Refusals: Functions and Classifications

Functions of Refusals

Refusals can be used in response to:

  • Requests
  • Invitations
  • Offers
  • Suggestions

In response to requests, invitations, offers, and suggestions, acceptance or agreement are usually preferred, and refusing or rejecting are not. Refusals and rejections can mean disapproval of the interlocutor's idea and therefore, a threat to the interlocutor's face. While acceptance or agreement tend to be used in direct language without much delay, mitigation, or explanation, refusals tend to be indirect, include mitigation, and/or delay within the turn or across turns. The delay probably shows that the refuser has a good reason for refusing and may imply that the refuser would accept or agree instead if it were possible or practical.

Refusals often include explanations/reasons why such refusals are necessary. Refusal strategies function to reassure the recipient of the refusal that s/he is still approved of but that there are necessary reasons for the refusal, and that the refuser regrets the necessity for the refusal. Such various refusal strategies include those listed below.

Classification of Refusal Strategies

Refusals can be classified into two categories:

I. Direct

  1. Using performative verbs (I refuse)
  2. Non performative statement
    • "No"
    • Negative willingness/ability (I can't./I won't./I don't think so)

II. Indirect

  1. Statement of regret (I'm sorry.../I feel terrible...)
  2. Wish (I wish I could help you...)
  3. Excuse, reason, explanation (My children will be home that night./I have a headache)
  4. Statement of alternative
    • I can do X instead of Y (I'd rather.../I'd prefer...)
    • Why don't you do X instead of Y (Why don't you ask someone else?)
  5. Set condition for future or past acceptance (If you had asked me earlier, I would have...)
  6. Promise of future acceptance (I'll do it next time./I promise I'll.../Next time I'll...)
  7. Statement of principle (I never do business with friends.)
  8. Statement of philosophy (One can't be too careful.)
  9. Attempt to dissuade interlocutor
    • Threat or statement of negative consequences to the requester (I won't be any fun tonight to refuse an invitation)
    • Guilt trip (waitress to customers who want to sit a while: I can't make a living off people who just order coffee.)
    • Criticize the request/requester (statement of negative feeling or opinion; insult/attack (Who do you think you are?/That's a terrible idea!)
    • Request for help, empathy, and assistance by dropping or holding the request
    • Let interlocutor off the hook (Don't worry about it./That's okay. / You don't have to.)
    • Self-defense (I'm trying my best./I'm doing all I can do.)
  10. Acceptance that functions as a refusal
    • Unspecific or indefinite reply
    • Lack of enthusiasm
  11. Avoidance
    • Nonverbal
      • Silence
      • Hesitation
      • Doing nothing
      • Physical departure
    • Verbal
      • Topic switch
      • Joke
      • Repetition of part of request (Monday?)
      • Postponement (I'll think about it.)
      • Hedge (Gee, I don't know./I'm not sure.

Above passages from Beebe et al. (1990).

>> Adapted version of the refusal classification (American graduate students' rejections in academic advising sessions).

Adjuncts to Refusals

  1. Statement of positive opinion/feeling or agreement (That's a good idea.../I'd love to...)
  2. Statement of empathy (I realize you are in a difficult situation.)
  3. Pause fillers (uhh/well/oh/uhm)
  4. Gratitude/appreciation

Above passages from Beebe et al. (1990).

Refusal Sequences

Refusals can be seen as a series of the following sequences.

  1. Pre-refusal strategies: these strategies prepare the addressee for an upcoming refusal
  2. Main refusal (Head Act): this strategy expresses the main refusal.
  3. Post-refusal strategies: these strategies follow the head act and tend to emphasize, justify, mitigate, or conclude the refusal response.

For instance, a refusal example below shows an instance of a refusal sequence to a boss' request for an employee to stay at work two extra hours.


I was wondering if you might be able to stay a bit late this evening, say, until about 9:00 pm or so.

  Response Refusal-sequences Strategy
Employee: Uh, I'd really like to [PRE-REFUSAL] ~ Willingness
  but I can't [HEAD ACT] ~ Direct refusal
  I'm sorry [POST-REFUSAL] ~ Apology/Regret
  I have plans [POST-REFUSAL] ~ Reason/Explanation
  I really can't stay [POST-REFUSAL] ~ Direct refusal



Beebe, L. M., Takahashi, T, & Uliss-Weltz, R. (1990). Pragmatic transfer in ESL refusals. In R. Scarcella, E. Andersen, S. D. Krashen (Eds.), On the Development of Communicative Competence in a Second Language (pp. 55-73). New York: Newbury House.


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