Bosco, F.M., Tirassa, M. (2010)

Communication failure.

In: The pragmatics encyclopedia, ed. L. Cummings (pp. 63-65).

London and New York: Routledge.




Communication Failure


Francesca M. Bosco and Maurizio Tirassa


Università di Torino

Dipartimento di Psicologia & Centro di Scienza Cognitiva

via Po, 14

10123 Torino (Italy)





Successful communication is to be defined in terms of the partner’s recognition of a particular set of mental states of the speaker, in whom there is the intention to achieve such an effect on the partner (Grice 1989). Within this perspective, communication failure may be defined as an unsuccessful attempt on the part of the speaker to modify the partner’s mental states in the desired way. Failure repair then is a new attempt to produce the intended communicative effect. Traditionally, a major research perspective on the topic has been conversation analysis (CA). However, communication failures have received little attention in recent years.

Within a CA perspective, Schegloff et al. (1977) showed that a structural-based preference for self- versus other-initiation of repair exists in turn-taking after a breakdown (see also Zahn 1984). Friedland and Miller (1998) also found that in brain-injured patients over 80 per cent of repairs were self-initiated. Fox and Jasperson (1995) classified different types of self-repair based on the operation included: repeating or recycling, replacing or substituting, adding or inserting, and abandoning or restarting. Self-repair is preferably initiated in the same turn where the trouble has occurred or in the ‘third turn to the trouble source turn’, i.e. the turn subsequent to the one which follows the trouble source (Schegloff et al. 1977; but see also Schegloff 1992, 1997a). Self-repair may be carried out in response to other-initiation of repair (Schegloff 2004). When the repair is initiated by the partner, it is almost always initiated in the turn that follows the trouble source (Schegloff 1997b). Robinson (2006) has argued that the ‘meaning’ of other-initiated forms of repair can affect the speaker’s response. For example, if the trouble-source speaker understands himself to be blameworthy for the breakdown, he is more likely to correct, rather than merely repeat, the trouble source, and to engage in other types of accounting behaviours, such as apologizing.

CA aims at a descriptive analysis of communication failures, which it views as breakdowns or trouble occurring during conversation. More recently, some authors have proposed that a specific case of communication failure, misunderstanding, be viewed as an integral part of the comprehension process rather than just a breakdown (Dascal 1985; Weigand 1999). In line with such a perspective Bosco et al. (2006) have claimed that all communication failures, not only misunderstanding, integrally belong to the cooperative process (Grice 1957) in which agents are involved during communication. Within a cooperative model of communication, the replies received from a partner provide the speaker with the grounds on which to realize that a communicative attempt has failed. Recognizing that a failure has occurred provides in its turn a starting point for repair. Focusing on the complexity of the cognitive processes involved in failure recognition and repair and following the assumptions of cognitive pragmatics theory (Airenti et al. 1993; Bara 2008), Bosco et al. (2006) have proposed a taxonomy of the types of failures that may occur in communicative interaction. These are failure of the literal meaning, failure of the speaker’s meaning, and failure of the communicative effect (i.e. the partner’s refusal to accept a partner’s communication act). A failure may also involve a combination of two or all of these types. In order to achieve his or her communicative goal, and depending on the kind of failure that has occurred, a speaker may employ different repair strategies. A speaker may simply repeat what he or she said (in the case of failure of the expression act), reformulate what he or she said (in the case of failure of the speaker’s meaning) or change the content of what he or she said (in the case of failure of the communicative effect). This taxonomy allowed Bosco et al. (2006) to generate empirical hypotheses about the relative difficulty of recognizing and repairing different kinds of failure that were confirmed by empirical evidence obtained from 3- to 8-year-old children. In particular, it was found that it was easier for children to repair a failure of literal meaning than a failure of speaker’s meaning, whereas repair of communicative effect was the most difficult.

From a cognitive and developmental pragmatics perspective it is useful to keep in mind children’s performance, since it can offer suggestions on the increasing difficulty in the production of a specific pragmatic task. Direct observations of children show that in the prelinguistic phase their recovery strategy is essentially to persist in repeating the failed communicative act (Alexander et al. 1997). Use of this strategy tends to decrease as the child gets older (Garvey 1984) and becomes capable of distinguishing different types of failure and of adopting a fitting repair strategy (Marcos 1991). During the second year of life children become able to perform two different kinds of verbal repair: repetition and modification. In particular, they just repeat their request when the adult replies with a neutral query. They give a more specific version of it in response to a specific query from the adult (Anselmi et al. 1986) and reformulate it when the adult replies with a simple declarative comment (Wilcox and Webster 1980). Children also appear to adopt a repair strategy suitable to the type of failure that has occurred. When their mother misunderstands a request (rather than refuses to comply with it), children try to clarify it rather than simply repeat it (Marcos and Kornhaber-le Chanu 1992). Thus, while repetition appears to be the easiest strategy for recovery, the use of more sophisticated and appropriate strategies appears to be an early acquisition.

A very early version of communication failure, rooted more in the failed realization of the infant’s expectation of a certain action on the part of the mother than in the actual failure of a communicative attempt on the part of the infant, has been claimed to play a role in the development of theory of mind (ToM) and Gricean communication (Tirassa et al. 2006). In general, the possible relation between ToM and the ability to recognize and repair communication failures appears to be a particularly interesting topic. It has been suggested that when an agent – be it a young child (Golinkoff 1986, 1993) or an adult (Feldman and Kalmar 1996) – repairs a communication failure, he or she usually adapts his or her strategy to take the partner’s perspective into account. In line with this hypothesis, children with autism, a condition which has been claimed to be associated with an impaired ToM (Baron-Cohen et al. 1985), appear to experience communication failures more frequently than their typically developing peers (see Keen 2003). However, Volden’s (2004) study of the problem yielded ambiguous results. On the one hand, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) performed similarly to controls in responding to requests for clarification. They used more flexible and increasingly complex repair strategies according to whether they had received a neutral request, a request for clarification, or a semistructured prompt (‘Tell me in another way’) from an interlocutor. On the other hand, ASD children also produced a greater number of inappropriate replies than the controls.

The symptomatology of schizophrenia, another psychiatric disorder, has been explained on the basis of a ToM impairment (Frith 1992). Children suffering from schizophrenia have been described as using self-initiated repair strategies like repetition, revision and fillers less frequently than normally developed children (Caplan et al. 1996). Adults suffering from the same disorder have been described as attempting to self-repair their messages inadequately during a referential communication task (Leudar et al. 1992). Docherty (2005) used the Communicative Disturbances Index (Docherty et al. 1996) to measure different kinds of failures during a natural conversation in a group of adult schizophrenic patients. These investigators found that these patients experienced more trouble than controls.

To conclude, notwithstanding the importance of understanding communication failure, recent literature on the topic does not abound. Further studies are needed to understand more deeply the nature and role of the various cognitive processes involved in the ability to recognize and recover communication failures. The study of recoveries in relation to the type of failure that occurs appears to be a promising perspective.



See also


Discourse; Discourse analysis; Gestural communication; Inference; Inferential comprehension; Schizophrenic language.



Suggestions for further reading


Bazzanella, C. (ed.) (1996) Repetition in Dialogue, Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Bosco, F.M., Bucciarelli, M. and Bara, B.G. (2006) ‘Recognition and recovery of communicative failures: a developmental perspective’, Journal of Pragmatics, 38: 1398-1429.

Schegloff, E.A. (1992) ‘Repair after next turn: the last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation’, American Journal of Sociology, 97: 1295-1345.





Airenti, G., Bara, B.G. and Colombetti, M. (1993) ‘Failures, exploitations and deceits in communication’, Journal of Pragmatics, 20: 303–26.

Alexander, D., Wetherby, A. and Prizant, B. (1997) ‘The emergence of repair strategies in infants and toddlers’, Seminars in Speech and Language, 18: 197-212.

Anselmi, D., Tomasello, M. and Acunzo, M. (1986) ‘Young children’s responses to neutral and specific contingent queries’, Journal of Child Language, 14: 135–44.

Bara, B.G. (2008) Cognitive Pragmatics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M. and Frith, U. (1985) ‘Does the autistic child have a theory of mind?’, Cognition, 21: 37-46.

Bosco, F.M., Bucciarelli, M. and Bara, B.G. (2006) ‘Recognition and recovery of communicative failures: a developmental perspective’, Journal of Pragmatics, 38: 1398-1429.

Caplan, R., Guthrie, D. and Komo, S. (1996) ‘Conversational repair in schizophrenic and normal children’, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35: 950-58.

Dascal, M. (1985) ‘The relevance of misunderstanding’, in M. Dascal (ed.) Dialogue: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Docherty, N.M. (2005) ‘Cognitive impairments and disordered speech in schizophrenia: thought disorder, disorganization and communicative failure perspectives’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114: 269-78.

Docherty, N.M., DeRosa, M. and Andreasen, N.C. (1996) ‘Communication disturbances in schizophrenia and mania’, Archives of General Psychiatry, 53: 358-64.

Feldman, C.F. and Kalmar, D. (1996) ‘You can't step in the same river twice: repair and repetition in dialogue’, in C. Bazzanella (ed.) Repetition in Dialogue, Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Fox, H. and Jasperson, R. (1995) ‘A syntactic exploration of repair in English conversation’, in P.W. Davis (ed.) Alternative Linguistics:Descriptive and Theoretical Modes, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Friedland, D. and Miller N. (1998) ‘Conversation analysis of communication breakdown after closed head injury’, Brain Injury, 1: 1-14.

Frith, C.D. (1992) The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Schizophrenia, Hove, UK and Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Garvey, C. (1984) Children’s Talk, New York: Fontana.

Golinkoff, R.M. (1986) ‘‘I beg your pardon?’: the preverbal negotiation of failed messages’, Journal of Child Language, 13: 455–76.

Golinkoff, R.M. (1993) ‘When is communication a ‘meeting of minds’’, Journal of Child Language, 20: 199-207.

Grice, H.P. (1957) ‘Meaning’, The Philosophical Review, 67: 377–88.

Grice, H.P. (1989) Studies in the Way of Words, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keen, D. (2003) ‘Communicative repair strategies and problem behaviours of children with autism’, International Journal of Disabilities, Development and Education, 50: 53-63.

Leudar, I., Thomas, P. and Johnston, M. (1992) ‘Self repair in dialogues of schizophrenics: effects of hallucinations and negative symptoms’, Brain and Language, 43: 487-511.

Marcos, H. and Kornhaber-le Chanu, M. (1992) ‘Learning how to insist and how to clarify in the second year’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 3: 359-77.

Marcos, H. (1991) ‘Reformulating requests at 18 months: gestures, vocalizations and words’, First Language, 11: 361–75.

Robinson, J.D. (2006) ‘Managing trouble responsibility and relationships during conversational repair’, Communication Monographs, 73: 137-61.

Schegloff, E.A. (1997a) ‘Third turn repair’, in G.R. Guy, C. Feagin, D. Schiffrin & J. Baugh (eds) Towards a Social Science of Language 2, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Schegloff, E.A. (1997b) ‘Practices and actions: boundary cases of other-initiated repair’, Discourse Processes, 23: 499-545.

Schegloff, E.A. (2004) ‘On dispensability’, Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37: 95-149.

Schegloff, E.A., Jefferson, G. and Sacks, H. (1977) ‘The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation’, Language, 53: 361-82.

Tirassa, M., Bosco, F.M. and Colle, L. (2006) ‘Rethinking the ontogeny of mindreading’, Consciousness and Cognition, 15: 197-217.

Volden, J. (2004) ‘Conversational repair in speakers with autism spectrum disorder’, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 39: 171-89.

Weigand, E. (1999) ‘Misunderstanding: the standard case’, Journal of Pragmatics, 31: 763–85.

Wilcox, J. and Webster, E.J. (1980) ‘Early discourse behavior: an analysis of children’s responses to listener feed-back’, Child Development, 51: 1120–25.

Zahn, C. (1984) ‘A reexamination of conversational repair’, Communication Monographs, 51: 56-66.