Academic journal article International Forum of Teaching and Studies

Corpus-Based Analysis of DM Well's Pragmatic Functions

Academic journal article International Forum of Teaching and Studies

Corpus-Based Analysis of DM Well's Pragmatic Functions

Article excerpt


Based on the abundant data provided by the BNC (British National Corpus), this paper intends to make a comprehensive description and analysis of the pragmatic functions and conversational meanings of the discourse marker well. The functions of well can be divided into two main categories: the textual level and the interpersonal level. On the textual level, well is used as a transition marker to signal topic shift and assist in turn-taking. On the interpersonal level, well functions as a politeness marker, to mitigate the potential threat to the hearer's face in situations of conflict or disagreement. Other functions of well which do not belong to these two categories will also be investigated.

[Keywords] Discourse marker; pragmatic functions; textual level; interpersonal level; well


Although discourse markers (DMs) have existed for a long time in language, serious interest in the study of them has been shown only in the last two decades. Well, as the most widely recognized discourse marker, has probably attracted more attention than any other discourse marker in English (Schourup, 2001, p. 1025). On the one hand, this is because of its high frequency of occurrence in spoken English. According to Romero Trillo (2002), in the London-Lund Corpus, well, together with you know and I mean, show the highest percentage in native speakers' speech, except for affirmative or negative elements, i.e., yeas, yeah, no. On the other hand, the typicality well displays as a discourse marker makes it more preferable for studies on this subject.

As a discourse marker, well shows a great complexity in conversational meanings. Every single function of it has been subjected to a wide range of interpretations. Its status as a marker has barely been doubted, but the complexity of its pragmatic functions has proven to be a challenge for many scholars. The problem is that many of the functions are vague or elusive and there is no clear-cut line between them, thus causing the work of classification to be rather difficult. Blakemore (2002, p. 130) pointed out that "the elusiveness of well derives from the range of different purposes it seems to serve in different contexts". In other words, the function of well is determined by the specific context. Furthermore, well mainly functions as a response marker at those points in conversation when the coherence of the discourse is in danger and further negotiation needs to be made to maintain the coherence (Schiffrin 1987).

Thus, the interpretation of its function demands investigation of a wide context which shall reveal both the preceding and the upcoming utterances. Most of the conversation materials adopted in this study are extended examples excerpted from the British National Corpus (BNC hereafter). Not only will they ensure a clear view of the interlocutors' speech flow, but also provide background information concerning the discourse context and the participants, such as their age, gender, profession and so on.

Previous studies (Svartvik, 1980; Schiffrin, 1987; Jucker, 1993) show that discourse functions displayed by well can be divided into two main categories: one is its function on the textual level, as a text-structuring device; the other is on the interpersonal level, as a means to bring across a subjective or personal message between the interlocutors.

In light of these studies, the classification used in this study also consists of two main categories: first, on the textual level, well is used to mark the boundary of turns, introduce a newtopic or signal the closure of the present topic; second, on the interpersonal level, well mainly functions as a politeness marker, mitigates face-threat acts (FTA), and also marks emotions like surprise, anger, hesitation or relief. However, among the wide range of functions that well performs, many do not belong to either of these categories. At the same time, it is not possible to subsume them all into one homogeneous category. …

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