Discourse markers

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The term discourse markers encompasses several types of words and expressions. Here, the term discourse marker (DM) refers to a word or phrase that is used to manage the flow and structure of discourse. This includes logical connectors, also known as connectives or transitionals, such as but, thus, so, since. The DM category also refers to other discourse management devices such as there is/are, topic shift markers like as for, regarding, and sentence adverbs like Fortunately, .... It also includes the category of discourse particles such as okay, well, like, you know. However, the terms discourse marker and discourse particle have been used somewhat differently by different linguistics, sometimes interchangeably. Here, discourse markers refers to the broader category, while discourse particle refers to the aforementioned subcategory that has some unique properties.

1 Importance

Discourse markers, i.e., discourse connectors, connectives, or transitionals, consist of conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and other structures that connect sentential units and thoughts. Discourse connectors, also known as connectives or transitionals, are words that connect phrases, clauses, sentences, and ideas, such as but, and, so, then, although and numerous others. They are crucial for establishing coherence, or logical flow of sentences, clauses, and ideas, in written or spoken discourse. This overview page presents different linguistic categories of connectors. Other pages (forthcoming) will provide detailed lists of connectors, discussion of pedagogy, and problems of ESL/EFL students with English connectors. See also Swales & Feak (2004)[1]. Some pragmatic definitions of DMs may exclude temporal and irrealis or conterfactual conjunctions such as if, when, unless, before.

DMs 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.

2 Types

2.1 Logical connectors

These are semantic-pragmatic categories from more traditional genre-based approaches to writing instruction, based particularly on the genres or discourse forms of particular paragraph types. For more, see the connectors page.

Time and sequence and, then, afterward, later, next, thereafter
Addition and, also, too, in addition, besides, next
Repetition, emphasis as mentioned, the aforementioned, that is, that is to say, to repeat
Exception other than, except for, other than
Example e.g., for example, like, as, for instance, specifically
Reason, purpose because, since, in order to, due to
Result so, thus, as a result, hence, consequently, for this reason, therefore
Condition in case, if, whether, in case (of), unless
Concession (weaker contrast) but, yet, although, while, although
Contrast but, however, on the other hand, whereas
Comparison as, just as, likewise, in like manner, similarly
Summary in conclusion, in sum, overall, in summary
Enumeratives first, second, third, next, last

2.2 Adverbials

2.3 Conjunctive adverbs

These are adverbs that have taken on the function of conjoining clauses, e.g.:

  • however, furthermore, therefore, thus

2.3.1 Sentence adverbs

These adverbs, also known as sentential adverbs, express the speaker's assessment of the whole sentence, and are similar to (if not slightly overlapping with) the conjunctive adverbs. They are set apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma in writing, or a slight intonational rise or juncture in speaking. These can sometimes come at the end of the sentence, especially in colloquial style, as more of an afterthought without the nuance of emphasis.

  • Most common: Naturally, Incidentally, Thankfully, Regrettably, Fortunately, Apparently, Especially
  • Others: actually, apparently, basically, by the way, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, especially, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, hypothetically, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, oddly, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, unfortunately, wisely

For example:

  1. Apparently, an overwhelming majority in the Senate would be assured, if they can win seats in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Mississippi.
  2. Thankfully, the check arrived on time. Unfortunately, the package had been misdirected to the wrong city, and in the process the contents were damaged.

Compare this to the flow of a sentence like “...the contents were damaged, unfortunately” – in such a sentence, the adverb is added at the end, like an afterthought. A sentence adverb at the end tends to sound more colloquial, and as an afterthought, it has a bit more emphasis, which breaks the flow more.

2.3.2 Emphatic adverbs

These emphasize the particular word that they modify.

  • Even, only, merely, especially, particularly

The adverb especially is also used as a sentence adverb at the beginning of the sentence. However, if it modifies the whole sentence as a sentence adverb, this is colloquial or informal style, and is dispreferred in academic writing. In formal writing, it can occur sentence-initially only if it modifies a following adjective or other word. That is, especially sentence-initially is fine in formal style if used only as an emphatic adverb, not as a sentence adverb. If it is used as an emphatic sentence adverb, this interrupts the natural flow of academic prose, as it emphasizes and calls attention to the whole clause (like raising one's voice or typing in all capital letters - excessive emphasis on an entire clause). Instead, moving it to only modify a single word in the sentence, or replacing it with the less emphatic particularly / in particular would be better options.

  1. The information is various from the exchange rate and stock prices and to the current of national economy. Especially, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (colloquial)
  2. ... Economic predictions are especially useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (better academic style; especially is only an emphatic adverb, modifying only useful)
  3. ... In particular, economic predictions are useful for planning long-term economic policy for several reasons. (also better for academic style)

2.3.3 Topical adverbs

Some adverbials function like sentence adverbs, but also serve topic transitional functions, signalling a shift or focusing in topic. Topical adverbs (this is my own name for them – this is not a standard term) are somewhat similar to sentence adverbs, except that they function to identify or qualify the topic of the coming clause. This adverb is similar to a normal adverb within a sentence, but moved to the beginning to make the topic more explicit, to emphasize the speaker's point, to give it more prominence, to shift the topic to a new but somewhat related topic, or to avoid too many other adverbs inside the sentence.

  • Economically, this would be infeasible to implement while the markets are too unstable. (cf. "This would be economically infeasible to implement")
  • Politically, it would be unwise for the senator to suddenly propose such an outrageously expensive funding project at an economically depressed time as this.

Many words could be used like this, such as these, and many others, such as adverbs related to specific topics or fields of study:

  • scientifically, mathematically, artistically, financially, intellectually, philosophically, computationally, psychologically, economically, politically, intellectually, biologically, environmentally, presently, evolutionarily, emotionally

2.4 Discourse particles

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).

2.5 Topic management devices

2.5.1 Topic shift markers

Some words are used to manage shifts to new topics, or shifting back to previously mentioned topics (reshifts). In colloquial English and narratives, now can be used for new topics or reshifts; anyway can be used colloquially for reshifts. In various kinds of contexts, as to, as for, as regards, regarding, etc. can be used for reshifts, but in academic writing these are less common; one should be careful not to overuse these to avoid sounding stylistically too mechanical, artificial, colloquial, or formulaic.

  • Now, as I was saying...
  • As for the unresolved matter of late orders, we've decided to consult with the home office.
  • As regards your proposal, we currently cannot undertake such a complex project.

2.5.2 Presentational there is/are

Sentences beginning with there is or there are function to present or introduce new topics (e.g., sentence subjects) to the discussion.

  • There's a unicorn in my garden!
  • There's not much that can be done about this problem.

This is more common in informal writing or conversation. In academic writing, there is/are is less commonly used. Instead, academic writers simply start a new sentence with a full noun subject, or begin a new paragraph for a more significant topic shift.

  • The situation seems serious, but unfortunately, not much can be done about this problem at this time.

This is more common in informal writing or conversation. In academic writing, there is/are is less commonly used. Instead, academic writers simply start a new sentence with a full noun subject, or begin a new paragraph for a more significant topic shift.

  • The situation seems serious, but unfortunately, not much can be done about this problem at this time. There + intransitive verb

There is also used for shifts in topics or in the focus of the flow of the writing; this is more common in academic, formal, and also narrative writing (e.g., for shifting the reader’s attention to a new scene or to a new thing that appears in the narrative scene). This is less colloquial than there is/are for academic writing purposes. The intransitive verbs that can be used with this are verbs whose meanings have to do with existence (exist, live, occur, appear, happen, prevail, remain) and change of state (disappear, vanish, arrive, die, come, arise). The sentence subject comes after the verb.

  • There appears to be a problem here.
  • There arose such a clamor in the house.

2.6 Non-canonical sentences

These sentences deviate from the standard SVO (subject + verb + object / predicate) word order of English in order to accomplish specific goals, such as narrative flow, contrast, or emphasis.

2.6.1 Sentence inversion

An adjectival, adverbial, participial, or prepositional phrase is placed at the front of the sentence, displacing the subject after the verb. This serves as a segue (transition) from one topic to a new but closely related topic in a narrative, and makes for a smoother and more interesting flow of topics. It is also sometimes used in formal and academic writing as well as narrative writing. This occurs mainly with intransitive verbs and some passive verbs.

(a) Adjective phrase
(b) Participial phrase
(c) Adverb phrase
(d) Prepositional phrase
+ Verb + Subject


You’re driving as fast as you like on the highway and feel like the king of the road – then zooming up from behind like a rocket there comes a rival contender, bullying you to get out of the way.

On the sign were written the foreboding words, “No passing zone”.

Closely related to there-sentences are inverted sentences, such as this one.

Quite frustrated was the little mouse, being unable to get around the house cat.

Inverted sentences can also be used with there for a similarly smooth flow to a new, less expected topic or item.

You’re driving as fast as you like on the highway and feel like the king of the road – then zooming up from behind like a rocket there comes a rival contender, bullying you to get out of the way. Verbs with inversion and there-sentences

Sentence inversion and there constructions (there is, there seems...) occur with intransitive verbs of the following types, and occasionally, certain passive verbs that indicate location rather than action. Inversion is also limited to introducing related topics – items related to the context or inferrable from the context, rather than something entirely new. The there construction at the beginning of a sentence or clause is for introducing new items to the discourse. These are often used in narratives, and often in the past tense.[2]

verbs of existence: be, exist, remain, tend, stand, sit
verbs of appearance: appear, disappear, arise, vanish, seem
change of state: change, occur, happen, break, die, fall, shrink, condense, freeze, grow
certain motion verbs: flow, fall, arrive, come, go, walk, turn, run, return, roll, open, close
passive location verbs: be located, be found


There arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

There appeared a cheetah in the distance.

There happened to be a hefty fine for such behavior.

In the hallway stood an angry chicken, holding an axe with both wings.

In the middle of the field grew a giant beanstalk, reaching to the sky.

One should keep in mind that some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, with different meanings, e.g., break, change, increase, decrease, and many others.

2.7 Clefts

Clefts take the form "it’s the ___ that”or the wh-cleft, “what ____ is ____”. These are used in colloquial English for emphasis or making a contrast; thus, these are not common in academic writing.

Will we milk the goat today? No, it’s the yak that I need to milk. What I need to do is milk is the yak.

3 Pragmatic functions

The following are particular pragmatic properties of some discourse markers.

3.1 Foregrounding and backgrounding

The main difference between coordinating conjunctions versus subordinating conjunctions, or between main clauses and dependent clauses, aside from their syntax, has to do with information flow, namely, foregrounding and backgrounding.

Joining two clauses (or simply introducing the second clause) with coordinating conjunctions put both phrases in the foreground of the flow. On the other hand, subordinating conjunctions put less emphasis on, or draw less cognitive attention to one phrase, that is, they background it. Consider the following pairs.

1a. I ran the simulation, and then the problem became apparent.
1b. After I ran the simulation, the problem became apparent.

2a. We ran 40 subjects in the experiment, but it yielded no conclusive results.
2b. Although we ran 40 subjects in the experiment, it yielded no conclusive results.

3a. Gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, so it was entered as a control variable.
3b. Because gender turned out to have a significant effect in past studies, it was entered as a control variable.

When we read the (b) examples, the dependent clauses are read more quickly and receive less cognitive attention and processing than their main clause counterparts in the (a) examples. This contributes to a smoother flow in the writing and information flow. Writers can manipulate this by using some connectives to put more focus or emphasis on some items, and can use other connectors to put some items in the background of readers' attention.

Coordinating conjunctions foreground both phrases, while many subordinating conjunctions background the subordinate (dependent) clauses1. That is, they draw readers' attention to the main clauses, but less attention to the subordinate clauses. Some adverbial words also work like conjunctions, and these often foreground both phrases. The more common connectors and, so, but, or actually provide relatively weak foregrounding, while many others have more specific meanings and provide stronger foregrounding.

Foregrounding connectors Backgrounding connectors
furthermore, in addition

but, however, yet
so, thus, therefore, for
meanwhile, during


although, though, while
because, since
before, after, while, when

Dependent (subordinate, adverbial) clauses can be used with flexibility to express a particular flow and nuance. If the subordinate clause is placed at the beginning of the sentence, it can form a cohesive, organizing link between the text and/or ideas immediately before the clause and the new information that follows. On the other hand, dependent clauses at the ends of sentences provide expansion of the information in the main clause. For example,

This ability to influence public opinion and mobilize the entire nation against a particular deviant activity ... illustrates the vast power of the mass media in defining deviance and mobilizing support for strong social control. Because they need to capture the public interest, the mass media often sensationalize crime and deviance. (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 183; cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 248)[3]

In this excerpt, the sentence-initial position of the because clause connects the information in the preceding sentence to that in the main clause (e.g., public opinion—public interest, the mass media—they, and vast power—capture). Specifically, adverbial clauses at the beginning of sentences play the role of connectives and transitions between ideas and information in keeping with the-old-information-first-and-the-new-information last pattern. The following example shows how the subordinate clause (adverb clause) expands on the preceding idea in the main clause by providing further examples or support.

The annihilation of a minority may be unintentional, as when Puritans brought deadly diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 237; cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 248)[3].

3.2 Paragraphs

Paragraph breaks indicate a shift to a new topic. (Hence, using there expressions or first, second, etc. to begin topic sentences and new paragraphs often sounds redundant in academic writing, when paragraph structure already conveys this flow of thought.) In speaking, a speaker may begin a new topic with a raised intonation at the start of the sentence, which is sometimes referred to as a paratone, or a paragraph intonation.

4 See also

  1. Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  2. These types of verbs share a common linguistic property: they are considered agentless verbs – the subject of the verb is not a volitional agent (performer, doer, actor) of the action, but a non-agent (not doing any action) or non-volitional (not controlling the action). The motion verbs act somewhat like these agentless verbs in these constructions because they also convey a change of state or appearance onto the scene (e.g., there came a man from Mars indicates appearance upon the story scene).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hinkel, E. (2013). Teaching academic ESL writing. Routledge.

See also

Pedagogical handouts

The following are PDFs for teachers and students

  1. Connectives chart: Some common transitionals
  2. A landscape version of the above chart
  3. A handout version of the above chart
  4. Intro to transitionals
  5. Coherence devices for logical flow
  6. Cohesive devices for connections among words, word flow, and clear wording
  7. Transitionals problemata: Common problems that East Asians students have with connectors / transitionals