My main research interests are in how meanings are expressed and understood in different contexts of utterance and the discourse factors that allow interlocutors to understand one another.
My work in linguistics began in earnest with my PhD research at the University of Cambridge (defended 2015), investigating the communicative effects of using conditionals (sentences of the form ‘if p, (then) q‘) in ordinary discourse. Through a qualitative analysis of conditionals from the International Corpus of English (GB), I argued that in order to account for the fact that conditional sentences using ‘if’ are not limited to conditional meanings (e.g. ‘if you wouldn’t mind…’, ‘if you think about it…’, etc), but equally that conditional thoughts can be expressed without using ‘if’ (e.g. ‘take one more step or I’ll shoot!’), conditionality should be reconceptualised from a pragmatic-cognitive perspective, thus moving away from the traditional idea that we can define conditionals through grammatical or lexical cues.
My Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of East Anglia (‘Pragmatics in interaction: An exploration of miscommunication‘, 2015-2018) took this idea further, focussing on cases of miscommunication to identify the sources of information that lead to meaning recovery. This work began my departure from the traditional Gricean view that meanings are determined by the speaker’s intention behind a single utterance, but towards the view that participants co-construct meanings in interaction. In taking a broadly interactionist approach to meanings, my aim has since been to merge current post-Gricean approaches to meaning with interactional ones to develop a redefinition of ‘successful communication’.
My work in the last five years has since been part of a new trend in sociopragmatics research – a growing branch of linguistics at the interface between sociolinguistics and pragmatics – that views the study of misunderstandings as crucial for understanding communicative processes. My approach has been to combine insights from Conversation Analysis that observes the on-record ways in which speakers make themselves understood and apply them to post-Gricean perspectives that view meaning as stemming from a speaker’s intention. While as a research paradigm, Conversation Analysis does not draw on mental states, intentions or cognition, the theoretical tools it offers provides us with a window onto cognition: by taking a more public view of speaker meaning, we can observe how speakers hold each other accountable to meanings that they may or may not have intended, thus giving us new insights for theorising meaning in interaction.
As a preliminary attempt at formalising the local processes of utterance negotiation, Elder & Haugh’s (2018) account enables identification of when and where misunderstandings between speakers occur. This is a move away from accounts that focus on meaning as derived from speakers’ intentions or hearers’ recovered inferences, and instead gives co-constructed meanings centre stage in meaning theorisation. My work has since been dedicated to testing the applicability of the model, for example by extending it beyond cooperative communication to the domain of political speeches, demonstrating how unintended yet inferable meanings can be used in communicatively deviant ways, and looking at institutional constraints in managing misunderstandings in police interviews and doctor-patient consultations.