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Discourse Markers

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Discourse Markers

Discourse markers are words and phrases that are used to manage and organize the structure of discourse. They connect sentences without changing the general meaning of what is being said. Discourse markers are also known as linking words, linking phrases or sentence connectors.

Discourse markers are words and phrases such as '' well '', '' I mean '', '' because '' and '' however ''.

The term 'discourse markers' was first introduced in 1988 by the American linguist Deborah Schiffrin.

What is the purpose of discourse markers?

Discourse markers are helpful tools in making speech and writing both logical and coherent. Without discourse markers, the connections between sentences and paragraphs wouldn't be as smooth or clear.

Let's take a look at some examples with and without the use of discourse markers to see what effect they have:

With discourse markers:

  1. I don't like milk and it's not because I'm lactose intolerant.
  2. I usually wouldn't go to the theatre but I'll go with you.
  3. She's the most experienced doctor in the surgery, so they treat her with respect.

Without discourse markers:

  1. I don't like milk. I'm not lactose intolerant.
  2. I usually wouldn't go to the theater. I'll go with you.
  3. She's the most experienced doctor in the surgery. They treat her with respect.

Note how the use of the discourse markers ('' because '', '' but '' and '' so '') help the phrases to flow a lot smoother. Without discourse markers, the messages that are being sent might be vague and they might not even be understood.

Discourse Marker Illustration of waves StudySmarter Discourse markers help a conversation flow (Pixabay)

What are the four categories of discourse markers?

Discourse markers are split into four broad categories - interpersonal discourse markers, referential discourse markers, structural discourse markers and cognitive discourse markers. These categories were created by Israeli linguist Yael Maschler.

Now, let's take a closer look at each category of discourse markers.

Interpersonal discourse markers

The purpose of interpersonal discourse markers is to indicate the relationship between the listener and the speaker.

There are a number of attitudes that show this relationship:

Perception

Interpersonal discourse markers that show perception include words and phrases such as 'look ', 'believe me' and 'you know'.

EVELYN: It was such a horrible experience.

AMIR: Believe me, I get it. It was horrible for me too.

EVELYN: Look , I know it seems like a lot now, for both of us. But we'll be fine. It's going to be alright, you know .

AMIR: Yeah. I know.

'Believe me', 'look' and 'you know' are interpersonal discourse markers that are used to express the perception of the participants in the conversation. They establish the relationship between Evelyn and Amir who exchange their turns as listener and speaker back and forth.

Agreement or Disagreement

Agreement can be expressed through the use of interpersonal discourse markers such as 'exactly', 'absolutely', 'certainly', 'definitely', 'okay' ', and 'I see'. Disagreement can be voiced with interpersonal discourse markers such as 'I'm not sure', 'mind you', 'I don't think so', 'I beg to differ' and 'not necessarily'.

Agreement :

AMIR: I think this is a very ugly vase.

EVELYN: Absolutely ! It's hideous.

Disagreement :

AMIR: I think this is a very ugly vase.

EVELYN: I don't think so . It looks fine to me.

Note how, depending on the different discourse markers that are used, Evelyn can express either agreement or disagreement with Amir's statement.

Amazement

Amazement can be expressed through the use of a number of different interpersonal discourse markers, such as 'wow', 'wonderful' and 'yay'.

EVELYN: Look at my new dress!

MAYA: Wow! It's gorgeous!

The interpersonal discourse marker 'wow' enhances Maya's expression of amazement.

Referential discourse markers

Referential discourse markers are usually conjunctions. They are used to indicate the sequence, causality (the cause and effect) and coordination between sentences.

Sequence

Referential discourse markers that indicate sequence are words and phrases such as 'now' and 'then'.

MAYA: Now I'm fine. But you should've been there! He shouted at me ..

AMIR: And then what happened?

MAYA: Then I started crying.

Here, the referential discourse markers are used to organise Maya's story in sequences.

Causality

The cause and effect of an action, also known as causality, can be shown through the referential discourse markers 'because', 'as a result of', 'thanks to' and 'due to'.

EVELYN: I was late because my alarm didn't go off. Why were you late?

AMIR: Thanks to my brother who was in the bathroom, I had to wait for half an hour before I could brush my teeth!

Evelyn and Amir use the referential discourse markers 'because' and 'thanks to' to state the reasons for being late.

Coordination and Non-coordination

Referential discourse markers that express coordination and non-coordination, are used to connect sentences that are complete thoughts that don't depend on each other to make sense separately. To indicate coordination, you can use referential discourse markers such as 'and' and 'so'. As for non-coordination, you can use the referential discourse marker 'but'.

Take a look at these examples:

Coordination :

My shift ended and I went home.

The same effect can be achieved through the use of the discourse marker 'so':

Coordination :

My shift ended so I went home.

Non-coordination :

My shift hadn't ended but I went home.

Depending on the different discourse markers that are used, the message can be either one of coordination ('and', 'so') or non-coordination ('but').

Structural discourse markers

The role of structural discourse markers is to indicate the hierarchy of the actions in a conversation at the exact time they are being performed. This category of discourse markers expresses the value the speaker adds to the statements that are uttered in a conversation, highlighting which statements are the least and the most important to them.

Organization

Structural discourse markers that are used to show organization include phrases such as 'first of all', 'secondly', 'for a start', 'next' and 'last of all'.

EVELYN: First of all, you don't know me.

AMIR: Okay, and what's second of all?

EVELYN: Secondly, you have no right to judge me.

AMIR: I didn't mean to ...

EVELYN: And last of all, no one can tell me how to live my life.

In this conversation, Evelyn uses structural discourse markers to lay out her point and, in this way, to make a statement.

Introduction

Introduction can be expressed through the use of the structural discourse markers 'so', 'to begin with', 'to start with', 'for a start'.

MAYA: So we'll start the presentation by welcoming all of you here today.

EVELYN: Yes, thank you all for coming. To begin with, let's introduce ourselves!

Maya and Evelyn both use structural discourse markers to indicate the beginning of their presentation. As a structural discourse marker, 'so' has a different function than as a referential discourse marker. While as a referential discourse marker, 'so' is used to express coordination and to connect equal statements, as a structural discourse marker, the function of 'so' is to indicate the beginning of a statement.

Summarisation

Summarisation is the opposite of introduction - it expresses the ending of a statement. Some structural discourse markers that are used for summarization are: 'in the end', 'to sum up', 'to conclude', and 'in conclusion'.

EVELYN: To sum up, with this whole presentation, all we really want to say to you is that the most important thing in life is to be kind to others.

MAYA: In the end, that's all that really matters, isn't it?

Here, Evelyn and Maya use structural discourse markers to conclude their presentation and summarize their message.

Cognitive discourse markers

Cognitive discourse markers are used to reveal the thought process of the speaker(s) during a conversation.

Processing information

A speaker can express how they are processing the information that is exchanged during a conversation, through the use of cognitive discourse markers such as 'uhh', 'um ' and 'erm'.

AMIR: So what do you think?

MAYA: Um... I'm not sure. Let me think.

Amir asks Maya a question and her thought process is revealed through the use of the cognitive discourse marker 'um'.

Realization

Realization can be indicated through the use of cognitive discourse markers such as 'oh!', 'Really?' And 'oh no! '.

EVELYN: We're going to be late for class!

MAYA: Oh no! Let's hurry!

Maya's immediate reaction upon realizing the information she has been given is expressed through the cognitive discourse marker 'oh no!'.

Rephrasing

Some of the cognitive discourse markers you can use are those used to rephrase something you have already said. They include 'I mean' and 'in other words'.

I like pizza. I mean, I don't mind having it once in a while.

So that the speaker isn't misunderstood, they rephrase the statement with the cognitive discourse marker 'I mean'. This means they don't want pizza all the time, only 'once in a while'.

Formal discourse markers vs Informal discourse markers

Discourse markers can be used for different formal and informal purposes, both in discourse and in spoken conversation. Formal discourse markers are used in formal discourse while informal discourse markers are used in informal discourse .

In written discourse, formal discourse markers occur in academic essays, official work-related documents, formal letters and emails. Informal discourse markers occur in more informal forms of communication, like emails, texts and DMs between friends. Formal discourse markers appear in formal communication, like diplomatic or business negotiations. Informal discourse markers are used in casual conversations between friends and small talk between acquaintances.

Some examples of formal and informal discourse markers are:

Structural discourse markers stating organization (to introduce additional information):

  • In addition, Furthermore, Moreover (formal)
  • What's more, On top of that (informal)

Referential discourse markers stating non-coordination (to state something that is despite what has already been said or written):

  • However, Nevertheless. Nonetheless (formal)
  • But (informal)

Referential discourse markers stating causality (to explain something that is the result of something else):

  • Consequently (formal)
  • Because (informal)

Let's take a look at this example that shows the difference between formal and informal discourse markers:

Formal: I was exhausted. Nevertheless, I continued working.

Informal: I was exhausted but I kept on working.

Discourse markers - key takeaways

  • Discourse markers, also known as linking words, are words and phrases that are used to manage and organize the structure of discourse. Discourse markers are words and phrases such as 'well', 'because', 'however'.
  • Without discourse markers, the connections between sentences and paragraphs wouldn't be as smooth and might sometimes be unclear.
  • There are four categories of discourse markers: interpersonal discourse markers, referential discourse markers, structural discourse markers and cognitive discourse markers.
  • Interpersonal discourse markers express perception, agreement or disagreement, and amazement. Referential discourse markers indicate sequence, causality, and coordination. Structural discourse markers show organization, introduction, and summary. Cognitive discourse markers express processing information, realization, and rephrasing.
  • Discourse markers can be formal (moreover) and informal (what's more).

Frequently Asked Questions about Discourse Markers

Discourse markers are words and phrases that are used to manage and organize the structure of discourse. Discourse markers are also known as linking words, linking phrases or sentence connectors.


'' I mean '', '' because '' and '' however '' are examples of discourse markers.

You use discourse markers to connect sentences without changing the general meaning of what is being said. Discourse markers are helpful tools in making speech, and writing, logical and coherent. Without discourse markers, the connections between sentences and paragraphs wouldn't run as smoothly and could sometimes be unclear.


Interpersonal discourse markers, Referential discourse markers, Structural discourse markers, and Cognitive discourse markers.


Final Discourse Markers Quiz

Question

Which discourse marker would you add to link the sentences?


This is my favourite show. Watching it always makes me feel better.


Show answer

Answer

 Because

Show question

Question

Which formal discourse marker corresponds to the informal discourse marker ‘’but’’?


Show answer

Answer

 However

Show question

Question

What do interpersonal discourse markers express?


Show answer

Answer

Amazement


Show question

Question

Does this sentence contain a structural discourse marker?


And thirdly, I would like to thank my parents.


Show answer

Answer

Yes


Show question

Question

What does the referential discourse marker ‘’so’’ indicate in the following sentence?


They came to pick me up so I left with them. 

Show answer

Answer

 Coordination

Show question

Question

What do referential discourse markers express?

Show answer

Answer

 Sequence

Show question

Question

Does the discourse marker ‘’and then’’ express organisation in this sentence?


And then I had a cup of tea.


Show answer

Answer

No.

Show question

Question

Which informal discourse marker corresponds to the formal discourse marker ‘’furthermore’’?


Show answer

Answer

 On top of that

Show question

Question

Which discourse marker would you add to link the sentences?


I’m so sorry. I never wanted you to get hurt.


Show answer

Answer

 Believe me

Show question

Question

Does the referential discourse marker ‘’and’’ express causality?

Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

Which of these is NOT a cognitive discourse marker?


Show answer

Answer

 Wow

Show question

Question

Does the cognitive discourse marker in this sentence express rephrasing?


Oh, I didn’t realise you were home early.


Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

What does the structural discourse marker ‘’to sum up’’ indicate?


Show answer

Answer

 Summarisation

Show question

Question

Referential discourse markers are usually _______.

Show answer

Answer

conjunctions

Show question

Question

Interpersonal discourse markers indicate the relationship between the listener and the speaker.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Interpersonal discourse markers can be used to express agreement.


Which of the following markers does not express agreement?

Show answer

Answer

mind you

Show question

Question

Interpersonal discourse markers can be used to express disagreement.


Which of the following markers does not express disagreement?

Show answer

Answer

I see

Show question

Question

How many categories are discourse markers split into?

Show answer

Answer

4

Show question

Question

Discourse markers can only be formal.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Discourse markers can only be informal.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Informal discourse markers occur in informal forms of communication.


Which of the following is an example of informal communication?


Show answer

Answer

Direct messages (DMs)

Show question

Question

Formal discourse markers are used in formal communication.


Which of the following is an example of formal communication?

Show answer

Answer

Academic essays

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Structural discourse markers indicate the ________ of actions in a conversaiton.

Show answer

Answer

hierarchy

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Cognitive discourse markers are used to reveal the _______ process of the speaker during a conversation.

Show answer

Answer

thought

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Discourse markers are also known as _______ words.

Show answer

Answer

linking

Show question

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