Invitations in American English


Conversational partners usually attempt to maximize acceptance (a preferred response) and minimize rejection (a dispreferred response). To achieve this goal, invitations are often foreshadowed before being uttered directly. For example, pre-invitations, such as “Do you have any plans next Friday?” or “Are you busy tonight?” are often used to establish preparatory conditions prior to invitations.

Laura: Hey!
Stanley: Hi.
Laura: What are you up to tonight?
Stanley: Not too much.
Laura: Do you wanna get some food later?
Stanley: Sure.
Laura: Great!

(See Schegloff, 2007, p. 30; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 80 for additional examples.*)

Eric: So what are your plans for the weekend?
Natalie: Oh I’m not sure. I was thinking of seeing a movie
      with some friends, but I don’t really have anything
      planned yet.

Eric: Cool, so what if I asked you to get lunch or coffee
      some time?

Natalie: Sure! That’d be fun!

(See Drew, 1984, p. 133; Wong and Waring, 2010, pp. 80-81 for additional examples.*)

The notion of invitations overlaps with that of offers, in which the speaker presents a choice that is potentially beneficial to the listener. Below is an example of such cases (labeled “pre-offer”).

Kelly: I’m gonna go get some more water because I think
      Jim’s thirsty.

Karen: We have a few water bottles in the cooler.
Kelly: Oh, really?
Karen: Yep, wanna take one?
Kelly: Sure!

(See Schegloff, 2007, p. 35; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 81 for additional examples.*)

Responding to Pre-invitations

Three types of responses can be expected from the invitee (B) when a pre-invitation is issued: 1) go-ahead, 2) blocking, and 3) hedging.

  1. When B is interested, B can suggest availability so that A can give more information about it.
  2. A: What are you doing tonight?
    B: Nothing.

  3. If B is not interested in joining A, B could block the forthcoming invitation.
  4. A: What are you doing tonight?
    B: I’m having dinner with Craig.

  5. If B wants to keep his/her options open, B could use a hedging response, such as asking ‘why?,’ giving a weak rejection, or a pause. 

    A: What are you doing tonight?
    B: Why?

    A: What are you doing tonight?
    B: We’re going out. Why? 

    A: What are you doing?
    B: What am I doing? Um, I’m reading.

 (adapted from Drew, 1984, p. 132; Schegloff, 2007, pp. 30-31)

Thus, pre-invitations provide A the opportunity to measure B’s intention; if B hints at an interest in accepting it, A can move to the actual invitation, but if B hints at unavailability or shows a lack of interest, then A may opt out of the invitation. As a result, the chance of an actual rejection can be reduced.


Responding to Rejection

When the invitee (B) expresses unavailability, the inviter (A) may accept the rejection or continue to encourage acceptance of the offer:

  1. Go along with the rejection: A usually replies with a minimal response, such as “rejection finalizers” like ‘oh,’ ‘I see,’ or ‘okay.’
  2. A:  You want me to help you with anything?
    B:  No, no, nothing.
    A:  Okay.

  3. Encourage acceptance: In order to make the invitation more attractive and increase the chance for acceptance, A may modify or revise the initial invitation.      

    A:  You could come to my place to watch the game.
    B:  Nah, that’s okay. I’ll probably just watch it at home with my

    A:  I ordered a pizza and got some drinks.

    (See Davison, 1984, p. 108; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 84 for additional examples.*)

It is important to note that silence or a weak response can sometimes be a subtle sign of possible rejection:

A:  So the graduation party is on Saturday afternoon and
     most of the family will be there.

B:  Hmm
A:  So if you’ve got some time, you should stop by.

(See Davison, 1984, p. 113; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 84 for additional examples.*)

Revising Invitations

There are at least three ways to use “monitor space,” where potential acceptance or rejection can be identified before A makes the modified invitation:

  1. Tag-positioned components

    So do you wanna grab a bite to eat or something after class?

  2. Sound stretch

    A: So if you’ve got some ti:me you should stop by.
    B: I have a few errands to run but I’ll probably be able to make 

     :     prolonged sound

    (See Davison, 1984, p. 121; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 85 for additional examples.*)

  3. Sound stretch followed by a pause or filled pause (such as inbreathing, laughter)

    A: So I was just calling to see if you wanted to come over to
        watch a movie and maybe have some wi:ne = hh.

    B: That’s so weird! I was just going to stop by your place to see
        if you
    wanted to do something tonight.

     word     stress
     hh        (series of “h”s) aspiration or laughter
     :          prolonged sound
     =         latch or continuing speech with no break in between

(See Davison, 1984, pp. 122-123; Wong and Waring, 2010, p. 85 for additional examples.*)

Invitation sequences allow the inviter and invitee to gauge the other party’s intention, which consequently minimizes the possibility of rejection and maximizes its chance of acceptance.

*Note: The examples above were created by Kimberly Morris, but are all informed by authentic dialogues that have been documented in published research. Readers are encouraged to find the original references in the cited publications for additional authentic examples.


Classification and Examples of Genuine and Ostensible Invitations in English

Invitations can be either genuine or ostensible. There are two main functions for genuine invitations. They can indicate the speaker’s commitment to do something favorable for the listener. They can also serve as requests made by the speaker for the listener to do something. In contrast, functions of ostensible invitations include: play acting, irony, sarcasm, facetiousness, teasing, or simply a response in accordance with the appropriate social rule.

In genuine invitations, the inviter A sincerely wishes the invitee B to attend an event, while in ostensible invitations neither A nor B intends to take the invitation seriously.

In ostensible invitations, A does not wish B to come, but A will accept if B decides to attend the event. This type of invitation can also be described as insincere or ambiguous. However, there is no lying or deceiving in ostensible invitations, because the pretense is mutually understood by both parties. Such non-serious use of language is fairly common in ordinary English discourse.

Here is an example of an ostensible invitation. On Friday evening, Ross called Cathy to cancel his date because his plans for the weekend had changed:

Ross:   Cathy, Scott just called and told me that everyone is leaving
          tonight instead
of tomorrow. So I guess we’re going to go a
          night early. Do you want to
Cathy: That’s all right. I’ll pass.
Ross:   Okay.

There are five main properties of ostensible invitations:

    1. Pretense: A pretends to make a genuine invitation. In the above example, Ross pretended to make a genuine invitation by uttering “Do you want to come?”

    2. Mutual recognition:  Both A and B recognize the pretense in the invitation. For example, Ross and Cathy know that the invitation was superficial.

    3. Collusion: B responds appropriately to A’s pretense. Cathy declines Ross’s pretense invitation, knowing that it was a pretense move, thus colluding with Ross.

    4. Ambivalence: When A is asked for the invitation confirmation, s/he is unable to give an honest answer of either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If Cathy asked Ross “Do you really mean it?” to his ostensible invitation, Ross would not be able to give a straight answer. “Yes” would have been untrue because he didn’t exactly want Cathy’s to come, but “no” would also have been untrue because he didn’t completely object her not coming with him.

    5. Off-record purpose: A’s main purpose is implied. On-record purpose in the above case is that Ross cancels the date with Cathy and makes an ostensible invitation, which is declined by Cathy. Underneath this surface level interaction, Ross implies that he would like to be with Cathy if the situation were different, while Cathy assures him that she is not offended by the cancellation of the date. Here, the awkwardness of making the implied purpose explicit is being avoided by not revealing it directly.

Furthermore, A can use several techniques to let B know that the invitation is a pretense. Seven such features that distinguish genuine from ostensible invitations have been identified. Speakers design ostensible invitations using these features in order to establish mutual understanding of the pretense:

  1. A extends an invitation when B is unlikely to accept it

    In genuine invitations, A normally believes that B would like to go to an event when an invitation is issued. However, in ostensible invitations A may invite B, although A knows that B is unlikely or unable to accept it. In such a case, A may hedge or hint to B about some unfavorable condition when B asks for more information, to show that the invitation is an ostensible one:

        Sherri: Elaine, are you going to stay here and study?
        Elaine: Well, I wasn’t planning to, but –
        Sherri: Do you want to come along?

    Sherri’s first line highlights that Elaine was busy, yet Sherri proceeded with the invitation anyway. Unlike pre-invitations in an ordinary invitation, where favorable conditions are set up before an invitation is issued (e.g. “Are you busy tonight?”), unfavorable conditions could be established prior to ostensible invitations.

    [Research Note:]
    Forty-four percent of insincere invitations used such negative preparatory conditions, whereas only 7% were seen in genuine invitations.

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990. The data were collected from naturally occurring ostensible and genuine invitations, face-to-face interviews, and recordings of spontaneous telephone conversations.
  2. B solicits an invitation from A

    1. Through the context

      B can ask A questions which indicate that B has not been invited to the event. Since it is considered inappropriate to exclude someone from an upcoming event, B can hint to A that B is interested in the event by asking questions about it.

      Peter:   Guys, let’s get going! We’re gonna miss the preview before
      Wee’s Big Adventure.”
      Dan:    Where are you guys going? I mean, are you guys going

      Peter: Yeah, I’m going to University [Avenue] to check out the Pee
      Herman flick.
      Dan:   Is everyone else going, too?
      Peter: Well, not everyone. Paul, Phil, and Matt are.
      Dan:   I’ve heard it’s great! I’d like to see it sometime. Anyway…
      Peter: Well, uh, do you want to… uh, if you want to you can come. I
               mean it
      really doesn’t matter.

    2. Directly

      A would normally extend an invitation when A sees B’s desire to be invited. However, A may not predict B’s desire, in which case, B can solicit an invitation directly.

      Cliff:  That’s cool, Joey [Joey is playing his guitar]. Is that a different
              guitar or
      did you just string it backwards for your left hand
              [Joey is left-handed]?

      Joey: No, just strung it backwards.
      Cliff:  Lemme try it. This is weird trying to use them to hold down the

      Joey: Yeah.
      Cliff:  Well, Joey, you got some pretty good music up here. You ought
      teach me sometime.

  3. A does not encourage B to accept the invitation beyond social courtesy

    In most genuine invitations, where A wants B to attend the event, A would provide B reasons why B should accept A’s invitation by showing how attractive the event is for B.

    [Research Note:]
    Eighty-two percent of ostensible invitations did not encourage acceptance of the invitation, compared to 47% in genuine invitations.

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990.
  4. A does not urge B to accept the invitation

    In genuine invitations, an invitation may be offered by A a number of times before it is accepted by B. In contrast, A could accept B’s first polite rejection of the ostensible invitation without extending it further.

    [Research Note:]
    The data in American English shows that A did not give a second invitation in 82% of ostensible cases, while the number was 26% for genuine invitations.

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990.
  5. A does not provide clear details about logistics

    Another characteristic difference between the two types of invitations is a request for response, followed by a reference to time, place, or activity. In the example below, the speaker genuinely wishes to have lunch with the listener.

    Do you want to              have lunch    tomorrow?
    (Request for response)     (activity)       (time)

    On the other hand, A commonly does not specify arrangements in ostensible invitations.

    We should get together for lunch sometime.

    [Research Note:]
    Logistics were vague in 69% of the insincere invitations, as opposed to 8% in genuine invitations.

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990.
  6. The invitation is hedged by A

    A may use hedges in ostensible invitations to show the lack of keenness with expressions like ‘well,’ ‘I guess,’ and ‘I mean.’

    [Research Note:]
    These types of hedges were used at least once in 42% of insincere invitations, whereas only 19% were identified in genuine invitations..  

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990.
  7. A delivers the invitation with subtle cues

    Ostensible invitations can be recognized not only by linguistic features but also by nonlinguistic signs, such as mumbling, hesitation, a pause, avoiding eye contact, a repair, speaking quickly, a body posture indicating unwillingness, and intonation suggesting unwillingness.

    [Research Note:]
    Sixty-one percent of ostensible invitations included one or more of these cues, while they were found in only 1% of genuine invitations.

    From Isaacs & Clark, 1990.

Invitation Sequences

Both genuine and ostensible invitations are often initiated with such pre-invitations. Nonetheless, the purpose of this move differs for the two invitation types.

In genuine invitations, pre-invitations are normally used to create conditions that seem encouraging so that A can prepare B to hear the invitation:

A:  Do you have plans tonight?
B:  Not really. What’s up?
A:  Would you like to go to a movie?

In ostensible invitations, on the other hand, pre-invitations are used to emphasize B’s inability to accept the invitation. However, A issues the invitation regardless of the unfavorable conditions:

Sherri:  Elaine, are you going to stay here and study?
Elaine:  Well, I wasn’t going to, but…
Sherri:  Do you want to come along?

[Research Note:]
From Isaacs & Clark, 1990. The data were collected from naturally occurring ostensible and genuine invitations, face-to-face interviews, and recordings of spontaneous telephone conversations.



Davison, J. (1984). Subsequent versions of invitations, offers, requests, and proposals dealing with potential or actual rejection. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. 102-128). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drew, P. (1984). Speakers' reporting in invitation sequences. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. 129-151). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eslami, Z. R. (2005). Invitations in Persian and English: Ostensible or genuine? Intercultural Pragmatics, 2(4), 453-480.

Isaacs, E. A., & Clark, H. H. (1990). Ostensible invitations. Language in Society, 19(4), 493-509.

Schegloff, E. A. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction: A primer in conversation analysis (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolfson, N. 1989. Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Wong, J., & Waring, H. Z. (2010). Conversation analysis and second language pedagogy: A guide for ESL/ EFL teachers. London: Routledge.

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