Offers of assistance in phone calls
The study in a sentence
This study looks at how offers of assistance are made in phone calls.
The study shows that people systematically use different syntactic forms in offers to respond to the needs arising from different interactional contexts.
Some ways of offering to bring coffee:
Do you want me to bring coffee?
I'll bring coffee.
If you need coffee, I can bring some.
I was wondering if I should bring coffee.
If somebody is in need of assistance, how would you offer to help? In English, there are many ways to make that offer. You might say Would you like me to help?, I could lend you a pen, or any of the constructions listed on the left and more.
Each of these offers has a different syntactic form, with:
different modal verbs – will, can, should
different sentence structures – simple, comprised of one clause (I'll bring coffee) vs. complex, containing a subordinate clause (If you need coffee, I can bring some), and
different functions of the word if – conditional vs. interrogative.
Why do we use all these different syntactic forms to say the same thing?
Conversation, like written texts, have a purpose and coherent structure. However, unlike written text, which usually has a single author working without time constraints, conversation is co-constructed on the fly by the participants. This may make conversation appear spontaneous and unplanned, but in fact each participant plays an important role, taking their own turn and reacting to the turns of others in fairly well determined patterns. The stability of these patterns across many conversations and speakers, as well as self-correction when the “wrong” form is used, show that at some level speakers are aware of the “rules” of conversation, and work to make their contribution conform to them.
When and how do we use different ways to make offers in English?
What is the significance of using different syntactic forms when making offers?
Example of a reason-for-calling offer in the form of if X, Y.
The Answer (1)
The way people make offers in phone calls depends on how the need for the offer arises.
When they call in order to make the offer, they almost always do so in the form If X (then) Y, such as in the classic If there's anything we can do let us know. Occasionally, people use this if-containing form with the verb wonder (I wondered if you might like his address).
Other offers are interactionally generated, as in the topic of the recipient's need or problem crops up during the phone call.
An explicitly stated problem is usually immediately followed by an offer that makes use of first person subjects and the model verb will or can (Can I bring some pies or something?).
An offer to an implicit problem, however, is not made until some time after it arises, and is generally made by way of Do you want/need me to X.
Example of an offer to an explicit, interactionally generated problem.
The Answer (2)
Why might the forms of interactionally generated offers differ?
For offers made to implied problems, the form Do you want me to X puts the focus on the recipient as an agent (you) – one who wants something from the offerer.
If such an offer was made immediately after an explicitly-stated problem, it would sound as if the offerer thought that the recipient was 'fishing' for an offer.
In contrast, offers in response to overt problems usually put the focus on the offerer (I) – I'll take, I can bring etc.
In this case, offerers make it clear that they are doing the offering by making themselves the subject of the offer.