The Grammarphobia Blog

Sentence interruptus

Q: Is there a word for making a habit of finishing someone else’s sentences?

A: Annoying? Bothersome? Irritating? Exasperating? We’ve known people who do this, and it bugs us mightily.  Before we can finish a sentence, they break in and finish it for us.

Is there a word for this? Not that we know of. But sociolinguists who specialize in conversational analysis have used various phrases to describe the phenomenon.

Some phrases we’ve seen are “interruptive conversational transitions,” “interruptive turns in talk-in interaction,” “aberration from the turn-taking rules,” “relaxation of turn-taking practices,” and “anticipatory completion of a speaking turn by another speaker.”

Language scholars who study the organization of conversation have offered various explanations for what a lay person would consider violations in the accepted turn-taking rules.

Gene Lerner, a sociologist who studies conversational analysis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says one reason listeners break in and finish sentences is to guide conversations in a desirable direction.

In “Finding ‘Face’ in the Preference Structures of Talk-in-Interaction,” a 1996 paper in Social Psychology Quarterly, Lerner puts it this way:

“The anticipatory completion of a speaking turn by another speaker can be used to preempt an emerging dispreferred action and change it into the alternative preferred action.”

Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, sees two kinds of interruptions in conversation: dominating and supportive.

In an introduction to “Interpreting Interruption in Conversation,” an essay in her 1994 book Gender and Discourse, Tannen distinguishes between interrupting and overlapping in conversation.

She says “high involvement style” conversation involves a lot of “cooperative overlap,” which she describes as “a listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation.”

Tannen says men often interrupt and dominate women in conversation, but she’s reluctant “to jump on the ‘men dominate women by interrupting them’ bandwagon.”

She writes that her research into the workings of conversation has shown that “one cannot simply count overlaps in a conversation, call them interruptions, and assign blame to the speaker whose voice prevails.”

We’ve seen many explanations for the finishing of another person’s sentence. Some language commentators believe that it’s a sign of intimacy; others that it’s a putdown.

And some chronic interrupters believe they have psychic powers that give them an uncanny ability to finish other people’s sentences.  

We find that finishing someone else’s sentences often involves impatience. The listener simply wants to hurry a slow talker along.

That reminds us of an old Bob and Ray routine in which Ray Goulding interviews Bob Elliot in the role of president and recording secretary of the Slow Talkers of America.

As Bob pauses between words, Ray jumps in with the next word, but Bob then changes his responses to make Ray’s guesses wrong.

We’ll finish this now before someone with psychic powers finishes it for us.

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