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Spoken discourse: discourse
Even if you read English well and have a good vocabulary, you may encounter difficulties in conversation. There is a strict limit on the help a dictionary can be in such circumstances. Even if you are able to pick out the words you are unable to recognize, you can hardly halt the conversation in mid-flow while you look the words up. Remember, though, that an expression of interest will sometimes 'buy you time' while the other person continues talking. You can also occasionally use your turn to speak to introduce topics in which you have a reasonable command of the vocabulary.
English has specific expressions that will help you interpret what the other person is saying. Identified correctly, they will ensure that you perform your half of the conversation well. These expressions have so little meaning that they are not usually thought of as belonging to the language, though there is no logical reason not to treat them as a special kind of word. They include words such as oh, well, like, mm, er, and OK (pronounced and sometimes written okay).
All of these words serve important purposes in conversation and are known technically as discourse markers. In general they are used to indicate that you are ready to speak or want to keep speaking, or to show how you respond to what someone has just said. We will discuss here some of the most useful discourse markers of this type.
The discourse marker oh is typically found at the beginning of replies where it is used to show that you have just been told something new. For example:
Oh often combines with a word or phrase that confirms that you now understand, such as oh I see or oh right, or that evaluates the new information, for example oh good, oh heavens, oh dear, or oh no. For example:
If someone reminds you of something you had forgotten, you typically start your reply with oh. For example:
It is also used to accept someone's answer to your question. For example:
Oh says that you accept the truth of the answer or statement that you have just heard. You can however combine it with really or with a question to show surprise, for example oh did you? This passes the talk back to the other speaker who will usually confirm what they have just said. They will also often add to what they have just said. For example:
In British English, oh is used to introduce quoted speech, either your own or someone else's. For example:
Well is another expression used to signal the start of reported speech. For example:
Well is also like oh in that it is also used at the beginning of a speaking turn, but unlike oh it indicates that you think there is something slightly wrong with what has just been said. You start your reply with well when answering someone who has just said something factually incorrect or made a false assumption. For example:
You can also begin your answer with well if someone asked you a question which assumes something that is not in fact true, for example:
Here the first speaker is expecting the answer 'yes' and the second speaker is answering 'no' in a roundabout way.
Another use for well is to round off a topic near the end of a conversation. For example:
In American English, like is the normal way of introducing speech:
It is also used to focus the listener's attention on what follows, either because it is new information or because it is important:
You can also add like to a request to indicate that what you are saying might not be welcome to the person you are addressing:
It also indicates that your wording is imprecise or an exaggeration:
Discourse Markers by Deborah Schiffrin, C.U.P. (1987).
Next month we'll take a look at another two common discourse markers: er/em and OK.