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Discourse markers

Let’s start with discourse. Discourse is a unit/ segment of spoken or written language that goes above or below a sentence and refers to a certain social context. So, it may be a piece of writing, or a story, or just one or two words.

Discourse markers then are words or phrases that help “glue” the text or speech together and manage the flow and structure of discourse. Discourse markers don’t usually change the meaning of a sentence but add clarity and logic to it. They are also called connectors, connectives, linking words or linkers.

At the beginning of November I shared an extract from Making Sense by David Crystal focusing on how children acquire connectives to go beyond sentences, with the first one being “and”:

“Katie seed a big bird in the garden and – she runned after it and – and the bird went up in a tree and – she climbed – she – she climbed up and it went away…” (p.68)

Then children start adding other connectives, not always getting them right. It’s very cute how they do it, have a look at the article if you haven’t already =) And I think it is a good illustration of the fact that correct grammar in individual sentences is not enough and there’s much more to effective communication. But we want something more than “and”, don’t we? So we need to know more about discourse markers.

Actually, it’s very interesting to observe how learners use discourse markers. While at the lower levels it’s not easy to use fillers, such as well, right, so, to give oneself time to think, and they need to be taught explicitly sometimes, at higher levels and in natives we can observe quite the opposite – the overuse of them, e.g. Well, you know, it’s a good question… actually, you see… At lower levels we pay more attention to conjunctions that allow us to make longer sentences and develop one’s argument (because, although, in order to, first, finally). At higher levels it’s more interesting to add to one’s speech discourse markers that help to manage the conversation (speaking of, as a matter of fact), to show one’s attitude (unsurprisingly, to tell you the truth) or to soften what one says (presumably, probably).

So discourse markers play many different roles and they can be organised into categories which vary according to different sources. But I believe the task of a learner is not to make an exhaustive list of categories, but to identify/ choose those ones that will help organise discourse markers and remember them better.

I found an article on the Cambridge Dictionary website which gives a good introduction to these categories. Below I’ll give its summary but check the article itself to see the examples.

Discourse markers that organise what we say:

  • Starting a conversation or talk – e.g. right.. now…
  • Ending a conversation – e.g. so… anyway… right
  • Changing or managing a topic – e.g. anyway..

Discourse markers that order what we say – e.g. first, second, to sum up, and, what’s more;

Using discourse markers to monitor what we say:

  • Saying something in another way – e.g. What I mean is … In other words, …actually
  • Shared knowledge – e.g. you know, you see;

Using discourse markers as responses

  • To show interest and to show that we want the speaker to continue – e.g. Yeah, Right
  • To show surprise – e.g. Oh really!
  • To show sympathy – e.g. That’s terrible.

Discourse markers showing attitude – e.g. frankly, hopefully, surprisingly, honestly, thankfully, basically, ideally, I’m afraid, I must admit, unfortunately, seriously, if you ask me;

Discourse markers to sound less direct – e.g. like, maybe, sort of, apparently, perhaps, probably, just;

Discourse markers: um and erm

  • um is to introduce a new topic carefully: Um, could I ask you a personal question?
  • Erm is to 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.

Discourse markers: interjections – e.g. Oh! Gosh! Yuck! Oh no! hooray, oops, ouch

We also have the linkers of:

  • result – so, as a result, therefore, consequently, lead to, results in;
  • reason – because, as, since, due to, owing to;
  • purpose – to, in order (not) to, so as (not) to, in case, so that;
  • contrast – but, however, yet;
  • concession – although, while/whilst, in spite of/ despite, nevertheless;
  • example – for example, for instance, such as.

I’m not sure where they go in the above categories, but many of them are more formal. So, yes, it’s important to remember that discourse markers can be more formal or informal (e.g. moreover – formal, on top of that – informal). When you see them don’t forget to note down what context it was.

So, with discourse markers, like with social expressions / functions, it makes sense to organise them in lists or mind maps according to the main idea/ category and then try to notice them more in speech or written text. If you don’t like organising lexis, you can always go in the opposite direction: try to find what words and expressions help to “glue” together what other people say/ write and then think why it was used there, with what purpose. That’s some deduction work, why not.

At higher levels it may take a lot of examples to understand how a particular discourse marker works, especially the more formal ones, those relating to expressing one’s attitude or using indirect language, for example owing to, whilst, essentially, literally, arguably or presumably. Use YouGlish or Context.Reverso to find those examples. I think, in a way, it’s more convenient than dictionaries: you get more examples, and, in the case of Reverso, equivalents in another language that may help a lot.

Also, some linking words are used in many different ways, e.g. actually, so or right. Look up those meanings in a dictionary, it makes a very interesting read.

Another good exercise will be to listen to something and note down all the discourse markers you hear. It may be a blogger, then you’ll focus on how they organise their speech, show their attitude or soften what they say (if they do). It may be a podcast with several guests discussing a particular topic. Then you’ll need to pay attention to how they structure their arguments, monitor what they say, react to each other’s words and carefully show their attitude. In other words, pick a category and do your listening analysis =)

The same goes for written texts, but with them it’s much easier to notice discourse markers. With speech you’ll have to shift your attention from the content to how it’s given, and it may not be easy/ natural. But I think it’s very interesting to try out.

How to practise discourse markers? It will depend on their type and later I’ll share some activities. But I believe noticing should come first. While noticing them you’ll also be able to decide for yourself which ones you like more and want to introduce into your use of language, and which ones can be left for later (or never). We all have our language preferences and, given the impressive variety of discourse markers, we’ll need to make our choices.

Hurray! I’ve finished the topic of noticing lexical chunks. Which part of it did you like the most?

Here they were: introduction and collocationsidioms and phrasal verbssentence frames and social formulae.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

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