The inevitability of misunderstandings: Discourse ambiguities

Shoshana Blum-Kulka, Elda Weizman

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28 Scopus citations


This paper argues for the inevitability of unresolved misunderstandings in ordinary talk. The discussion combines a pragmatic theory-based formal analysis with a more interpretive approach in the analysis of discourse ambiguities in two naturally occurring conversational segments. First we analyse the interpretive options opened up for the participants by each move of a dialogue lacking in surface evidence of any type of misunderstanding. Second, we follow participants’ efforts to clarify intentions in a case where misunderstanding is acknowledged and its nature negotiated. The first case represents a non-negotiated misunderstanding, the second a negotiated one. We argue that dialogues containing discourse ambiguities feature a prolonged indeterminacy which can be unattended to by both parties, and are furthermore characterized by lack of clear resolution and frame. Either negotiated or not, they leave interactants with contradictory perceptions of the meaning of particular interactions. The analysis raises questions about the adequacy of current views on miscommunications, showing that the levels at which a misunderstanding exists may remain covert.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-242
Number of pages24
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1988

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research reported was funded by the Binational Science Foundation. We are following the threefold distinction between sentence meaning, utterance meaning and speaker's meaning discussed in pragmatic literature (Grice, 1957, 1971; Dascal, 1983). Sentence meaning is roughly equivalent to the Standard Interpretation assigned by linguistic structure only; misunderstandings located at this level are grammatical, and will not concern us further here. Utterance meaning is the meaning arrived at by pairing linguistic expressions with their contexts of use; speaker's meaning is the meaning the Speaker intends to achieve in a specific context by having the hearer recognize his or her Intention (Grice's 'non-natural meaning', 1957). Blum-Kulka (in press) distinguishes between conventional and non-conventional indirectness. The two types differ by the type of convention or pragmatic rule that plays the dominant role in Interpretation: for conventional indirectness conventionality acts mainly on properties of the utterance; by pragmalinguistic convention certain forms become the carriers of pragmatic duality and are interpretable either literally or indirectly (and sometimes on both levels simultaneously). Non-conventional indirectness, on the other band, concerns cases of indirectness potentiafly carrying a multiplicity of speaker's meanings. These cases are pragmatically vague and open to negotiation in context via reliance on contextualized conventions and conversational principles. Labov and Fanshel (1977: 62-64) classify events referred to in two-party conversations äs: A-events, known to Speaker A; B-events, known to Speaker B; A-B events, known to both A and B; O-events, known to everyonepresent; or D-events known to be disputable. Exchange 2 was recorded at the famüy dinner-table of an Israeli family äs part of a large research project investigating cross-cultural differences in interactional styles between Israeli and American families ('Cross-Cultural Interactional Styles and the Acquisition of Communicative Competence', BSF grant no. 2977, Shoshana Blum-Kulka, in collaboration with David Gordon, Susan Ervin-Tripp and Catherine Snow.) The conversation, which originally occurred in Hebrew, hasbeen translated äs verbatim äs possible, even at the expense of acceptability in English, given the significance of such features äs types of cohesive markers used (for example, see repeated reference to 'plans', T20-T25). The psychological causes for misunderstandings in general and in families in particular are beyond the scope of the present paper. However,Dascal and Berenstein's account of misunderstandings between husband and wife seems to be relevant for the event described in Exchange 2: 'In a sense, the presumption that misunderstandings will not arise '(in a close relationship) functions äs a self-falsifying prophecy, i.e. äs the converse of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more one believes in


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