Author Topic: Part 12 - Using discourse markers for contextualizing ideas  (Read 9703 times)

Joe Carillo

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Timely Reacquaintance with Connectives and Discourse Markers

For 12 consecutive days from June 1 to June 12, 2020, the Forum has been running a special retrospective of its comprehensive series in 2017 on the English connectives and discourse markers. These connectives—the coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, prepositions, and discourse markers—are the basic tools of English for enabling readers or listeners to navigate the sense and logic of what’s written or being spoken about. Today, to wind up the 12-part series on English connectives, we are taking up the various English discourse markers, which are very useful tools for linking ideas, showing attitude, indicating changes of mind or point of view, and generally controlling communication.

Part 12 - Using discourse markers for contextualizing ideas

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!”).

                                     IMAGE CREDIT: MICAESL.BLOGSPOT.COM

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”).

All of these function words are also known as connectives, and for completeness, to this set of connectives we now must add what are known in English grammar as the discourse markers. What distinguishes discourse markers from the typical propositions is that while they also only carry grammatical meaning and signal relations between parts of sentences or clauses, discourse markers are relatively not dependent on the syntax of the sentence and usually don’t alter the truth of what’s being said. (About this peculiarity of discourse markers we will learn more in the course of this discussion.)

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 (that's 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.

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…”

                    IMAGE CREDIT: PINTEREST.COM

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.
This completes the Forum's 12-part retrospective series on the English connectives.
« Last Edit: June 12, 2020, 12:12:28 AM by Joe Carillo »