Topic and Floor Management in Conversations

Topic and Floor Management in Conversations

This article has been written by Liam McAlary, a Years 7 – 12, VCE Legal Studies and VCE English Language Tutor at Learnmate. If you’re interested in private tutoring from Liam then please check out his page here.

School is back and so am I. This article will primarily focus on some of the main features of conversation management that you will need to be aware of for the year, especially for Area of Study 1 in unit 3. Although these features primarily feature in informal contexts and they are more integral to informal language (for the purposes of this course), please be aware that these features can also occur in formal situations. Also, when you are explaining these features in short answer sections and analytical commentaries, remember to be text specific and refer to specific line numbers where possible.

These features are not on the study design for units 1 & 2, although they are in the Unit 3 & 4 metalanguage, falling under discourse (page 18, second and third last dot points). Consequently, many of you will not have dealt with these features before in class. Having said that, you will undoubtedly be familiar with some of these already, just from your general life.

Topic management strategies are an important feature of conversation. In some analytical commentaries, topic management strategies are often worthy of their own short paragraph (usually quite early). When the topic of conversation changes, this is called a topic shift (not a very creative name), and this can occur in a variety of ways. One way that this is done is through adjacency pairs, which are pairs of utterances that depend on each other. The most obvious example is the question and answer adjacency pair, where one of the interlocutors (the people engaged in a conversation), changes the topic of conversation by asking the other person a question. Further, discourse particles such as, “so,” and, “anyway,” often serve to indicate that the conversation is moving on from one topic to the next (pay attention to the specific context obviously). “Anyway,” is a particularly common indicator of topic loops, where the conversation goes back to an earlier topic.

In addition to topic management, the way that the conversational floor is held, passed, and shared is also important. Discourse particles again are a commonly used strategy for managing the floor. For example, “well,” is often used to indicate that a speaker is intending to take an extended turn (often in order to explain something or to answer a question). Moreover, adjacency pairs are commonly used to pass the conversational floor, as interlocutors will ask questions, in order to receive an answer. Obviously, to receive an answer, they are relinquishing the floor and passing it to the other person(s). Additionally, a person can use backchannelling (also known as minimal responses) to indicate that they are listening to the person who is speaking and encouraging them to keep going and retain the floor. Furthermore, changes in pitch are also a good guide for floor management strategy (although how they are used varies significantly from text to text, so you need to be perceptive).

In addition, one thing that schools often overlook is the use of long and loosely connected sentence structures as a floor holding strategy. If someone is talking (usually they are telling a story) and they do not want to be interrupted, they will often continually use the coordinating conjunction, “and,” to indicate that they would like to retain the conversational floor. Think of how a five-year-old describes their weekend, “and then, and then, and then.” This is particularly common in spontaneous conversations (which most informal conversations tend to be).

Finally, year 12 is a busy and stressful year, but is also (at least from my experience) the most enjoyable year of your journey at school. Enjoy the year, but remember to have balance, and to have an outlet that can help you relieve stress (sport, work, etc.). Enjoy the ride and embrace the grind that is year 12. I hope this has helped and I will have another article for you in March.

If you loved this article, you will LOVE all of our other articles, such as: What To Expect As A First-Year University StudentSocial Purpose and How it Relates to Informal Language and The Summer Holidays and Formal Language Examples.


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Topic and Floor Management in Conversations