An ELT Glossary : Adjacency pairs

Definition : An adjacency pair is a sequence of two related utterances by two different speakers where the second utterance is a predictable/required response to the first. 

Examples : question-answer; compliment-thanks; accusation-admission or denial; request-acceptance or refusal.

Adjacency pairs may have preferred or dispreferred seconds. Be careful with this term - it doesn't mean that the individual speaker has an emotional preference for one or the other  but that the language sees one (the preferred second) as non-problematic, and the other (the dispreferred second) as in some way liable to cause offence, displeasure or some other negative reaction on the part of the listener, and therefore needs conventional handling.

Take the example of a polite request. If you ask me Can you open the window please?, there are two possibilities for my answer - I can say yes or no. If I agree (ie say yes) I am doing what you want - so no problem. The discourse will probably be brief :
- Can you open the window please?  It's really hot in here.
- Yes , sure.

If on the other hand I gave such a brief reply when I wanted/needed to refuse, I would risk creating a negative reaction.

- Can you open the window please? It's really hot in here.
- No, I can't.

In the case of a dispreferred second, more is needed in order to prevent this negative reaction - in our example of a polite request, generally an apology and an explanation :

- Can you open the window please?
-  Sorry, no. It's stuck. It doesn't open.

And the speaker might reply with an indication that s/he understands, is not offended etc.

- Can you open the window please?
-  Sorry, no. It's stuck. it doesn't open.
- Oh, never mind then. I'll open the door

Dispreferred seconds may also be marked by features such as hesitation (Levinson, 1983) - again giving "thinking time" to both participants : the refuser having more time to formulate the refusal, and the requester receiving an indication that a refusal is coming and giving them the chance to formulate a reply - or indications that the speaker would co-operate if they could. The "bigger" the request (and therefore the "bigger" the refusal) the more of these devices are likely to be present. 

If the request is a "big" one, the speaker may also introduce a pre-sequence which "warns" the listener that a request is coming which they might find uncomfortable, and gives them thinking time to prepare a refusal.

- David, can I ask you a favour?
- Yes sure.

This leads to the full sequence :

- David, can I ask you a favour?
- Yes sure.
- Is there any way you could swap shifts with me on Friday? I'm on the evening shift.
- Oh, I'm really sorry. I would, but it's my wedding anniversary Friday and we're going out to dinner.
- Oh OK , no problem. I'll ask someone else.

The frequency,  formulation, structure and content of adjacency pairs will be culturally determined. A lot of research has been done, for example, into the adjacency pair compliment/response. What type of compliments are made (ie on appearance, performance, possessions etc) will differ from culture to culture, as will the words used to express them (eg adjectives and verb forms chosen) and the responses - eg :

  • acceptance: Thank you
  • upgrading:  Yeah, it's great isn't it?
  • downplaying or rejection : Oh, it's nothing.

etc. For a detailed account see Fujimura -Wilson (n.d). This leads to the possibility of misinterpretation in cross-cultural communication - eg a speaker from a culture where modesty was valued and downplaying/rejection of comments was normal, might interpret an upgrading response as boasting. A speaker from a culture where upgrading was common, the use of a rejection might be seen as lack of appreciation of the compliment and the speaker's intention in paying it.


Fujimura-Wilson K, (n.d) A Cross Cultural Comparison of Compliments and Compliment Responses in Conversation (Available if you Google it)
Levinson, S.C. (1983)  Pragmatics  CUP