Author Topic: Using discourse markers for contextualizing ideas  (Read 14723 times)

Joe Carillo

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Using discourse markers for contextualizing ideas
« on: May 16, 2019, 08:40:14 AM »
No doubt that most of you who read my English-usage columns and Forum website are now thoroughly familiar with the English content words and function words, which have been among the most recurrent fare in my discussions of English grammar over the years.

The content words are, of course, those that carry the descriptive meanings conveyed by the language: the nouns (“Amelia,” “love,” “puppies,” “elections”), verbs (“see,” “run,” “dream,” “achieve”), adjectives (“contemptuous,” “lovely,” “serene,” “quiet”), adverbs (“often,” “happily,” “rarely,” “haphazardly”), and interjections (“Alas!”, “Dear me!”, “Ouch!”, “Oops!”).

On the other hand, the function words are those that carry only grammatical meaning and just signal relations between parts of sentences: the determiners (“the,” “a,” “my,” “your,” “their”), pronouns (“I,” “me,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “them”), conjunctions (“and,” “or,” “but,” “when,” “as,” “before,” “thereafter”), auxiliaries (“have,” “is,” “can,” “will,” “shall,” “would”), and a few prepositions that don’t have an inherent meaning in themselves (“of,” “on,” “at”).

                                     IMAGE CREDIT: MICAESL.BLOGSPOT.COM

But really now (that’s a discourse marker, by the way), how many of you know what the following very familiar words and expressions are called in English grammar: “oh,” “well,” “now,” “then,” “so,” “you know,” “mind you,” “still,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “actually,” and “anyway”? Well (this is another discourse marker, of course), these words and expressions are a class of function words called discourse markers, a grammatical device that plays a significant role in managing the flow and structure of the verbal interchange of ideas or the extended expression of thought on a particular subject.

                    IMAGE CREDIT: PINTEREST.COM

Discourse markers are relatively not dependent on the syntax of the sentence and usually don’t alter the truth of what’s being said. For instance, in “That’s farthest from my mind, you know,” the discourse marker “you know” doesn’t contradict but emphasizes.

As many of you must have been subconsciously aware when you’d hear discourse markers spoken or see them in writing, they are meant to help the speaker or writer manage the conversation or discussion. They clearly mark changes in its direction, mood, or tone—the better for you the listener to understand or follow what’s being said. Indeed, the skillful use of discourse markers is a good measure of fluency in the language and of one’s skill as a communicator.

Let me share the valuable insights of Prof. Yael Maschler, a linguist who studied mathematics and linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and who received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan in the United States. She has done extensive research on discourse markers and, after going over the hundreds of them that often bewilder grammarians and learners alike, she wisely divided them into just four broad categories: interpersonal, referential, structural, and cognitive.

1. Interpersonal markers. They are used to indicate the relationship between the speaker and the listener. Perception: “Look…” , “Believe me…” Agreement: “Exactly.” Disagreement: “I’m not sure.” Amazement: “Wow!”

2. Referential markers. They are usually conjunctions and are used to indicate the sequence, causality, and coordination between statements. Sequence: “Now…”, “Then…” Causality: “Because…” Coordination: “And…” Non-coordination: “But…”

3. Structural markers. They indicate the hierarchy of conversational actions at the time in which these actions are spoken, indicating which statements the speaker believes to be most or least important. Organization: “First of all…” Introduction: “So…” Summarization: “In the end…”

4. Cognitive markers. They reveal the speaker’s thought process about what he or she has just said. Processing information: “Uhh…” Realization: “Oh!” Rephrasing: “I mean…”

It should be clear by now that although largely unheralded as function words, discourse markers are an indispensable tool for linking ideas, showing attitude, indicating changes of mind or point of view, and generally controlling communication. Used properly, they can provide not only context but also sinew, verve, and a personal touch to both our written and spoken English.

(Next: How elliptical sentences differ from elliptical clauses)   May 23, 2019

This essay, 1,144th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the May 16, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 16, 2019, 08:43:09 AM by Joe Carillo »