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Adjectives as response tokens

1 October 2019


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


Adjectives as response tokens


‘Response tokens’ are the little things we say – ‘okay’ or ‘yeah’, for example –  to show interest in what we’ve just heard in a conversation.

‘Right’ and ‘fine’ are common, of course, but the range of single, positive adjectives that we use is also quite wide, particularly in response to good news, plans, arrangements or, in the case below, a service:

(at a conference)

A: So you’ll have ten minutes before your talk to get your stuff ready.

B: Great.

A: I’ll be around if there’s anything you need.

B: Fantastic. Will I need a mike?

A: Most speakers use one, yeah. I’ll have one ready.

B: Good.

A: I’ll see you at 10.30, then. There’s a presenters’ room on the fourth floor if you need a bit of calm before then.

B: Brilliant. Perfect. Thanks very much.

(Although they often stand alone as above, these may be regarded as elliptical forms: ‘Fantastic’, for example, rather than ‘That’s fantastic’.)


Interestingly, ‘double adjectives’, such as you see at the end of the dialogue, tend to be used to signal the end of a conversation, or the end of a conversational theme. (But note that the second adjective will usually be equal to, or stronger than the first: ‘Good. Fantastic.’ rather than ‘Fantastic. Good.’) In the Cambridge Grammar of English (2006, page 191), Carter and McCarthy point out that this type of ‘clustering’ is particularly common in ‘pre-closing’ and ‘closing’ routines in sound-only phone conversations, where visual clues are not available.

Also common are adjectives with other meanings:

A: He left after ten minutes, without saying goodbye or anything.

B: Interesting/Strange. I wonder why.

Negative single adjectives are possible too, although the speaker may decide that a fuller response, or an accompanying gesture, such as a slow shaking of the head, is more appropriate to the context:

A: So I ended up losing my phone and my wallet.

B: Awful. OR How awful./Oh dear, that's awful.


To find out about teaching spoken grammar, you are welcome to visit my online course, Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers.