Discourse particles

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Lexemes such as like, well, oh, you know are commonly used in spoken English, yet native speakers, if asked, would be unable to explain why they use such words or what they mean. In reality, such lexemes have legitimate linguistic functions as discourse particles, which indicate logical relationships between utterances, anticipate the following items, and mark other discourse functions. This article will distinguish between these discourse particles (see below for terminology) versus discourse markers, i.e., connectors, connectives, or transitionals – conjunctions and other expressions (but, although, and, so...). However, some applied linguists and teachers use the term discourse markers for both groups.

1 Linguistic overview

Discourse markers and discourse particles have been a long-neglected part of the lexicon in second language teaching, and have primarily been a subject of serious linguistic study only in the past few decades. These DPs perform a number of important sociolinguistic functions. For example, "well" indicates a dispreferred or unexpected response or a transition; "you know" indicates foregrounding or common knowledge with deference to face-politeness; and "like" marks new or salient information. Some act as fillers for pauses (hmm, uh), and others may also be extended for use as fillers. These and other markers are necessary for not only making speech sound natural, but also for providing smooth transitions, indicating logical flow of information, and filling otherwise awkward pauses.

The more prominent discourse markers in colloquial English are surveyed and discussed here, to provide language teachers with an understanding of these items so that they can teach them to ESL/EFL learners. This Wiki article is based on a conference presentation at TESOL 2001 (Lee, 2001)[1].

1.1 Pedagogical validity

See also: teaching discourse markers

Providing EFL/ESL students with knowledge and practice in usage of discourse markers will help students to understand and express these nuances of discourse flow in conversation.

  • They are ubiquitous in spoken English
  • Learners can better understand the flow of conversations they hear.
  • They can express themselves more naturally and smoothly
  • They facilitate the chunking of information into smaller information units, as is typical in colloquial language

They provide helpful linguistic strategies, such as for:

  • less awkward pauses & word searches
  • gaining & holding the floor (e.g., in classroom discussions)
  • making smoother transitions
  • effective attitudinal & informational nuances
  • linguistic solidarity & politeness

Proper intonation and phrasing for some discourse markers must also be taught in order to achieve the proper, intended effect. Such words naturally require communicative instruction, so communicative tasks and strategies for presenting and practicing such forms in conversational contexts can be useful, such as conversational activities and communicative games.

1.2 Terminology

These terms often used varyingly and inconsistently in applied linguistics and pragmatics for at least two word categories. One category consists of words such as like, oh, uh, okay, well, gosh, I mean, and are more syntactically constrained; these are designated as discourse particles (DP) here, following the practice of some syntacticians (Green, 2001)[2]. The second class consists of connectives, connective markers, connectors, or transitionals, such as but, and, or, although, and such, comprising the larger category of discourse markers (DM), as many in the field do.

The two categories can be distinguished from each other and from other function words by the following properties, which are discussed in Mosegaard Hansen (1998)[3] and Schiffrin (1987)[4].

1.2.1 Syntactic constituency

Connective markers exist as syntactic adjuncts or modifiers to entire verb phrases, predicates, or clauses, just as any conjunction and conjunctive adverb; e.g, in the following example, although modifies its clause prepared for martyrdom as an adjunct to the verb prepared, which is the head of the participial clause.

  • Although prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it be postponed. (Winston Churchill)

Particles, do not seem to belong so coherently to a syntactic phrase, unlike connective markers. In fact, particles are more like interjections, as they do not fit neatly into the syntax of a given sentence, and are more like interruptions within the syntactic flow of a sentence, like the oh below. Since they stand outside of the syntactic phrasing, they can be referred to as extra-syntactic.

  • The girl who said she liked, oh, Vivaldi, dried the dishes. (James, 1983)[5]

1.2.2 Extra-prosodic

Being extra-syntactic, in pronunciation such particles are realized as intonationally separate units, as breaks, which phonologists refer to as extra-prosodic, or as parenthetical expressions (Nespor & Vogel 1986)[6]. They are separated from the rest of the sentence by a pause or an intonation change (i.e., a prosodic juncture). Again, in this respect, they are like interjections, except that interjections are usually marked by a stronger break than particles, and with stronger intonation to convey the speaker's emotion (as in hey!). Connective markers, like other word classes, are usually integrated into the intonation of the entire clause.

1.2.3 Grammaticalization

Particles and connective markers derive morphologically from other word classes, most often from content words (Brinton 1996). For example, the DP well derives from the adverb well; the particle like derives from the adjective or conjunction form of like; gosh derives from God; and I mean and ya know as discourse markers were derived from NP+VP, i.e., from short comment clauses with the respective pronoun subject and verb. While connective markers have lost some of their original meaning, particles have lost almost all their original meaning as content words; they are thus semantically reduced or semantically empty, and their their meaning or function is understood by conventionalized implicature (Schiffrin, 1987)[4].

Discourse particles, being fully semantically empty, and the semantically reduced discourse markers, do not affect the truth value of the clauses they modify, in contrast to a few conjunctions that can alter the truth value, e.g., conditions like if.

1.3 Categories

Discourse particles fall into two general subcategories (Green, 2001)[2]. Attitudinal markers convey information about speaker's beliefs, feelings, state of mind. This includes information management markers, which indicate that something is new to the speaker, that the speaker believes something is new/old/inferrable to the listener, etc., such as you know, gee, gosh, I mean.

(a) Attitudinal markers: well, uh, gosh, gee, oh, uh-oh, heck, okay, I mean, you know...

Structural markers (discourse structural / informational markers) mark structural boundaries in the organization of discourse, e.g., turn-taking, topic shifts & transitions (but may fall in this category, in addition to its more formal DM functions). This includes expectation markers, indicating responses that are contrary to expectation, including unexpected topic shifts, such as now, well.

(b) Structural markers: like, now, okay, and, so, but...

A few might fall into both categories, e.g, like has been analyzed as a marker of focus (see below) or new information, as well as an attitudinal marker that qualifies a statement - a pragmatic softener.

Sentence final particles are found in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other languages, and these include attitudinal and structural functions, such as interrogative, suggestive, and tag question particles (e.g., Mandarin ma, ba, ne).

2 Overview of various discourse particles

2.1 Well

This indicates a dispreferred response, which can be explained to students as "unexpected or less than desired response". It prefaces potential face threats, delays in answering, dispreferred transitions, unexpected topic shifts, and competitive turn-taking (Green 2001[2], Jucker 1993[7], Schiffrin 1987[4]). Of course, this has very different meanings as a noun, adjective, or adverb. As a discourse marker, it occurs at the beginning of sentences, clauses, or phrases, and it functions as a response marker. That is, it marks some kind of transition in a response to a question or to a preceding statement.

2.1.1 (a) Unexpected (i.e., dispreferred) response

Often what a speaker intends to say may be slightly different from what the hearer expects. It can also indicate a response that the speaker knows may be an insufficient response. It may even be a response that the hearer wouldn't like. Thus, it often occurs in discussions in which people share viewpoints, communicate expectations, or even in disagreements and rejections to soften responses.

  • Uh, well, lemme think...
  • Well, let's get started, shall we?
  • Well, like I was saying, I think...
  • Well, how about that World Cup soccer?

A. How much education do you think a person needs to get a good job?
B. Oh, definitely a master's degree.
A. Well, I think even more than that. At least a Ph.D., maybe a post-doc.

A. Can I borrow your car? I need to go to Montreal tomorrow.
B. Well, I kinda need it.

Note that in commands and other potential face-threats, well reverses the polarity, indicating that the addressee's contribution or behavior is dispreferred. Thus, it conveys a negative nuance, e.g., impatience, one-up-manship. It more politely signals that what the other person has said, or his/her behavior, doesn't fully meet the speaker's desires, expectations, or preferences. Thus, it adds a nuance of impatience or other negative attitude, but more politely so.

  • Well, hurry up!
  • Well, I don't think so!

A. Who wants to know?
B. Well, I want to know.

A. She can listen and tell you not only the composer but the name of the piece.
B. Well, that's no big deal.

2.1.2 (b) Pause, delay

Sometimes speakers need a couple of seconds to pause to think of what to say. They may also need to hold their turn in the conversation so others won't assume they have finished speaking. So speakers fill the pause with a discourse marker, generally with uh for short pauses and well for longer pauses. This fits the idea of unexpected or less-than-preferred response, since listeners expect an efficient delivery of information and turn-taking, and well fills these gaps to make one's delivery smoother and more polite.

  • Well...I don't know if I can make it to the party tomorrow.
  • It's, well, not the best way to do it, but go ahead.

2.1.3 (c) Topic shift

When speakers shift to a new topic or to a different aspect of a topic, they often begin with well to indicate such transitions. Speakers may shift back to a previous topic of discussion, after a new topic or a digression has come up; resuming the old topic can be indicated with well. Sometimes when a conversation fizzles out or degenerates, a speaker may deliberately shift topics using well. Occasionally this might be done for a slightly humorous effect with a totally irrelevant new topic.

  • Well, let's move on to our business at hand.
  • ...Well, like I was saying, I think the only difference between our neighborhoods might be the better trash collection in our neighborhood, since...
  • Well, how about that World Cup soccer?

2.1.4 (d) Turn-taking

Speakers take turns in speaking up in conversation. The beginning of a speaker's new turn may be begun with well. This may be especially so in a dynamic conversation where a speaker must compete with others for the chance to say something. Well allows a person to jump in at an appropriate pause, and buy a few seconds in order to think of what to say.

A. We all used to go camping in the mountains near Denver.
B. Well, I used to do the same thing, too, when I was young.

2.2 Oh

As in interjection (often written with an exclamation mark), this can indicate surprise, anger, or other strong emotional reactions, as in "Oh, my gosh!" As a regular discourse marker, it indicates a shift in the speaker's thinking, flow of information, or train of thought, as speakers think and plan what they are about to say (Heritage 1977)[8].

2.2.1 (a) Realization

This is known as a change of state marker (Heritage 1977)[8] for a change in mental state (cognitive or affective), e.g., for realization, response, clarification, repair. Speakers indicate realization, shifts of attention, and the need to make a sudden shift in the conversational topic by oh.

  • I think that law was passed in 1976.
  • Oh, I see.

A. How can I get a grant for that?
B. Oh, I didn't realize they gave grants. I'm not the one to ask about that.

A. I saw this guy working as a waiter with a Ph.D.! He couldn't get a good job!
B. Really? What was his Ph.D. in?
A. Oh, I didn't talk to him. My lunch partner told me about him.

2.2.2 (b) Communication repair and clarification

When a speaker realizes that s/he has made a mistake or has misspoken, s/he can quickly break and pause with oh to mark a correction.

I think that law was passed in 1976. Oh, maybe it was 1978, I don't remember for sure.

Speakers use oh to ask for clarification or further information about something that they did not understand. Speakers also use it when they realize or understand something that they did not understand at first. That is, they clarify the information to themselves as they think through it, and indicate their realization by oh.

A. He sometimes got notices for staying out past curfew.
B. Oh, curfew? What curfew?
A. Well, the police issued a curfew because of the nighttime gang activity, so the children had to be home by 9:00.
B. Oh, I see. All the kids were under curfew.
A. Yeh.

Like the second oh in the above passage, speakers may realize or understand something that at first they did not understand properly, or that was contrary to their expectations. Likewise, speakers may realize that their assumptions or expectations were incorrect about what was said or understood. For example, below speakers use oh to indicate that they have understood something, that something was unexpected and had to think about it first to understand it, or they realized that they needed to clarify something.

A. How can I get a grant for that?
B. Oh, I didn't realize they gave grants. I'm not the one to ask about that.
A. I saw this guy working as a waiter with a Ph.D.! He couldn't get a good job!
B. Really? What was his Ph.D. in?
A. Oh, I didn't talk to him. My lunch partner told me about him.

2.2.3 (c) Approximation

Intersententially (in the middle of a sentence), oh can indicate that what follows is approximate, or one of several possibilities (Green 2001[2], Schiffrin 1987[4]).

I'll take, oh, I guess, thirty of them.

2.3 I mean

This serves as a repair marker, allowing a speaker to rephrase his/her words, clarify meaning, or elaborate a point by adding additional explanation (="that is, in other words") (Schiffrin 1987[4]). This is roughly equivalent to "that is, in other words", and allows the speaker to rephrase his/her words (for clarification or communication repair), to clarify his/her meaning, or to elaborate a point by adding additional explanation.

  • I don't know the priest, I mean, the pastor, but I see him all the time in the coffee shop.
  • It's to my advantage, I mean, it's to our mutual advantage, to work together on the project.
  • She was angry, I mean, she was really indignant about the whole matter.

2.4 You know (ya know, y'know)

2.4.1 (a) Familiarity

The marker you know is often said quickly, like y'know, and indicates that the speaker assumes the listener might somehow be familiar with the information, or able to infer it. It basically conveys the sense of "you probably know / are familiar with this already; I know you're not dumb, but I'm telling you; of course".

  • That moron is our president, you know.
  • You know, that really bugs me.

2.4.2 (b) Ending a point

Speakers can end a sentence with you know to indicate or emphasize that they've made a point.

You can't wait forever, you know.

2.4.3 (c) Soliciting affirmation

At the end of a sentence (or with question intonation), you know can be used by the speaker to check if the listener agrees or is following what the speaker has said. This use is somewhat similar to a tag question or "right?"

Well, you have to go thru the subway tunnel to get to the station, you know. But when I was already in the tunnel, I realized that I didn't have my wallet, so I had to backtrack.

Sentence finally, it can also function like a confirmatory tag question for seeking agreement. In the form of a question, or in the phrase you know what, the speaker can check the listener for his/her interest, or agreement or willingness for the speaker to continue (James 1983[5], Schiffrin 1987[4]).

A. You know what?
B. Hmm?
A. I feel like ordering pizza right now.

2.5 Okay

2.5.1 (a) Receipt of information

A speaker can use okay to acknowledges receipt of information, i.e., to signal that s/he has heard or understood what another person has said (Beach 1993[9]., Schiffrin 1987[4])

A. Your mother wants you to come home.
B. Okay.

2.5.2 (b) Pre-closing

Okay can signal the speaker's desire to "wrap up" or finish a conversational topic and switch to a new topic, or to wrap up the conversation (Beach 1993)[9].

Okay, let's get going, shall we?

2.6 Gosh & heck

As an interjection or exclamation, this indicates surprise. As a discourse marker, this indicates that the speaker is not familiar with the information, that it is new to him/her. (Green 2001)[2].

  • Gosh, I dunno. (what you said is new to me / I have no idea), cf.
  • Heck, I dunno. (it should be obvious that I don't know)

Heck and related words as interjections or exclamations indicate strong emotional reactions. As a discourse marker, it indicates that the information is known to the speaker and therefore obvious, or it conveys the speaker's certainty (Green 2001)[2].

Heck, I dunno

2.7 Now

This indicates a shift in the conversation to a new topic, or a return to a previous topic (topic shift, topic resumption).

Now, as I was saying before...

2.8 Though

At the end of a sentence, it works like a sentence adverb, indicating the speaker's comment on the sentence. Like the conjunction though, its meaning is similar to but, however, except that it is added as if it were an afterthought.

I don't really know, though.

2.9 Filler and backchannel markers

A number of markers indicate feedback, and also serve as pause markers, allowing speakers to hold the floor and/or plan what to say. Additionally, some like huh? or eh? indicate surprise, or ask the speaker to repeat.

2.9.1 Uh

This serves variously as a pause marker or filler; for brief delays word searches; and also, for dispreferred responses like well (Green 2001, Schiffrin 1987)[2] [4]. Uh indicates brief pauses, and gives the speaker a chance to hold the floor while planning what s/he is going to say. It's helpful to use this and other pause markers in order to hold the listener's attention. However, excessive use of these pause markers can indicate nervousness or may be distracting or annoying for listeners. Uh and um are useful for brief pauses, or searching for a word to say. For longer pauses, repeated use of the same pause markers can also be distracting. For slightly longer pauses, well is often used. For even longer pauses (as when the speaker can't think of what to say, or are hesitant to mention an item), speakers tend to use a variety of discourse markers to avoid sounding too repetitive (e.g., "Uh, well, like, I mean...").

Uh can also signal that the items to follow, or the pause itself, is unexpected, undesired or dispreferred.

I, uh, want to talk to you today about scabies.

2.9.2 Yeh, hmm, um, huh, etc.

These serve as feedback or backchannel markers to indicate that one is paying attention to the speaker or agrees with the speaker. Special effects may be done via intonation.

2.9.3 Huh, hmm

With a short falling intonation, this indicates disapproval, surprise, or other mild emotional reactions. With a longer falling intonation, it indicates interest, surprise, or feedback. Other kinds of intonation on these feedback markers (like exaggerated rising or falling intonation) can convey other attitudes such as disbelief, curiosity, sarcasm, etc.

2.10 Like

See separate article on like for more details.

2.11 Softener, approximation

We can soften statements to make them a little more polite, or to indicate a figurative expression – roughly equivalent to like to mean "somewhat, kind of, approximately, about, so to speak." Linguists generally consider this to be the primary function of like as a discourse particle.

  1. Like, could you loan me like, $200?
  2. I missed like 40 questions on the exam.
  3. That guy is so ugly. His face could like sink a thousand ships.
  4. He would follow around like every day until I had to call the police.

2.12 New information

We use like sometimes to explain further or illustrate what we just said, to provide more facts or details to explain something. This is often done along with the emphasis, contrast, or softening functions below.

1) My roommate never cleans when I ask him to. Like, I asked him yesterday to clean, and he never did it. He's just too lazy. It's like, he just like sits around all day watching football and like doing nothing.
2) A. And then you know, like myself, I don't show a lot of emotion, and my dad is like the same way — he hates to apologize and it's like he rarely ever does it – he like leaves it up in the air.
B. Do you think that when you're a parent you'll be different?
A. Well, I think so because I'm a bit more willing to like sacrifice and give, instead of just feeling that I'm right.
3) This guy is so cool. I mean, he's like the coolest fellow you could meet. Like, he's really nice and sweet, and always helps me. It's like, he's just the neatest guy in the world.

2.13 Emphasis and contrast

We sometimes use like also to emphasize or stress what is important, or to show contrast, for example, to clarify a point, or to bring up a point or item again that was mentioned earlier in the conversation.

  1. No, not that way. You know what I mean? Like going around it on the map.
  2. I think a lot has to do with humor, 'cuz like my best friend, we laugh at the dumbest things that no one else would laugh at.
    1. Lee, Kent. (2001). Teaching, like, discourse markers. Talk presented at TESOL 2001 conference, St. Loiuis, MO.
    2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Green, Georgia.(2001). Discourse Particles in Natural Language Processing. Unpublished MS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
    3. Mosegaard Hansen, Maj-Britt. (1998). The Function of Discourse Particles. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
    4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Schiffrin, Deborah. (1987). Discourse Markers. Cambridge University Press.
    5. 5.0 5.1 James, Allan R. (1983). Compromisers in English: A cross-disciplinary approach to their interpersonal significance. J. of Pragmatics, 7, 191-206.
    6. Nespor, Marina, & Vogel, Irene. (1986). Prosodic Phonology. Dordrecht: Foris.
    7. Jucker, Andreas H. (1993). The discourse marker well: A relevance-theoretical account. Journal of Pragmatics 19, 435-452.
    8. 8.0 8.1 Heritage, John. (1977). A change-of-state token and aspects of its sequential placement. In J. Maxwell Atkinson & John Heritage (eds.), Structures of Social Action. London: Cambridge Univ. Press.
    9. 9.0 9.1 Beach, Wayne A. (1993). Transitional regularities for 'casual' "Okay" usages. J. of Pragmatics, 19, 325-352