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Book Chapter

Social agency and grammar

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Rossi, G., & Zinken, J. (2017). Social agency and grammar. In N. J. Enfield, & P. Kockelman (Eds.), Distributed agency: The sharing of intention, cause, and accountability (pp. 79-86). New York: Oxford University Press.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-E628-9
One of the most conspicuous ways in which people distribute agency among each other is by asking another for help. Natural languages give people a range of forms to do this, the distinctions among which have consequences for how agency is distributed. Forms such as imperatives (e.g. ‘pass the salt’) and recurrent types of interrogatives (e.g. ‘can you pass the salt?’) designate another person as the doer of the action. In contrast to this, impersonal deontic statements (e.g. ‘it is necessary to get the salt’) express the need for an action without tying it to any particular individual. This can generate interactions in which the identity of the doer must be sorted out among participants, allowing us to observe the distribution of agency in vivo. The case of impersonal deontic statements demonstrates the importance of grammar as a resource for managing human action and sociality.