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Discourse markers are words or phrases like anyway, right, okay, as I say, to begin with. We use them to connect, organise and manage what we say or write or to express attitude:
[friends are talking]
So, I’ve decided I’m going to go to the bank and ask for a car loan.
That sounds like a good idea.
Well, you need a car.
Anyway, I was wondering if either of you would teach me how to drive.
The discourse markers in this extract have a number of uses:so marks the beginning of a new part of the conversation.
well marks a change in the focus (from getting a car loan to needing a car).
right marks a response (B is agreeing with C).
anyway marks a shift in topic (from buying a new car to having driving lessons).
We use different discourse markers in speaking and writing. In speaking, the following discourse markers are very common:
as I say
for a start
In writing, the following discourse markers are common:
on the other hand
on the one hand
to begin with
Discourse markers do not always have meanings that you will find in your dictionary. However, they do have certain functions, and some discourse markers, such as well, can have a number of functions.
Discourse markers that organise what we say
Some discourse markers are used to start and to end conversations. Some are used to start new topics or to change topics.
Starting a conversation or talk
Right, let’s get started. We need to get the suitcases into the car.
Okay. I’ll do that. Katie, will you help me?
[at the start of a radio interview]
Now, we have with us in the studio today someone you will all know from television. John Rice, welcome to the show.
Ending a conversation
[A mother (A) and daughter (B) on the telephone]
Sowe’ll see you Sunday, Liz.
Right, okay Mum.
Okay, see you then, love.
Bye, Mum. Thanks for calling.
[At the end of a meeting]
Anyway, is that it? Has anyone got any questions?
No. I think we’re done.
Right, fine, thanks everyone for coming. We’ll circulate the documents tomorrow and make some follow-up calls about the project.
Changing or managing a topic
We went to town to buy wallpaper to match the carpet.
Did you try Keanes? They have a sale.
We looked there, but Jim said he thought it was too expensive and he didn’t like any of their designs.
What does he like?
He likes geometric shapes. He hates flowers. Anyway, we eventually found some that we both liked and when we went to pay for it, we realised that neither of us had brought any money. (Anyway marks a return to the main topic of buying wallpaper.)
Ordering what we say
We also use discourse markers to order or sequence what we say. Some of the common words and phrases which we use for this are:
to sum up
in the end
first (of all)
last of all
a … b
for a start
on top of that
firstly and secondly are more formal than first and second.
I think Sheila might be having some financial problems at the moment.
I don’t think so, Caroline. For a start, she has all the money that her aunt gave her. What’s more, she has a good job and she seems to have a good lifestyle.
Firstly, we are going to look at how to write an essay. Secondly we are going to look at what makes a good essay and what makes a bad one. Lastly, we’re going to do some writing activities.
We can use the letters of the alphabet (a, b and c), to list reasons or arguments for something:
There are two reasons why I think it’s a bad idea, a because it’ll cost too much money, and b because it’ll take such a long time.
Discourse markers that monitor what we say
As we talk, we monitor (or listen to) what we are saying and how our listener is responding to what they hear. We often rephrase or change what we say depending on how our listener is responding. We use words and phrases such as well, I mean, in other words, the thing is, you know, you know what I mean, you see, what I mean is.
Saying something in another way
Sometimes, as we talk, we add phrases to show our listener that we are going to rephrase, repeat or change what we are saying. These discourse markers help to make what we say clearer for the listener:
I just had to leave early. What I mean is I hated the show. It just wasn’t funny.
You exercise regularly, you have a good diet and you don’t have too much stress. In other words, I think you have nothing to worry about. Your health seems very good.
I think I’ve found a house I’d like to buy. Well it’s an apartment actually. It’s ideal for me.
When we talk, we think about how much knowledge we share with our listener. We often mark what we think is old, shared or expected knowledge with you know and we mark new knowledge that we see as not shared with the listener with phrases like see, you see, the thing is:
You know, hiring a car was a great idea. (The speaker and the listener know about hiring the car.)
Why don’t you come and stay with me when you’re in Lisbon?
It’d be difficult. I have to be back in Dublin by Friday. You see, my sister is getting married on Saturday so I won’t have time to visit. (B assumes that A doesn’t know about her sister’s wedding. This is new information)
Discourse markers as responses
As we listen to someone speaking, we usually show our response to what we hear either by gesture (head nod) or by a short response (Mm, yeah, really, that’s a shame). This shows that we are listening to and interested in what is being said. We call these short responses ‘response tokens’.
Common response tokens include:
quite (more formal)
that’s great/interesting/amazing/awful, etc.
We use response tokens for a number of functions:
To show interest and to show that we want the speaker to continue
So he opened the door.
And he went in very quietly without waking her.
He opened her bag and…
To show surprise
We’ve decided to go to Africa for a month next year.
To show sympathy
He can’t play soccer for at least six months. He’s broken his leg.
Discourse markers showing attitude
Some expressions are used to mark attitude or point of view in speaking or writing.
Common expressions of attitude are:
to be honest
if you ask me
to tell you the truth
I must admit
I must say
If you ask me, Neil is making a big mistake leaving his job to go travelling with his friends.
We will obviously have to pay for the damage done to the window.
The whole problem has been caused, I think, by having too many cars on the road at busy times.
Sadly, Hilda has decided not to come with us.
Discourse markers: sounding less direct
We are careful when we speak not to sound too direct or forceful. We use words and phrases such as like, maybe, sort of to soften what we say (hedges).
We often use these words and expressions as hedges:
sort of/ kind of*
* sort of is more common in British English; kind of is more common in American English.
Can I just ask you a question?
We can probably add some more water to the sauce.
Is this perhaps one of your first times driving a car?
There’s a new restaurant in town. We should probably try it next weekend.
The statement is hedged or softened so as not to sound too strong or forceful.
There’s a new restaurant in town. We should try it next weekend.
The statement is not hedged and it sounds more direct and forceful.
Discourse markers: um and erm
We can use um to introduce a new topic carefully:
Um, could I ask you a personal question?
Um, there’s something else we need to talk about.
We can use erm when we pause before saying something, especially when we are not sure about what to say:
He’s… erm he’s not very pleased with your work, I’m afraid.
Her last book was called… erm what was it? I can’t remember the name.
Discourse markers: interjections (Oh! Gosh!)
An interjection is a single-word exclamation such as hooray, oops, ouch which shows a positive or negative emotional response: