Discourse markers

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The term discourse markers encompasses one of two types of lexical items, as linguists use the term varyingly. This Wiki uses the term discourse particles for the first category, and discourse marker or connectors for the second, broader category.

Discourse particles are extrasyntactic particles, i.e., items that don't fit into normal categories of function words, and don't really form or belong to a typical syntactic constituent. These often occur sentence initially, and sometimes sentence finally or before certain types of constituents within a sentence. These include:

  • Pause markers, fillers, or hesitatives, e.g., uh, uhm, er
  • Information management markers, indicating that something is new to the speaker, that the speaker believes something is new, old, or inferrable to the listener, such as you know, gee, gosh, I mean.
  • Expectation" markers, indicating that responses that are contrary to expectation, including unexpected topic shifts, such as now, well.
  • Sentence final particles in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other languages, such as interrogative, suggestive, and tag question particles (e.g., Mandarin ma, ba, ne).
  • The common colloquial particle like, especially among younger people, which is often treated as a focus marker (for new or contrastive information) or a hedge marker (a pragmatic softener).

Discourse markers, i.e., discourse connectors or connectives: conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and other structures that connect sentential units and thoughts (excluding temporal and irrealis conjunctions such as if, when, unless, before...).

These have often been neglected in linguistics and in second language education, but started to receive attention from the 1980s from pragmatics researchers. They are of interest to linguists due to their functions or the issues that they raise:

  1. Semantic and pragmatic properties of particles and connectives
  2. Their role in information structure, possibly leading eventually, someday, to a well developed linguistic model of information structure
  3. How they affect or participate in information structure of language, and how they inform more sophisticated theories of information structure beyond the simple new/old information distinction.
  4. How they might affect psycholinguistic processing of language, as measured, for example, in reaction time experiments and comprehensions experiments.
  5. How they differ cross-linguistically, and how cross-linguistic differences might shed light on their semantic and pragmatic properties.
  6. How their use might be affected by or play a role in social cognitive aspects of language use.
  7. Their historical pragmatic development in the language.
  8. What sentence-initial and sentence-final markers can show us about the properties of the left and right peripheries of sentences.
  9. The unique and common usage of sentence final particles in East Asian languages.

See also: teaching discourse markers