This paper originates from ongoing research into the occurrence and use of idiomatic expressions in interaction. Using conversation analysis we focus on the design of these expressions and the patterns that underlie the way they form part of larger sequences. We are interested in recurrent structural and sequential features of the use of idiomatic expressions in the ongoing series of actions which account for their selection over nonidiomatic alternatives.

The corpus consists of approximately 300 instances taken from recorded telephone conversations in Britain and America. The expressions tend to be figurative phrases (i.e. larger than one word), many may be learned as single items, and they are formulaic or relatively fixed in composition.

In previous work (Drew and Holt 1995, 1999) we explored the association between idiomatic expressions and topic transition. Analysis of the corpus revealed that one of the most frequently occurring patterns associated with these expressions is in terminating topics. The idiom serves to contribute to bringing a topic to a close by summarising and assessing the previous talk, and detaching it from further topical development. Recurrently the idiomatic expression is followed an agreement token by the recipient of the idiomatic expression, and sometimes a further agreement by the speaker who produced the expression. These are then followed by the introduction of a new topic.

A significant feature of these idiomatic topic transitions is that the new topic is introduced disjuctively. In other words the fit that one turn normally has with its previous is disrupted here by the inclusion of particles at the beginning of the utterance containing the introduction of a new topic. Particles such as "well", "anyway", "oh", etc, and combinations of these, are included to underline the fact that the subsequent utterance should not be interpreted in the light of the previous. These are, then, clear topic transitions where the coherence is broken in order to introduce a new matter.

However, topic transitions in conversation are rarely so clearcut. This is, in part, due to the fact that many occur in a "stepwise" fashion (Jefferson 1984; Sacks 1992). That is to say, what is being said is linked to the previous so that a new topic does not appear to have been introduced, but the matter currently being discussed is very different from the one at the start (Sacks, 1992, II: 566). Jefferson (1984) explores stepwise transition from talk about a trouble to matters which may not seem appropriate coming straight after a troubles-telling. In identifying the steps by which speakers gradually move from troubles-talk to a new matter, she identifies utterances that act as "topical pivots". These are utterances that are linked to the previous but have "independent topical potential" (p.203).

Analysis of a number of idiomatic expressions from the corpus reveals that they act as topical pivots. Rather than terminating one topic so that a new matter can be disjuctively introduced, these expressions form pivots between topics (often topics that are related, or at least made to connect through the idiomatic expression). The following is a case in point.

[NB:IV:10:24-25] (Simplified)
(Lottie is recalling a conversation with a friend about Lottie's marital problems)

LOTTIE: So the last thing w'n I left why she says well now you know what I said now you du-uh you try it for a month'n see if it doesn' work[out 'n I]siz

EMMA: [Mm hm,]

LOTTIE: the hell I'm not gonna (.) I'm not gonna make up I mean you know [why sh'd I].

EMMA: [Mm hm ,]

EMMA:--> hmh teahhh WELL EVRY TIME YIH HAVE these problums Lottie --> they get you farther'n farther away hhh hh hh It's so damn ridiculous in MY situation yihknow uh uh u course I shoot off my face

At the beginning of this extract Lottie is recalling a conversation she had with a friend about her marital problems. In the arrowed lines Emma uses the formulaic expression "well every time you have these problems Lottie they get you farther and farther away" and then reintroduces the matter of her own marital problems.

Thus, the idiomatic expression forms a pivot between the two topics. It serves to summarise the previous matter and constitutes a move from discussing empirical details to offering an assessment. The move from the specific to the general is underlined by the inclusion of "you" synonymous with "one". Having formulated Lottie's situation as one of a category of "these problems", Emma then goes on to discuss her problems. The link to this new topic is strengthened by her use of "my situation" which portrays it as one of the general category while bringing it back to the level of specific, empirical details.

In this paper we explore instances of these pivotal idiomatic transitions, showing how the design of the device equips it for use in this sequential position. Analysis of the device and of the talk which follows it reveals how the idiom may be used to create the potential for a new topic to be introduced. This is often revealed in features such as lexical similarities between the idiom and the new topic, and in the portrayal of the topics as co-members of the same category (as in the extract above).

The analysis reveals that these pivotal utterances are not restricted to occurring in the environment of step-wise transitions from troubles-tellings to other matters. It will also show that these pivotal utterances are often (though not exclusively) idiomatic, and will detail some of the features of the design of these utterances that render them appropriate for use in this sequential environment.


Drew, P. & Holt, E. (1995). Idiomatic expressions and their role in the organization of topic transition in conversation. In M. Everaert et al. Idioms: Structural and psychological perspectives, 117-132. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Drew, P. & Holt, E. (1998). Figures of speech: Figurative expressions and the management of topic transition in conversation. Language in Society 27:495-522.

Jefferson, G. (1988). On stepwise transition from talk about a trouble to inappropriately positioned matters. In Atkinson J. M. & Heritage J. (eds.) Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. Pp 191-222.

Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on conversation, 2 volumes. Ed. By G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.