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:

The question

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:

Why do we use all these different syntactic forms to say the same thing?

Key concept

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?

Cartoon showing a woman talking the phone. She says: "Hi, I hope you don't mind me getting in touch. A while ago your husband told us what happened to him. We have a friend who finds positions for people in the industry and if you husband would like their address, by husband would gladly give it to him."

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. 

Cartoon figures in conversation. A says "I don't know what to do with Katy. She was depending on him to take her to LA on Sunday."  B replies "I'll take her in Sunday!"

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.  

In contrast, offers in response to overt problems usually put the focus on the offerer (I) – I'll take, I can bring etc. 

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Considering different ways of making offers

Extension task

Collecting and analysing data of offers of assistance from different media

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Meet the author

Traci Walker was Lecturer in Linguistics at York from 2004–2014. She is now at University of Sheffield.

Read the paper

Curl, T. S. (2006). Offers of assistance: Constraints on syntactic design. Journal of Pragmatics, 38(8), 1257–1280. abstract