Ken Paterson Logo

Marking spoken discourse

12 November 2019

Spoken grammar: lexico-grammatical features of conversation highlighted in corpus research.


Marking spoken discourse


Spoken discourse markers could be described as the linguistic equivalents of the indicator lights in a car: words, phrases and clauses that you use to signal your intentions during the journey of the conversation.

Here are a just a few of the them, in each case with one of the main functions, and sometimes with an example:

1. ‘Right’ to initiate a new phase of the conversation.

2. ‘Well’ to signal hesitation.

3. ‘Hey’ (and ‘I’ll tell you what’) to get attention:

(watching a football match)

A: I’ll tell you what, we won’t win unless we start taking some risks.

B: I know. It feels like we’re playing for a draw.

4. ‘Anyway’ (and ‘speaking of which’) to signal a transition in topic, or in focus:

(on the phone)

Anyway, you can catch up tonight, because you’ll see her at the restaurant, won’t you? Speaking of which, did you book a table?

5. ‘You know’ to indicate the state of knowledge between speakers (but also, sometimes, a rather meaningless ‘verbal tic’).

6. ‘As I was saying’ (and ‘going back to ...’) to refer to an earlier stage in the conversation:

Going back to what you said about Ross, are you really sure he’s quitting his job?

Spoken discourse markers may seem fairly relaxed, but they still involve an element of trying to ‘control’ the conversation: notice, for example, how often politicians use the assertive (or defensive) marker ‘look’ to preface their responses, often perhaps meaning something like, ‘What I’m about to tell you hardly needs saying, but I’ll point it out for you anyway.’

There's a full lesson plan with materials for teaching spoken discourse markers here:

Spoken discourse markers: web page or Word doc