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Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

The Nature of Narratives of Personal Experience

(These notes summarize Labov '97, often quoting directly. Read Labov anyway!)

Personal narrative is not the same as classic storytelling – it is not elaborated, entertainment spun out of nothing, or made up. It deals with important events in its teller’s life simply and seriously. Examples are told in sociolinguistic interviews: the interviewer is an interested, attentive and responsive audience. Though often given in response to a question, narratives are monologues and tend to be decontextualized. Such narratives are not interactive, fitted to illustrate an argument, or co-constructed and contested by others present. It has been evaluated and transformed from the raw experiences that form its substance.

A narrative of personal experience is a report of a sequence of events that have

entered into the biography of the speaker by a sequence of clauses that

correspond to the order of the original events.

Temporal Structure

Two clauses are separated by a temporal juncture if a reversal of their order results in a change in the listener's interpretation of the order of the events described.

A minimal narrative must contain at least one temporal juncture.

a temporal

juncture. All sequential clauses are independent clauses. [In English] All sequential clauses are in the realis mood, headed by verbs in the preterit tense, past progressive, or the present tense with the semantic

A sequential clause is a clause that



an element of

interpretation of a preterit (historical present).

A narrative clause consists of a sequential clause [the head] with all subordinate

clauses that are dependent upon it.

Narrative/Labov notes – page 1 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

The range of a narrative clause is the set of narrative clauses between the first preceding and next following temporal juncture.

[In Labov’s transcription conventions, the narrative range is indicated by a left subscript indicating the number of preceding narrative clauses the particular clause is simultaneous with, and the right subscript the number of following clauses. The range is then the sum of the two.]

A free clause is a clause which refers to a condition that holds true during the

entire narrative (i.e. one with maximum range). A free clause is thus defined semantically, not syntactically; it cannot serve as a sequential clause in that narrative in which it is free.

A [temporally] bound clause is an independent clause with a range of zero (minimum). All bound clauses are sequential clauses.

A restricted clause is a narrative clause with a range greater than 0 (but less

than the maximum). Narratives are thus sets of bound, restricted and free


[We can then rewrite any narrative to show the temporal ranges and classes of narrative clauses. Quotations with multiple clauses are resolved into individual sequential actions. In narrative, actions frequently overlap, while quotations rarely do. ]

Types of narrative clauses

An abstract is an initial clause in a narrative that reports the entire sequence of events of the narrative.

[Eg 'Losing the Ring' b: "He gave me the boot"]

An orientation clause gives information on the time or place of the events of a narrative, the identities of the participants and/or their initial behavior.

[Eg 'The 60cc Yamaha', a-e: "I had a few drinks…"]

Narrative/Labov notes – page 2 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

A clause of complicating action is a sequential clause that reports a next event

in response to a potential question, "And what happened [then]?" All sequential clauses are clauses of complicating action and all clauses of complicating action are sequential.

The resolution of a personal narrative is the set of complicating actions that follow the most reportable event.

[Eg 'The 60cc Yamaha', s: "And the guys said"]

A coda is a final clause which returns the narrative to the time of speaking,

precluding a potential question, "And what happened then?"

[Eg 'Losing the Ring', m: "And nn-ow he goes out with some other girl…"]

If a narrative is a report of events that occurred, why do we find clauses in narratives that do none of these things – sentences headed by negatives, futures and modals* in narratives?


of a narrative event is information on the consequences of the event for human needs and desires. [Not a linguistic concept, but social/emotional.]

An evaluative clause provides evaluation of a narrative event. A narrative clause in an irrealis mood* is an evaluative clause. A narrator evaluates events by comparing them with events in an alternative reality that was not in fact realized. Evaluation is characteristically concentrated in an evaluation section [a group of clauses of a common functional type], placed just before the most highly evaluated action, or 'point' of the narrative, which function to suspend the forward motion of events.

(Quotations in a narrative, as speech acts, may be evaluative; seemingly neutrally-phrased events may turn out on inspection to conceal evaluation. Sentence grammar provides the most direct clues to evaluation.)

Narrative/Labov notes – page 3 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554


Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

Telling a narrative requires a person to occupy more social space than in other conversational exchanges. The narrative must carry enough interest for the audience to justify this action. Otherwise, an implicit or explicit "So what?" is in order, with the implication that the speaker has violated social norms.

In Sacks' approach, the problem is not seen as one of "holding the floor," but rather of controlling the assignment of speaker (backchannels are taken as turns of talk). How/why does a narrator get the floor back after even such a minimal turn as a back-channel?

1) Successful completion of a narrative requires automatic re-assignment of speaker role to the narrator after a following turn of talk if the narrative is not completed in that turn.

2) A narrative must be introduced by a speech act which informs listener than automatic reassignment to the narrator will be required.

3) Listeners must have a reliable means of recognizing the end of narratives.

4) To be an acceptable social act, a narrative must be accepted as justifying the automatic re-assignment of turns to the narrator.

A reportable event is thus one which justifies the automatic reassignment of

speaker role to the narrator. To be an acceptable social act, a narrative of personal experience must contain at least one reportable event.

A most reportable event is the event that is less common than any other in a

narrative and has the greatest effect upon the needs and desires of the participants in the narrative [i.e., is evaluated most strongly]. A narrative of

personal experience is essentially a narrative of the most reportable event [normally reflected in the abstract].

Narrative/Labov notes – page 4 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554


Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

The credibility of a narrative is the extent to which listeners believe that the events described actually occurred in the form described by the narrator.

Credibility is inversely correlated with reportability. The more reportable the events of a narrative, the more effort the narrator must devote to establishing credibility. A serious narrative which does not achieve credibility is considered to have failed; the narrator’s claim to re-assignment of speakership will then be seen as invalid. The narrator will suffer a loss of status which will affect future claims to speaker rights.


Narrative construction is equivalent to assigning a personal theory of causality:

1. The narrator first selects a most reportable event e 0 , which the narrative is going to be about.

2. The narrator then selects a prior event e -1 which is the efficient cause of e 0 , that is answers the question about e 0 , "How did that happen?"

3. The narrator continues the process of step 2, recursively, until an

event e -n is reached for which the question of step 2 is not appropriate (the orientation, i.e. behavior which the narrator represents as typical and customary). Selection of the orientation is thus the crucial interpretive act of the narrator.

Example from Shambaugh’s narrative:



Orientation: Shambaugh & his shipmates were sitting at a table drinking.



[For no known reason,] a Norwegian sailor came to complain to Shambaugh about a non-existent condition.



[Because there was no basis for the complaint,] Shambaugh rejected the complaint.

Narrative/Labov notes – page 5 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000



[Because there was nothing further to be said,] Shambaugh turned his back on the sailor.



[Because Shambaugh had turned his back to the sailor,] the sailor was able to cut Shambaugh's throat.

The narrator and the audience inevitably assign praise and blame to actors for the actions reported (and inferred). This happens in a wide variety of ways, but notably includes evaluation, invention or deletion of events, etc. It’s rarely made explicit – rather it’s part of the underlying ideological framework. Thus a shared moral framework is assumed between narrator & recipients, and the narrator's function is to affirm this accepted morality and expound local cultural norms. However, the effect of the narrative in transferring experience is relatively independent of the narrator's assignment of praise and blame.


The viewpoint of a narrative clause is the spatio-temporal domain from which the information conveyed by the clause could be obtained by an observer. In personal narratives, unlike literature, the events are always seen through the eyes of the narrator. There is no switching of viewpoints, changing of consciousness, or impersonal observation. The temporal sequence of events in oral narratives of personal experience follows the order in which the events became known to the narrator. There are no flashbacks in oral narratives of personal experience.


Narratives of upper middle class, university-educated speakers tend to report on the narrators' emotions. In contrast, many working class narrators are sparing in their reporting of subjective feelings.

Narrative/Labov notes – page 6 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

An objective event is one that became known to a narrator through sense experience. A subjective event is one that the narrator became aware of through memory, emotional reaction or internal sensation. Since it is generally agreed that narrators' observations can be affected by their internal states, reports of objective events are more credible than reports of subjective events. The transfer of experience of an event to listeners occurs to the extent that they become aware of it as if it were their own experience. To the extent that narrators add subjective reports of their emotions to the description of an objective event, listeners become aware of that event as if it were the narrator's experience. Thus, the objectivity of the description of an event is a necessary condition for the transfer of experience in personal narrative.


The most reportable event is the semantic and structural pivot on which the narrative is organized. The capacity of a narrative to transfer the experience of the narrator to the audience depends upon the unique and defining property of personal narrative, that events are experienced as they first became known to the narrator. Transfer of experience to listeners is only possible if the narrator reports events as objective experience without reference to the narrator's emotional reactions. A narrative can be viewed as a theory of the causes of the most reportable event, so that the crucial interpretive act is the location of the orientation as the situation that does not require an explicit cause. The chain of causal events selected in the narrative is intimately linked with the assignment of praise and blame for the actions reported. In this view, narrative is a theory of moral behavior and the narrator is an exponent of

cultural norms.

References Labov, Wm. 1972b. "The transformation of experience in narrative syntax." In Language in the inner city. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Narrative/Labov notes – page 7 of 8

Sociolinguistic Methods U. of Essex / LG 554

Peter L. Patrick Autumn 2000

Labov, Wm. 1982. "Speech actions and reactions in personal narrative." In

Deborah Tannen, ed., Analyzing discourse: Text and talk. Georgetown

University Press. Labov, W. 1997. ‘Some further steps in narrative analysis.’ Journal of Narrative

& Life History 7: 395-415.

Querie s

Susan: In Labov's (1997) online article, he was talking about Quotations as being Evaluative. and I understood that, but then in his description 1'', he had:

CA oKo "[and he said] Your throat's cut." so he lists it as Complicating Action -- and I don't understand why.

PLP: Ok, let's look more carefully! The narrative has 4 quotations, in lines g, h, j, and k. Two are CA, two are EV. My take is this. A reported utterance is an event, therefore always potentially CA. But sometimes trivially so. And sometimes, much more importantly than being an event (and in fact often, we can assume or work out that the utterance didn't actually OCCUR at the time), it is evaluative. (As I understand it, the utterance can be both, but is classified as to which is more critical to interpretation-- this is all about interpretation.) Line (g) is a simple imperative. A command speech act, which must have a consequent ACTION in this interaction. Thus CA. Line (j) is a NEGative imperative, which as Labov discusses "evaluates the situation in comparison with one where it would be safe for Shambaugh to move his head". Evaluation is "information on the consequences of the event for human needs and desires", so this imperative is EV. A similar account can be given for line (h): the utterance expresses to the listener (and also, if it was actually said, to the participants in the storyworld) the narrator/actor's attitude towards the guy he shoved. Notice that the essential action of the story could have proceeded identically if this clause had not been included, unlike line g. Line (k), finally, reveals the central event of the narrative through a reported utterance: the sailor cut his throat. Thus, it's CA.

Narrative/Labov notes – page 8 of 8