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Using Discourse Markers in American English

Imagine you are watching an old American movie -- the crime film “Dirty Harry.”

You have heard that one part of the film is very famous in American culture.

You watch the scene, which sounds like this:

You go to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Well, do you, punk?

A sudden, strange thought comes to your mind. What is the purpose of the word well?

You have heard different English speakers use the word in different ways, but you are not sure what it means.

In our Everyday Grammar report, we will explore the common adverb well. We will show you how Americans use it while they are speaking.

Do not fear. Unlike an unexpected meeting with Dirty Harry, this report will be painless!

What are adverbs?

Adverbs are one of the most difficult subjects in English grammar. They are difficult because they represent a large group of words that have different uses.

In general, the definition of an adverb is this: a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence.

Adverbs are often used to show time, place or a way of doing things. They can also show a degree or measurement of something.

Consider the sentence, "I really like English grammar." The adverb really changes the meaning of the verb like. The adverb really increases the force of the statement.

There are also sentence adverbs. They limit or describe the meaning of an entire statement.

Sentence adverbs also provide more information about the sentence. These are sometimes called conjunctive adverbs or discourse markers. Regardless of the name you choose to call them, the purpose is the same: They connect sentences in the same way coordinating conjunctions do, but they provide a different kind of information.

Here is an example.

Let’s consider the statement:

"I love English; however, I do not love English grammar!"

The word however is a conjunctive adverb that shows a contrast or comparison is coming.

You can read more about words like these in an earlier Everyday Grammar story called "Contrast and Concession."

The case of "well"

Today we are considering common conjunctive adverbs, or discourse markers, and how they are used in everyday-speech.

Let’s go back to the word well. As you heard at the beginning of today's program, well can have a few different uses.

1. Well indicates contrast or disagreement

The first use is to show a contrast or even a disagreement. Consider this line from the ending of the American film “Some Like It Hot.”

"You don't understand, Osgood! I'm a man."

"Well, nobody's perfect..."

Here, the speaker uses well to show that a contrast is coming.

The first speaker, the actor Jack Lemmon, expects the second person to become angry when he states he is not a woman, but a man.

But Osgood reacts in an unexpected, or contrasting way. He does not act surprised at all!

2. Wells shows uncertainty

The second use of well is to show uncertainty, especially in answers.

Consider this exchange between two friends.

"Do you mind if I borrow five dollars?

Well, I'm not sure if I have any money with me..."

In this example, the second speaker is a little slow in responding. The word well shows that she is not sure if she has the money. Or, maybe she knows she has five dollars, but she does not want to say so.

Whatever the case, the point is that well serves as a word that shows movement between the question and the answer. This transition shows that there is some uncertainty.

3. To show a conversation is ending

The third common use of well is to show a transition to the end of a conversation.

Consider this example. Imagine you are in a business meeting, and your boss makes the following statement:

"Well, this meeting has been very productive."

In this case, the word well is showing a transition to the end of the meeting. Your boss is showing that he wants the meeting to end soon.

In American culture, this is considered a careful, indirect way to end a conversation.

However, if a speaker directs your attention to the word "well," then the meaning changes. The statement can take on an angry, tense sound.

Consider the difference between these two statements:

"Well, this meeting has been very productive."

"WELL, this meeting has been very productive."

The first statement is a respectful way to end a meeting.

The second statement is a tense, perhaps angry way to bring a meeting to an end. If you heard the second statement in a business meeting, then you should know that something is wrong!

Do you understand the uses of well?

Think back to the movie scene you heard at the beginning of this report. Now that you have learned about the word well, consider what Dirty Harry might have meant.

Like any good crime film, we end with a few questions.

What do you think Dirty Harry meant when he said well? Does he use it in a way that has the same meaning as the uses of well we have discussed, or does he use it in a different way?

Leave your answers in the Comments Section on our website, learningenglish.voanews.com, or on our Facebook page.

Well, I guess that is all for today's program. Until next time!

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

scene – n. a part of a play, movie, story, etc., in which a particular action or activity occurs

adverb – n. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree

conjunctive adverb – n. a conjunction that connects two sentences with an adverbial emphasis

coordinating conjunction – n. a conjunction (such as and, or, or but) that joins together words, phrases, or clauses of equal importance

contrast – n. to be different especially in a way that is very obvious

uncertainty – n. the quality or state of being uncertain

degree – n. a step in a process or order of classification

regardless adv. without being stopped by difficulty or trouble

transition – n. passage from one subject or place to another