Legal talk: Socio-pragmatic aspects of legal talk: police interviews and trial discourse

Elizabeth Holt, Alison Johnson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Probably the most distinctive and most widespread linguistic feature of legal talk is the question – in both interrogative and declarative form and across a range of forensic settings: emergency calls to the police (Drew and Walker, this volume), police interviews (Aldridge; Benneworth; Haworth; this volume), lawyer and client interactions (Kozin 2008) and examination and cross-examination in court (Ehrlich; Felton Rosulek; Heffer; this volume). Lay interactants are largely controlled by and at the mercy of questions from professionals in dyadic legal encounters: a caller to a 999 or 911 number; an interviewee in a police interview; a witness in a trial. Any examination of legal talk must therefore involve an analysis of what is accomplished interactionally through the use of questions, including accounting for the effects of forensic questioning on the lay interactant. Syntactic and formal features of questioning are important aspects of any linguisticanalysis. However, our focus in this chapter is not merely on form, but on the pragmatic effects of legal talk in two important interactional contexts: police interviews and criminal trials. Pragmatic, social and inferential meaning-making is significant for both the institutional and the lay speaker, and what is done through questions and answers is particularly clear in cross-examination, as our first example (1) from Brennan (1994) illustrates. This syntactically complex cross-examination question is directed to a child; embedded clauses are shown by the use of square brackets (our addition).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics
EditorsMalcolm Coulthard, Alison Johnson
Place of PublicationAbingdon & New York
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9780203855607
ISBN (Print)9780415463096, 9780415837231
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2010

Publication series

NameRoutledge Handbooks in Applied Linguistics


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