The language of courtroom questioning

The study in a sentence

This study uses trial transcripts to demonstrate that language is used to perform social actions. The specific context of the courtroom creates a setting where the normal 'rules' of everyday conversation are suspended, and participants are restricted to specific actions and take turns in a fixed sequence. 

Those asking the questions (lawyers and barristers) use a range of identifiable strategies which can either support or undermine those who answer (witnesses and defendants).

The question

The language of courtroom questioning is an example of language use in the workplace, in which we also see the playing out of language as power. 

What is the source of the power wielded by a lawyer during courtroom questioning? How does that power arise? In this case study we look in detail at the features of question and answer sequences in trial transcripts, to see how they differ from ordinary conversation.

Key concept

In conversation, we use language to perform social actions: ask questions, report good news and bad, complain and compliment, agree and disagree, express surprise, disbelief, or disgust, request assistance or offer it and so on.  We use language to do ‘work’ (i.e. social action) all the time, in all contexts, including when we use language to do work at work. 

What social actions are being performed during courtroom questioning?

In what ways are the features of courtroom questioning different from those we see in everyday conversation?


We can use Conversation Analysis to compare the features of talk-in-interaction that are typical of ordinary social interaction, with the typical courtroom examination of witnesses and defendants. 

In ordinary conversation, turn taking displays local organization e.g. in adjacency pairs.

In contrast, courtroom questioning is restricted in:  

The answer

The pre-allocation of turns give power to the questioner to:

Questions in court are typically linked in a series, leading to a point:

Classroom activities

Lead in tasks

Transcripts of conversation from different work settings 

Extension tasks

Recognising language as action in interaction, and working with courtroom transcripts

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Recommended order:
Talk 1
Talk 2
PD CPD 2020 Parts 1-2 slides.pdf
Slides for Talks 1-2

Information Sheet 1

Language as Action, Speech Acts

Information Sheet 2

Restricted turn-taking in the courtroom: pre-allocated turns

Talk Part 3

Talk 3 handout plus data

This is the data Paul explains in Talk 3 

(plus a copy of the full courtroom transcript). 

Photo of Paul Drew

Meet the author

Paul Drew

Paul teaches modules on Multimodality and Language as Action

Thanks to Heather Turner for developing the teaching materials for this case study. 

Read the paper(s)

Paul Drew (1992) Contested evidence in courtroom cross-examination: the case of a trial for rape. In P. Drew & J. Heritage (eds.), Talk at Work, Cambridge University Press: 470-519 download pdf
Paul Drew & Fabio Ferraz (2020) Order in Court: Talk-in-interaction in the judicial process.  In M. Coulthard, A. Johnson and R. Sousa-Silva (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics (2nd edition), London, Routledge (chapter 12) download pdf