Russian Particle –to as a Marker of Misplacement

Galina Bolden, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper analyzes the use of Russian particle -to in turns of talk that initiate sequences of actions (i.e., first parts of question-answer, request-compliance, offer-acceptance, and other sequences). Drawing on approximately fifty hours of recorded and transcribed naturally occurring telephone and face-to-face conversations and using the methodology of conversation analysis (see e.g., Heritage, 1984; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974), I show that the particle marks the current turn as being misplaced or delayed vis-à-vis where it should have been appropriately launched. Two senses of misplacement are considered: one is “structural,” dealing with the conventional ways in which conversation is organized; the other is “normative,” which is meant to refer to the speaker’s judgment about the question’s importance relative to its placement in the conversation.

This paper will focus on the use of -to as a marker of the turn’s structural misplacement relative to the organization of action sequences. In sequence-initiating turns (also known as first-pair parts of adjacency pair sequences), the particle indicates that the action embodied in the turn is connected not to the action in the immediately preceding turn but to the action in a prior turn. While this description may appear similar to the characterization of -to as a marker of theme, old information, or old topic suggested in previous research (e.g., Битехтин, 1994; Bonnot, 1987, 1990; McCoy, 2001; Vasilyeva, 1972), I will demonstrate that the difference between “topic” and “action trajectory” is crucial to our understanding of the particle’s functioning. A detailed, action-sensitive analysis of extended sequences of talk will show that -to-marked turns advance an old course of action (even if they are not about a previously discussed topic) while unmarked turns in comparative environments start a new course of action (even if they return to a prior topic). Thus, -to is used in turns that advance an old action trajectory rather than an old topic.

The paper represents the first conversation analytic study of Russian and illustrates the importance of action-sensitive approach to studying discourse particles and other linguistic resources. 


Битехтин, А. Б. Частицы ТО, ЖЕ, ВЕДЬ и вводные конструкции типа КАК ИЗВЕСТНО как средства указания на известность пропозиционального содержания предложения слушающему. Докторская диссертация, Московский государственный университет, Москва, 1994.

Bonnot, C.  “-To particule de rappel et de thématisation.” In Les particules énonciatives en russe contemporain Vol. 2, (1987): 113-171.

---.  “La particule -to et la polémique chachée en russe moderne: A propos du statut énuonciatif du thème.” Revue Des Études Slaves, LXII:1-2 (1990): 67-75.

Heritage, J.  Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. New York: Polity Press, 1984.

McCoy, S. G. Colloquial Russian particles -TO, ZHE, and VED' as set-generating ("kontrastive") markers: A unifying analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University, 2001.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G.  “A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation.” Language, 50 (1974): 696-735.

Vasilyeva, A. N. Particles in colloquial Russian. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972.