, before providing the news that he “gotta B plus on [his] math test” (line 4), Ron’s pre-announcement in lines 1–2 classifies this as one of the “two best things that happen’tuh” him that day. The pre thereby informs Bea that some sort of positive assessment will be expected from her once the news has been told, and indeed she provides this in line 7 (and again in lines 9 and 11 in response to the other “best thing” that happened).


Sequence Organization

One could imagine receiving news that a friend scored a “B plus” on an exam—should this be taken up as good news because it is a passing grade, or should it be taken up as bad or disappointing news because the test-taker was shooting for an A+? A pre-sequence can help disambiguate this uncertainty for would-be recipients, informing them what sort of uptake will be most desirable upon completion of the base-sequence action.

Pre-sequences are also useful in reporting bad news in that they can make it so the teller does not actually have to articulate the bad news him/herself (Maynard, 2003; Terasaki, 2004[1976]). In (16), D projects that she has “terrible” news to tell in her pre’s (lines 1 and 3), but it is R who actually ends up articulating the news in line 4, allowing D to simply confirm R’s understanding in the subsequent line 5.


Sequence Organization

Similarly, pre-requests can be used to solicit preemptive offers such that the would-be requester never actually articulates the request him/herself, but can simply accept the offer put forth by the recipient of the pre-request. Of course this can have a variety of affiliative and face-affirming outcomes for both participants (see Clayman & Heritage, 2014; see also Kendrick & Drew, 2014).

While pre’s occur before a variety of types of base sequences, and while they can be used toward a variety of objectives in interaction, what binds them together as a sequential class is that “something was done not as an action/move in its own right and analyzable in its own terms alone, but for its relevance to and bearing on some action/utterance projected to occur” (Schegloff, 2007, p. 28ff). It is their preliminary nature—or “pre-ness” as Schegloff describes it—that is interactionally relevant first and foremost for the co-participants themselves, and therefore also for us as analysts.

Insert-Expansion Sequences

Insert-expansion sequences (or simply “insert-sequences”) are adjacency pairs that are “inserted” into a base adjacency-pair sequence. Accordingly, they occur after the base first-pair part but before the base second-pair part. As we saw earlier, because a first-pair part has been produced, a second-pair part is conditionally relevant or “due.” As a result, the first-pair part speaker will interpret any next turn that is not itself the second-pair part as being produced in the service of ultimately providing the second-pair part that has been made relevant. The second-pair part is therefore temporarily “on hold,” so to speak, while the business of the insert sequence(s) is conducted. This can be diagrammed as follows:

Sequence OrganizationClick to view larger

Figure 3: Insert-expansion sequence

Insert-expansion sequences are subdivided into two classes: post-firsts and pre-seconds.

Post-first insert-sequences are “backward-looking” in that they problematize some aspect of the first-pair part turn through the initiation of repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks, 1977). That is, the initiator of the post-first seeks to clarify something from the prior turn so that s/he can provide the appropriate second-pair part. An example of this is seen in (17) in which Masha initiates repair on Rosa’s question.


Sequence Organization

Masha’s initiation of repair in line 3 reveals that she has not understood Rosa’s question in line 1, and therefore she obviously cannot provide the second-pair part answer that Rosa’s first-pair part question is soliciting. The initiation of repair in line 3 then constitutes the first-pair part of an insert-sequence. Rosa closes the insert sequence when she provides her second-pair part in line 5, clarifying her earlier reference to the “synagogue.” Once the insert-sequence has been closed, Masha immediately provides the second-pair part (line 6) to the initial base sequence with her answer to Rosa’s original question. In this stretch of talk, then, the second-pair part of the base sequence was temporarily “put on hold” during the insert-expansion sequence, and the insert-expansion sequence was oriented to as occurring in the service of being able to ultimately provide a second-pair part to the base sequence.

An additional post-first example is shown below, in which Ilene uses an “open” class repair initiator “Hmm:?” to request that Jean repeat her utterance from line 1 (Drew, 1997).


Sequence Organization

Following Jean’s first-pair part utterance in line 1, there is a brief pause. Ilene’s line 3 then opens an insert-sequence that Jean closes in line 4 with the modified version of her original B-event statement from line 1 (Heritage, 2012a, 2012b; Labov & Fanshel, 1977; Pomerantz, 1980). With the base first-pair part now clarified through the post-first insert-sequence, Ilene immediately provides the second-pair part initially solicited by line 1, thereby closing the base sequence.

Pre-second insert-sequences contrast with post-firsts in that, in pre-seconds, there is no issue with hearing or understanding the base first-pair part; nonetheless, more information is required before an appropriate second-pair part can be provided. This information is gathered through pre-second insert-sequences, which are more “forward-looking” compared to the post-firsts, described above. Pre-seconds pattern with post-firsts, though, in that they both temporarily “put on hold” the base sequence while nonetheless orienting to a base second-pair part as due.

The following case (19) is taken from an institutional setting. Here the customer asks for a bottle of beer in line 1. In line 2, the server launches an insert-sequence by asking “Are you twenty one?” (the legal age for purchasing alcohol in the United States). This constitutes a pre-second in that it displays that the server has completely understood the customer’s question; nonetheless, in order to be able to provide an appropriate answer to that question, additional information is required.


Sequence Organization

In line 3, the customer’s “No.” provides a second-pair part to the insert-sequence, closing it. Now that the insert sequence has been closed and the server has the additional information necessary to respond to the customer’s initial question, he does so in the immediately subsequent line 4. Line 4 thereby constitutes the second-pair part of the base sequence that was launched by the customer’s line 1, closing the base sequence.

Despite the conciseness of the examples shown above, it is important to note that numerous insert-sequences can occur between a base first-pair part and a base second-pair part. A request to borrow a friend’s BB gun to use as a prop in a school play (“.hhh ‘n I was wondering if you’d let me borrow your gun.”) can be followed by various insert-sequences about “which gun” is being requested, “why:: would you like a >really long one.<,” “why you want a gun,” whether or not the play will be “up on stage in front of the whole school,” and so on, before the request is ultimately granted and the base sequence is closed with “Yeah:, you can use ‘t’” (Schegloff, 1990). Nonetheless, even in these more complex cases, the interactants can be seen to orient to the fact that a base second-pair part (in the BB gun case, either a granting or a refusal of the request) is still due, and that the plethora of insert-sequences are being produced in the service of eventually providing that relevant responsive utterance.

In addition to occurring to deal with basic issues of repair and information gathering, as seen above, insert-sequences are also routinely produced to deal with issues of preference and dispreference. For instance, insert-sequences can mitigate a forthcoming face-threatening action by delaying (or altogether obviating) delivery of a dispreferred base second-pair part, similar to other sorts of delay (e.g., pauses, “filled pauses,” in-breaths, etc.) (Pomerantz, 1984b; Sacks, 1987 [1973]). This is seen in the Swedish example (20) below, in which M launches an insert sequence before ultimately rejecting L’s invitation to go swimming.


Sequence Organization

Consider another case (21) below in which Jennifer asks Ann if she would be willing to rent out part of her garage. The disfluency and mitigation in the production of the requesting turn (lines 1–5) provide evidence of Jennifer’s orientation to the potentially inconvenient nature of what is being requested (Heritage, 1984b, pp. 269–273; Sacks, 1992, p. 207; Schegloff, 2007, pp. 83–84; cf. also Pillet-Shore, this volume).


Sequence Organization

Following the request, Ann launches an insert-sequence in line 9, which Jennifer closes with her confirmation in line 10. In the subsequent lines 11–13, both interactants then orient to a response to the original base sequence—either a granting or a refusal of the request—as due, despite having been temporarily “put on hold” during the insert-sequence. In this case, the insert-sequence, combined with the pauses (lines 11–12), foreshadows the provision of a dispreferred base second-pair part such that it is Jennifer who ultimately articulates the refusal herself in line 13, allowing Ann to simply confirm Jennifer’s understanding in line 14 (cf. Excerpt (16) above).


Post-expansions occur after the base sequence has been closed—that is, after a base second-pair part has been provided. Such expansions can be minimal or non-minimal, based on what sequential relevance is established by the expansion (Schegloff, 2007).

Minimal post-expansions do not launch new sequences themselves, but rather claim that or how the prior sequence was sufficient, adequate, understood, or otherwise unproblematic. Classic examples of such sequence-closing thirds (Schegloff, 2007, pp. 118–148) include the change-of-state token “oh” (Heritage, 1984a), “okay” (Beach, 1993), assessments, post-completion musings/postmortems (Schegloff, 1988, p. 117), or combinations of these. In the following case, Nancy inquires about her friend Hyla’s new love interest. Each question-answer adjacency pair (lines 1–2 and 5–8) is followed by a sequence-closing third “Oh” (lines 3 and 9).


Sequence Organization

Following a brief micro-pause, Nancy provides an additional minimal post-expansion in line 11—an assessment of the manner in which Hyla acquired this individual’s phone number: “Very cleve:r,.”

Different languages provide different options for sequence-closing thirds. For instance, Finnish aijaa, joo, and ai nii function similarly to English oh, yes/mm hm, and that’s right, respectively (Heritage, 1984a; Koivisto, 2013, 2015; Sorjonen, 2001). But Finnish also provides an additional change-of-state token aa, which Koivisto (2013, p. 115) argues “indicates now-understanding (‘I did not understand previously but now I do’) and that its central function is to deal with and remedy epistemic discrepancies that the speaker’s prior activity has revealed.” Nonetheless, while the specific stance(s) or function(s) conveyed by particular sequence-closing thirds may vary, the sequential structure in which they occur appears quite consistent cross-linguistically (cf. Kendrick et al., 2014). It should be noted that there is debate in the literature as to whether such third-turn utterances can/should sometimes be considered part of the minimal sequence (and thus can be noticeably absent as with the second-pair part of an adjacency pair), or whether they always constitute a post-expansion beyond the minimal sequence. Some researchers (e.g., Jefferson & Schenkein, 1978; Kevoe-Feldman & Robinson, 2012; Tsui, 1985) have posited that certain actions in certain (e.g., institutional) contexts project a minimal three-part sequential structure; while others (e.g., Schegloff, 2007, p. 13; Stivers, 2013, p. 209ff) maintain that the two-part structure can account for such cases as well.

A different sort of minimal expansion—a post-completion musing—is seen in the following case (23), offered by someone other than the interactants involved in the base sequence. Here, 14-year-old Virginia asks her mother, who owns a dress shop, if she can “get that dre:ss” (lines 1–2). This first-pair part request is followed by a brief insert sequence in lines 2–3 before Mom refuses the request, pivoting to quickly offer the “consolation prize” that she can “get- som’uh’the’new fa:ll stuff when it comes in.” (lines 5–6/9–10) (Clayman & Raymond, 2015). It is following this second-pair part and a 0.5-second pause that Prudence (Virginia’s brother’s girlfriend and a guest at the dinner table) offers the post-completion musing in line 13: “It’s so frustrating havin’ a mothuh.”


Sequence Organization

Prudence’s post-completion musing occurs in overlap with the launch of a lecture by Mom about saving one’s allowance. Schegloff (2007, p. 148) thus comments that observers outside of the base sequence may provide such post-completion musings, “but they are at risk of the principals renewing their sequence and rendering the musings out of bounds and out of attention.”

Post-expansions can also be non-minimal wherein the post-expansion itself constitutes an adjacency-pair sequence. That is, the base sequence second-pair part has been provided, and the next turn (that launches the post-expansion) is itself a new first-pair part, which in turn projects a second-pair part to follow. This can be diagrammed as follows:

Sequence OrganizationClick to view larger

Figure 4: Post-expansion sequence

One sort of non-minimal post-expansion arises with the initiation of repair. While post-first insert-sequences initiate repair on the first-pair part of a base sequence (e.g., cases (17) and (18) above), repair can also be initiated on the second-pair part of the base sequence, thereby launching a post-expansion sequence. This is seen in case (24) below in which Barbara problematizes Emma’s response to her question.


Sequence Organization

Post-expansions can also be used to highlight newsworthiness or interest, and can therefore constitute an affiliative move by the recipient of a second-pair part. For instance, continuing the conversation between Emma and Barbara from (24) above, Barbara asks how many cigarettes Emma has had since she quit smoking. Following Emma’s emphatic response that she hasn’t had any cigarettes since quitting (“↑↑NOGH:NE.,” line 8), Barbara initiates a post-expansion sequence with “Oh rea↑lly?.” Newsmarks such as “(Oh) really,” full/partial repeats, and pro-repeats (e.g., “they are?”) treat the prior turn as news rather than merely informative, thereby displaying interest and potentially topicalizing its content (Heritage, 1984b, p. 340; Jefferson, 1981, pp. 62–66).


Sequence Organization

Emma reconfirms that she has not had any cigarettes since quitting smoking (line 10), thereby providing a second-pair part to the post-expansion sequence. In line 12 Barbara then offers a sequence-closing third in the form of an assessment.

Similar to the affiliation and newsworthiness issues just described, post-expansions also routinely seek reconfirmation of, and accounts for or elaborations on, dispreferred or unexpected second-pair parts. For example, in (26), after Rick apologizes for not calling the previous evening as planned, he asks if Linny got mad.


Sequence Organization

Following his “No” response, Rick launches a post-expansion with “Yih didn’t” (line 4), which solicits both reconfirmation and the provision of an account (Raymond & Stivers, 2016). In this case, Linny provides the relevant reconfirmation, but declines to provide an account, producing only a minimal “Nope” in line 5.5

Summary of Sequence Expansion

It should be apparent, given the discussion thus far, that utterances are “context-shaped” (by what came before) in addition to being “context-renewing” (in that they create a space in which subsequent action can occur) (Heritage, 1984b). This means that interactants are able to consistently reevaluate their understandings of actions and courses of action—that is, “where they are” in the interaction—with each and every turn, as each new utterance presents the speaker’s analysis of what came prior. It is precisely through the turn-by-turn, sequential nature of conversation outlined here that, Heritage (1984b, p. 255) writes, “a context of publicly displayed and continuously up-dated intersubjective understandings is systematically sustained.” A new first-pair part that does not initiate repair on what came before tacitly yet inherently conveys the intersubjective adequacy of the sequence so far, and the interaction progresses onward from that foundation in common ground. As Heritage and Atkinson (1984, p. 10) note, “By means of this framework, speakers are released from what would otherwise be the endless task of explicitly confirming and reconfirming their understandings of one another’s actions.”

In this section, we have illustrated how base adjacency pair sequences can be expanded: (i) Before base first-pair parts in the case of pre-expansion, (ii) in between base first-pair parts and base second-pair parts in the case of insert-expansion, and (iii) after the base second-pair part in the case of post-expansion. It was also noted that the occurrence of these expansions can affect the structure of the base sequence as well, even altogether obviating its production (e.g., a pre-announcement that is blocked, resulting in abandoning the actual announcement that would have constituted the base sequence; or a pre-request that results in an offer from the recipient of the pre-request; Sacks, 1992, p. 207; Schegloff, 2007, pp. 83–84). While the examples included here were relatively straightforward with regard to the extent of their expansion, it should be noted that multiple forms of expansion can (and quite often do) occur around the same base sequence. It is not the case, for instance, that if a base sequence has been pre-expanded, it will not include an insert sequence. On the contrary, multiple pre-, insert-, and post-expansion sequences can occur off of the same base adjacency-pair sequence. Indeed, in a single-case analysis, Schegloff (1990) illustrates how 125 lines of transcript revolve around a single base Request-Granting adjacency-pair sequence that is expanded with multiple pre-, insert-, and post-expansion sequences. Expansion of base sequences should therefore not be conceptualized as rare, abnormal, or in any way non-normative.

What Drives Sequences?

Recent conversation-analytic research on sequence organization has been aimed at addressing the issue of what drives sequences (Drew, 2012). For example, How are turns designed to mobilize a response vs. not; how are actions recognized such that appropriate, sequentially relevant next turns can be produced; and so on.

Thus far we have categorized “first actions” as a unified class that make conditionally relevant second actions from a recipient. Stivers and Rossano (2010), however, have recently proposed a model of response relevance that is scalar in nature as opposed to digital. They posit that some actions can make a response more or less relevant than others, with various aspects of turn design affecting the mobilization of response. For instance, requests, invitations, and offers heavily push for a second-pair part response from recipients; and, as described earlier, this is oriented to by the participants (e.g., if a response is not forthcoming, the first speaker can pursue one). Other actions such as announcements, noticings, and assessments, however, the authors argue, do not exert the same pressure for response. This is not to say that such actions are unable to receive uptake from recipients, but rather that recipients are not held as normatively accountable for providing uptake in the same way as they are to other actions.

Specifically, Stivers and Rossano (2010, p. 8) list four features of turn design that serve to mobilize response: (i) interrogative morphosyntax, (ii) interrogative intonation, (iii) recipient expertise on the topic relative to the speaker, and (iv) speaker gaze to the recipient (p. 8). That is, as opposed to either mobilizing response or not, this model posits that the more “response mobilizing features” a turn has, the more strongly it mobilizes response from a recipient. This is conceptualized visually in Figure 5 below:

Sequence OrganizationClick to view larger

Figure 5: Scalar model of response relevance (Stivers & Rossano, 2010, p. 28)

Thus while an assessment such as “That’s a nice painting,” uttered from one friend to another while strolling through a museum, may not, in principle, push for a response in the same way as an invitation to a party, formulating the same assessment with a tag question and interrogative prosody while gazing at the recipient (“That’s a nice painting, isn’t it?”) exerts more pressure for an agreement response (see also Heritage 2012a, 2012b).

Another line of research into what drives the production (and expansion) of sequences in interaction concerns what Heritage (2012a) calls the “epistemic engine.” Heritage (2012a, 2012b) demonstrates that interactants continuously monitor who is more knowledgeable (K+) and who is less knowledgeable (K-) about different things as they progress through interaction, with turns-at-talk produced so as to reestablish epistemic equilibrium between the participants. Specifically, he argues that “any turn that formulates a K+/K− imbalance between participants will warrant the production of talk that redresses the imbalance … Asserting something from a K+ position can be the basis for initiating or expanding a sequence, and … positioning oneself in a K− position can likewise motivate sequences or their expansion” (Heritage 2012a, p. 49). This point is intimately related to the response mobilization issue just raised. Recall example (18) above in which Jean says: “Ev’body else is well.” and then “thehr a:ll we:ll,” (lines 1 and 4). How is it that the recipient, Ilene, is able to unambiguously understand these turns as requests for information/confirmation—which therefore mobilize a response from her—and not as simple declarative assertions? The answer lies in the “territories of knowledge” (Heritage, 2011) that each participant inhabits: Ilene has primary rights to know about her own family (Heritage & Raymond, 2005; Raymond & Heritage, 2006), and thus Jean’s turn is understood as launching a sequence of actions that Ilene’s response can close. Thus, participants can be seen to take into consideration the K+/K- distinction as they ascribe actions to turns, and thereby form understandings of what sort of turn (if any) should normatively—and accountably (Heritage, 2012c, p. 80)—be produced in response. Indeed, in reviewing this work, Drew (2012, p. 65) comments that epistemic matters may provide an answer “to what underpins the power of adjacency pairs—to the question of what is the mechanism from which the power of a first pair-part to elicit a second derives.”

Larger Structures

The adjacency pair is the most basic form of sequence structure in interaction (Schegloff, 2007). Nonetheless, comparatively “larger” structures exist in interaction and, crucially, are oriented to as such by participants. Here we briefly describe three of these larger structures: (i) sequences of sequences, (ii) overall structural organization, and (iii) storytelling.

Sequences of Sequences

Some sequences project further sequences to follow. The prototypical example of this are how-are-you sequences that frequently occur at the beginning of telephone calls (Schegloff, 1968, 1986). An example is seen in (27) below between Emma and her sister, Nancy.


Sequence Organization

Here, Emma launches a how-are-you sequence in line 1. The second-pair part of this question-answer adjacency pair is quickly provided in partial overlap in line 2 with Nancy’s “Fine.” Nancy then immediately launches a reciprocal sequence with her “how’r you.,” to which Emma responds in lines 3–5. Thus here we see a comparatively “larger” sequence that is composed of two, comparatively “smaller” adjacency pair (question-answer) sequences.

Just as we saw above in introducing the concept of the adjacency pair, the claim here is not that all how-are-you sequences are followed up with a reciprocal how-are-you sequence (just as not all first-pair parts are followed up with second-pair parts). Of course, various contingencies can cause the recipient of an initial how-are-you sequence to not launch a reciprocal sequence in return (Schegloff 1986, pp. 133-144). For instance, in the following case (28), between the same sisters as the above example, Emma does not launch a reciprocal how-are-you sequence in line 5 after providing her answer to Nancy’s question form line 4, but rather uses a B-event statement to request information about why Nancy’s telephone line has been busy (Pomerantz, 1980).


Sequence Organization

The routine sequence of sequences in this case has thus been interrupted in favor of another action and sequence, and will be oriented to as such: “The participants may examine such preemptions, each case in its own terms and by reference to its own particularities, to find what may have prompted a party who has preempted to preempt on that occasion, and to preempt to some particular degree, where ‘degree’ refers to the amount of ordinary opening business that has been preempted by initiating first topic or action sequence at a given point” (Schegloff 1986, p. 133; see also Raymond, 2016, ch. 5). Thus, adjacency pairs constitute sequences, and those sequences are produced and understood as occurring in sequences of sequences in interaction. With this structural background, we are quickly able to see that even the routine opening phase of a telephone call is itself an interactional achievement that is constituted by members’ contributions to the talk.

Overall Structural Organization

While thus far we have concentrated on the turn-by-turn nature of interaction, adjacency pairs do constitute larger interactional activities and projects, “which are nonetheless being managed as a coordinated series that overarches its component pairs” (Heritage & Sorjonen, 1994, p. 4). These larger activities and projects, however, can be difficult to operationalize in a systematic fashion in ordinary conversation. Nonetheless, institutional talk often provides us with more goal-oriented exchanges in which the “special and particular constraints” (Drew & Heritage, 1992, p. 22) of the context allow us to more systematically identify the component activities that make up a larger interaction as a whole. For instance, an acute-care medical visit typically consists of opening, establishing the reason for the visit, history taking, physical examination, diagnosis delivery, treatment recommendation, and closing phases—each of which can be constituted by various turns-at-talk, with transitions from one phase to the next (Robinson, 2003; Robinson & Stivers, 2001; Stivers, 2007). Interactants can be seen, then, to be designing their utterances with respect to both the more “local” contingencies of, for example, the adjacency pair (as discussed so far), as well as the more overarching phases that those comparatively smaller structures are working to constitute. That is, the history taking and physical examination during the medical visit, for example, are oriented to as occurring in the service of arriving at a diagnosis and a treatment recommendation. Interactants can even halt the progressivity of the visit from one phase to the next: Resisting a doctor’s treatment recommendation prevents movement toward closing the visit, thereby providing patients with an interactional space to pressure for alternative treatment regimens (Stivers, 2007).

It is not the case that interactants invariably understand individual turns and sequences as occurring in the service of the larger activity or project at hand. Calls for emergency service (e.g., to “911” in the United States, to “999” in the United Kingdom) typically progress from opening, to problem presentation, to an interrogative series, to a response to the request, and then finally to a closing (Zimmerman, 1984). For comparison purposes, an unproblematic case of this progression is seen in (29) below:


Sequence Organization

In this case, the interrogative series (lines 6–13) contains four adjacency pairs which work to gather information necessary to be able to issue the response in line 14: The dispatcher must have an address to which to send the police (lines 6–7), she must be able to tell the police what sort of access they will have to the property and to the caller upon arrival on scene (lines 8–9), and so on. The caller here complies with this line of questioning as necessary to be able to ultimately arrive at the response to the request for service.

The above call contrasts with the problematic case (30) below. In (30), the caller does not interpret the immediate sequential structures within the interrogative series as having a trajectory toward responding to the request for service, instead taking a stance of unconditional entitlement to an ambulance.


Sequence Organization

Tracy (1997) describes this sort of interactional trouble as based in a mismatch of frames: The caller mistakenly enacts a “customer service frame” (note the initial “I’d like to have …” formulation of the request, line 3), while the call-taker is oriented to a “public service frame.” Whereas a customer can indeed portray him/herself as unconditionally entitled to make a request—for example, for an airline ticket—without justifying why s/he wants or needs the ticket (Lee, 2009, 2011), some justification is required in order for requests for public services to be granted, as the individual is not paying for the service directly (cf. Heritage & Clayman, 2010, pp. 53–100). This is relevant to the sequence-organizational claims being made here in that, in this case, the turn-by-turn talk within the interrogative series is not oriented to by the caller as necessary to arrive at a response to her request, and thus we see the caller’s resistance of the dispatcher’s questioning (lines 7–8, 15).

In sum, then, as Schegloff (2011, pp. 378–379) observes, talk-in-interaction has both a local organization (e.g., moving from one turn to the next), and an overall structural organization: “The latter, of course, can only get its work done in the places provided by the former. The former … can only get its emergent shaping by reference to the latter—or the several ‘latter’s which operate on it”.


Given that stories typically take multiple turn-constructional units to tell, storytelling involves a temporary suspension of the ordinary rules of turn-taking (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974), and therefore shows a modification of the adjacency-pair structure described thus far (Sacks, 1974, 1992). Indeed, story recipients demonstrate their alignment with the telling by effectively not treating each new piece of the story as a first-pair part turn in its own right that therefore requires a second-pair part response. In this way, the recipient of the story “supports the structural asymmetry of the storytelling activity” (Stivers, 2008, p. 34). Stories are thus structured sequentially in a way that addresses these turn-taking issues, while at the same time providing for the face-affirming affiliation or other aims (e.g., complaining, accounting, joking, etc.; Buttny, 1993; Drew, 1998; Goodwin, 1984; Jefferson, 1988; Jefferson & Lee, 1992; Mandelbaum, 1987, 1989; see Mandelbaum, 2013, for an overview) that storytellers are often seeking to accomplish with their tellings.

Stories can be launched from second position, for example, in response to a question like “What happened at school today?” In such cases, story recipients have already indicated their willingness to suspend normal turn-by-turn talk and receive a telling. But would-be storytellers can also initiate their own tellings from first position, in which case they need to (i) design the launch of their story as a story launch, such that (ii) they can obtain a go-ahead from the hearer to indicate that s/he is willing to accept the role of story recipient and thereby willing to temporarily modify the turn-taking system during the telling. Pre-tellings (a class of pre-sequence, as described above) are often used for this purpose, such as in (31) below:


Sequence Organization

In this case, Geri’s “What” response to the story preface indicates her willingness to hear the story and her stance that the story will presumably be newsworthy/novel for her.

Prefaces additionally work to convey the sort of story that is to come, and thus the sort of uptake the story is being designed to solicit from the recipient (Jefferson, 1978; Sacks, 1974). This is crucial given that conveying what “sort” of story the telling will be is not only relevant in launching the telling, but also in bringing the telling to a close: Just as the normal rules of turn-taking must be suspended to do the telling, so too must they be reengaged upon its completion so as to return to normal turn-by-turn talk. Story prefaces are also useful in this regard as they assist story recipients in recognizing when the story has reached its climax and thus at which point some form of response might be an affiliative move. Following the preface in example (31), for instance, Geri can be on the lookout for something that Shirley might have considered “very very: cute,” and then affiliate (or not) with that stance. Story prefaces can therefore be used to gain access to the turn-space required to tell the story, in addition to frequently conveying the “sort” of story it will be (e.g., comedic, troubles-resistant, tragic, etc.) such that appropriate uptake can be provided by the recipient upon completion of the telling.

In the same way that prefaces can be examined with relation to the organization of storytelling sequences, so too can the other elements of stories be analyzed for their design and sequential import. For example, as mentioned above, story recipients must be on the lookout for the delivery of the climax of the story so that they can take a stance toward the telling; but this also means that tellers must design the story’s climax so that it can be recognized as such (Sacks, 1978). In addition, during the telling itself, tellers must manage the delivery of background vs. foreground information, the amount of detail provided, what is included vs. what is omitted, and so on, and recipients must determine what to do sequentially—meaning, in terms of response—with each of these components of the evolving, in-progress telling. In short, then, storytelling as a whole—from the launch of the story to the resumption of turn-by-turn talk—must be analyzed as a collaborative, co-constructed, and sequentially organized exchange between teller and recipient—not as a one-sided endeavor on the part of the teller.


This entry has provided an overview of some of the basics of sequence organization from a conversation-analytic perspective. Understanding how sequences work is essential for the analysis of interaction as these are the structures through which real co-participants in talk collaboratively organize their exchange. To borrow Schegloff’s (2007, p. 264) concluding words, following his extended overview of the past 40 years of research on this topic:

The bearing of sequence organization is, of course, not limited to the end point of what I have made to sound like an assembly line; its structures and practices inform the distribution of opportunities to talk and what is made of those opportunities as much as they constitute it. All of these organizations of practice (turn-taking, turn organization, action formation, and sequence organization) and others (repair, word selection, and overall structural organization) operate together all the time to inform the participants’ co-construction of the observable, actual conduct in interaction that is the prima facie, bottom-line stuff of social life. Only by observing them all together will we understand how the stuff of social life comes to be as it is. Only by observing them one by one will we get into a position to observe them all together.

Primary Sources

Some naturally occurring conversational data are freely available on the Web. The TalkBank Project (MacWhinney, 2007) is one example, accessible at:

Further Reading

Emanuel A. Schegloff’s (2007) Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analysis (vol. 1) should be the first step for those interested in reading more about sequence organization, as it provides an overview of the previous four decades of research on the topic. See also Stivers (2013) for a concise overview. Earlier work by Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, and Harvey Sacks (Jefferson, 1972, 1978, 1984a, 1984b; Sacks, 1974, 1987 [1973]; Schegloff, 1968, 1980, 1990; Schegloff & Sacks, 1973) can then be consulted for more in-depth study on some of the more specific features of sequence organization discussed here and in Schegloff (2007). On overall structural organization, see Robinson (2013). On storytelling, see Mandelbaum (2013).

On the origins of the conversation-analytic theory and method, see Heritage (1984b). For more in-depth consideration of how CA’s approach to social interaction differs from other approaches (e.g., from Linguistics), see Levinson (1981, 1983). On CA and communication studies more generally, see Beach (2013).


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(1.) Given that accounts of inability—as opposed to unwillingness—routinely accompany dispreferred responses to requests and invitations, that B goes on record in saying that he is currently not occupied makes an inability account less readily available. This likely explains (part of) why this particular sort of pre (i.e., asking about availability) is used as preliminary to these particular sorts of actions. See Heritage (1984b).

(2.) When a pre is blocked, the base sequence that it was preliminary to frequently does not ever surface. Thus, while interactants and analysts recognize that the pre was indeed preliminary to some other action, what that action was (e.g., invitation, request, etc.) often never emerges.

(3.) Indeed, even turns characterized as pre’s can themselves have pre’s. These are called “pre-pre’s”. See Schegloff (1980, 2007, pp. 44–47) for further explanation.

(5.) The word-final bilabial closure of this interjection “may iconically indicate even greater reticence to elaborate than the more standard unmarked interjections” (i.e., No) (Raymond & Stivers, 2016, p. 350).