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The Word

Discourse markers are, like, important

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Um, don’t you get, you know, annoyed by verbal clutter?

Nothing sinks a public speaker quicker than an overdose of ums and uhs. Professional yakkers are expected to purge their speech of such lexical rubbish, lest they sound uncertain or amateurish. But we also tend to judge anyone harshly for using such words, especially if they say like more than 10 times in a five-minute conversation.

As usual, the truth about these seemingly useless words — called discourse markers — is different from their reputation. Without discourse markers, which also include so and indeed, we’d have a tougher time understanding each other. These insubstantial-seeming words are vital to the job of communication.

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Discourse markers help us understand each other in a few ways. As Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the Lingua Franca blog, put it in an e-mail, discourse markers “act like traffic signals in terms of alerting us to what is about to come in an utterance and/or helping us see how the upcoming utterance is related to what has just been said.”

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Those traffic signals are more necessary than you would think. Even tangled, chaotic city traffic is smooth and orderly compared to everyday conversation, which is not neat and tidy like the written word. If you recorded what you said for a whole day and transcribed the results, you’d be amazed anyone can understand you at all. Discourse markers help us out by, as Curzan points out, signaling clarifications and seguing to new topics. They help us avoid conversational speed bumps and traffic jams.

The most maligned discourse marker has to be like, which has long been a source of rants and misunderstandings. One myth is that all colloquial uses of like are the same, but there’s a big difference between saying, “I had, like, three doughnuts” and “She was like, what do you mean?” Another myth is that like is overwhelmingly used by teenage girls, but that fits sexist stereotypes more than reality. In fact, studies show some types of like are used more often by men. The world-champion myth dispeller in this area is Alexandra D’Arcy, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria who has a book forthcoming this year called “800 Years of Like: Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context.”

D’Arcy has accumulated a lot of knowledge about how like greases the wheels of conversation. One use of like as a discourse marker helps create flow in speech. These uses are often dismissed as vacuous, but they have concrete meaning and purpose. Some mean for example or let me elaborate, demonstrating that they have concrete meaning. This is the traffic signal kind of discourse marker, and like has been used that way for a surprisingly long time. The oldest known example in print is from Frances Burney’s 1788 novel “Evelina.” “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.”

Other uses of like function as the discourse marker’s close relative, the discourse particle: These words lack a specific meaning but have a definite purpose. This kind of like doesn’t mean “Let me clarify” so much as “This is what I want you to focus on” — the verbal equivalent of pointing. Such uses also establish solidarity between speakers, sending the message “We’re similar, and we’re in this together.” This “solidarity work,” D’Arcy explains, is vital to spoken language: “When they’re not there, conversation feels forced” and “There’s less of a rapport.” Curzan mentioned that this type of word allows people to “check in that others are following or mitigate our authority in a way that might make more space for other opinions.” Far from verbal junk, discourse markers and particles are social lubricants.

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Though the placement of like or uh may sound haphazard to non-experts, people don’t just throw them in anywhere. D’Arcy points out that when asked, “Did you have a good vacation?” people aren’t likely to begin their answer with “like,” though they might begin with “well.” That’s because well is used to answer and frame questions. Each discourse marker has its own rules and meanings, like any other word. Contrary to “common knowledge” and other folksy malarkey about language, there are no meaningless words.

The archetypal discourse markers are the ones that feel meaningless, like, um, and oh. But all registers of English include discourse markers, including very formal genres such as a college lecture or a newspaper article. The main difference is that the discourse markers accepted in those settings are words such as indeed and therefore, which most would think of as simply transitions. Sometimes a well-placed uh or um is used strategically in a formal setting to add an element of authenticity or folksiness, you know?

The dismissal of discourse markers — much like dislike of figurative literally and other language superstitions — is both strong, odd, and a bit ironic. People who laugh at anti-vaxxers and evolution deniers are just as likely to believe in equally batty, non-evidence-based ideas about language, regardless of their own knowledge or the facts. In fact, D’Arcy started studying like after a senior linguistics professor, of all people, said like wasn’t worth researching because “everyone knows it can go anywhere.” What can truly be found everywhere is willful ignorance.

Fortunately, there are some capable mythbusters out there, like Curzan, D’Arcy, and John McWhorter, who made a perfect comparison in his recent book, “Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).” “Just as geneticists are learning that ever more of what has been dismissed as ‘junk’ DNA has purpose, a great deal of what feels like trash in English is part of how the language gets basic work done.” So don’t, like, be an ignoramus when it comes to words you don’t enjoy.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece contained an incorrect affiliation for Alexandra D’Arcy. She is a professor at the University of Victoria.