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Talking Nonsense:
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Introduction
Spoken discourse

Discourse markers
er, erm and OK
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Spoken Discourse: Discourse
Markers Uh, Um and OK
by Michael Hoey

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, um, 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.

Uh and Um

Uh and um are often used when you are trying to find the right word. English tries to avoid silence in speech turns; uh or um can be used to fill the silence that would otherwise exist while you searched your memory for the word. For example:

And then it became perhaps a troublesome uh entity.

Similarly when you are not quite sure what you want to say, you can use er or erm to prevent silence. In these circumstances you may need to use er or erm more than once. For example:

Couple of other points about the um uh uh about the uh Vienna settlement in general.

It is particularly common to use uh at the beginning of a speaking turn, when after all you are most likely to be unsure how to say what you want to say. For example:

Speaker 1: Tell me about Santa Monica High School - how large is your graduating class?
Speaker 2: Uh my graduating class is about uh eight hundred I believe.

Because of this, it tends to occur particularly with replies where the speaker is unsure of how the information is going to be received. For example:

Speaker 1: How did you know I was going?
Speaker 2: UhI don't know I think Clare may have said something.

Some people frown on the use of uh and um, but they are found in the speech of most English speakers. It is perfectly acceptable to use them sometimes and it is much better than going silent in the middle of what you are saying.

OK

A case could be made that OK is one of the most important and useful discourse markers available to speakers of English. It has a number of uses and the list of these that follows is not complete. Perhaps the most basic use of OK (though not the most common) is to indicate that you accept a suggestion, request, offer, or information designed to help you achieve something. For example:

Speaker 1: You'll need to speak to Linda Hans in the administration office. She'll tell you.
Speaker 2: OK.

A related use of OK is to indicate that someone has responded to your suggestion, request, offer, or question in a satisfactory manner. For example:

Speaker 1: I'll give her a ring on Sunday and then I can give you a ring.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 1: OK.

Sometimes it serves to show that you accept the other person's response but you have something else to say that may affect the situation. For example:

Speaker 1: He must have been looking at the wrong columns, I think.
Speaker 2: Well, he shouldn't do.
Speaker 1: OK I'll nip up and see him again.

Another use for OK is to serve as a bridge between two topics or between two stages of the talk. Sometimes this takes the form of closing one topic and inviting another one. For example:

Speaker 1: Yeah I wanted to point out to you, you know, we don't want it to happen.
Speaker 2: Right, OK. Anything else?

Sometimes OK is used by lecturers and teachers to move on to the next stage of a lecture or lesson. For example:

The upshot was that in 1830 Greece became an independent state. Her independence guaranteed by Britain, Russia and France. OK um I suppose in this context that I ought to mention as well uh Belgium. I'll probably refer to it again later on. Uh in Belgium of course in 1830 um a nationalist revolt broke out in response really to the French revolution of that year.

It is also used by chairs of meetings to move on to the next item on an agenda or the next topic of discussion. For example:

Yes, and people should tell you if they take it. Mm, mm, OK, that's all from headquarters, right then we move on to 'Any other business'.

Because it is associated with rounding off a topic, OK has come to be used when a conversation is drawing to a close. You use it to indicate that you have accepted what the other person has said and that you have nothing much left to say yourself. For example:

Speaker 1: Oh yes, I'll ring later to confirm it.
Speaker 2: Great.
Speaker 1: OK.
Speaker 2: OK.
Speaker 1: Thanks a lot.
Speaker 2: Bye.
Speaker 1: Bye.

Sometimes, as in the example above, OK stands on its own; sometimes it is put in front of something else, such as bye or see you. For example:

Speaker 1: OK see you.
Speaker 2: Take care. Thanks for phoning.
Speaker 1: See you soon.
Speaker 2: OK bye.
Speaker 1: Bye.

If you learn to recognize the discourse markers we have discussed here and in the previous issue, you will be able to guess more accurately what the other person is trying to say. And if you can use discourse markers correctly in your own speech, you will sound very natural in English and your conversations will flow more smoothly.

Further reading

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