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Focus on Language
Awareness:

Introduction
Spoken discourse

Discourse markers
oh, well and like
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Spoken discourse: discourse
markers oh, well and like
by Michael Hoey

• Oh
• Well
• Like
• Further reading
• Next in the series

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.

All the examples are from real conversations so do not be surprised by the use of incomplete sentences and repetitions.

Oh

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:

Doctor: I think you've probably got what we call dry eyes.
Patient: Oh.

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:

Travel Agent: Your flights are all confirmed.
Customer: Oh wonderful.

If someone reminds you of something you had forgotten, you typically start your reply with oh. For example:

Speaker 1: Remember he wanted to merge the groups. Don't you remember?
Speaker 2: Oh yeah. Oh yes. Of course.

It is also used to accept someone's answer to your question. For example:

Speaker 1:
Is that too sweet?
Speaker 2: Yes.
Speaker 1: Oh.

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:

Speaker 1:
I went up to Leeds.
Speaker 2: Oh did you?
Speaker 1: Yeah...saw Kathryn Clarke.

In British English, oh is used to introduce quoted speech, either your own or someone else's. For example:

She says oh I've hardly been there, I've been at Joe's.

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Well

Well is another expression used to signal the start of reported speech. For example:

So she said well I'll phone you tonight.

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:

Speaker 1:
I mean it might take us another two months before we get out.Three months.
Speaker 2: Well I would say six months.

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:

Speaker 1:
What, she did the whole lot?
Speaker 2: Well yeah, I think, well, she didn't do everything.

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:

Well I'll let you get back to work.

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Like

In American English, like is the normal way of introducing speech:

And my husband was like, I hope something's not wrong.

It is also used to focus the listener's attention on what follows, either because it is new information or because it is important:

I was so, like, stressed out.

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:

So if I if I if I phone you tomorrow after six so that we can like arrange a time, will that be OK?

It also indicates that your wording is imprecise or an exaggeration:

I think they order it like loads and loads in advance.

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Further reading

Discourse Markers by Deborah Schiffrin, C.U.P. (1987).

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Next in the series

Next month we'll take a look at another two common discourse markers: er/em and OK.

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