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Pragmatic Markers in British English

Meaning in Social Interaction


Kate Beeching


Cambridge: University Press, 2016

Hardcover. xvii+255 p. ISBN 978-1107032767. £70


Reviewed by Laure Gardelle

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon



This volume offers a corpus-based study of six pragmatic markers commonly occurring in contemporary British English: well, I mean, just, sort of, like and you know. Being pragmatic markers, they are fundamental to spontaneous conversation and more generally to social interaction. Although a number of studies have been devoted to one or the other marker, the originality of the volume is that it adopts both a sociolinguistic and a historical perspective. It seeks to establish the functions of the markers, their distributional frequency across social groups and spoken genres, speakers’ judgment and historical semantic changes.

The latter dimension is very difficult to study in the absence of spoken data before the advent of the tape recorder, but the author relies on transcripts of the Old Bailey trials (Old Bailey corpus), which can still provide some insight into how the language was spoken. For contemporary British English, the study relies on the British National Corpus and the UWE Role-Play Corpus, a small corpus recorded at the University of the West of England, Bristol, for which students were asked to argue the case for either working in a big company or doing voluntary work during the summer holidays. The UWE corpus is restricted to a specific communicative situation, but proved useful in that it contained a high number of pragmatic markers. Finally, in order to assess speakers’ attitudes towards the markers (stigmatisation, degree of politeness, degree of education, etc.), a sample of non-linguistically-trained native speakers were asked to fill in a modified matched-guise questionnaire.

The book is divided into nine chapters. After a review of the literature (on pragmatic markers, pragmaticalisation and grammaticalisation, politeness, sociolinguistics) and a theoretical definition of pragmatic markers, in particular in relation to discourse markers (chapter 1), the author details her methodology (chapter 2), then devotes one chapter to each of the six markers. Finally, chapter 9 draws the findings together to propose a comparison between the markers.

The volume is very well documented; here is a selection of items which I found of particular interest. As regards methodology, the constructionist approach to sociolinguistics has shown that speakers ‘style’ their speech according to the circumstances; one should therefore not too hastily associate linguistic forms with particular social classes or gender groupings. Another important distinction is that between ‘real time’ and ‘apparent time’: when the data show a higher frequency of a pragmatic marker among the younger generation, it might be that the form is spreading, but there might also be an ‘age-grading’ phenomenon, whereby speakers use a form when young, but will drop it as they get older and move into careers and parenthood.

As regards the individual markers, the author finds that the main pragmatic function of well is to flag a demurral, provide a moment of hesitation. Aijmer (2013) also shows that some functions of well are more common in certain situations. For instance, in broadcast discussions, a moderator will use well to control the discussion; or in cross-examinations in court, well is often used to introduce a challenging question. Another interesting conclusion is that speakers sometimes assess a sentence without well as more dogmatic or impolite as the version with well; it is therefore important for learners of English to master the use of pragmatic markers in the relevant contexts. Finally, the author shows that pragmatic well is clearly derived from the adverbial usage (e.g. she sings well). Studies have shown similar evolutions in other languages, for instance for French bon and Chinese hao (‘good’).

Just is highly polysemous. Although it is often described as a minimiser, it can also be used to intensify (e.g. just terrible), and again, its pragmatic functions will depend partly on the communicative speech act. Moreover, just might be undergoing change in contemporary English: it is apparently less stigmatised among younger speakers and its use for downtoning purposes is increasing.

You know differs from the others in that it is in the second person, therefore enjoining the addressee to share or collude in the speaker’s opinion. Its core function is to create, or at least pretend to create, common ground between the speakers. Hence a high number of occurrences in some politicians’ speech (e.g. Barack Obama, Tony Blair), which make them come across as relaxed, in touch with ordinary voters. Macaulay (2012) also finds that the use of you know is not well established by the age of 14. Zheng (2012) concludes that male speakers tend to use the marker especially to correct or describe something that they are not certain about, while female speakers tend to use it as an attention-getter at the beginning of an utterance, or in medial position (emotion + you know + explanation) to signal a transition from personal feelings to factual description.

As regards like, which has been widely studied in contemporary British English, the author describes one of its primary pragmatic functions as indicating approximation or looseness of meaning. This is what makes it particularly suitable for hedging. The author also concludes that like is still undergoing change: it is less stigmatised among younger speakers, and a be like form to introduce quoted speech has recently emerged. Finally, the pragmatic uses of like are historically derived from its meaning ‘similar to / such as’, with a spread from exemplification and approximation to quotative and hedging usages.

Sort of stands out as being most heavily used by the upper middle class, especially in academic discourse. There, it is used to flag the inadequacy of an expression or to downplay expertise; the speaker thus comes across as friendly, modest and approachable. The author also proposes an interesting comparison with kind of.

Finally, I mean, one of the most common pragmatic markers in English, has many different pragmatic functions, such as self-repair, hesitation, clarification, concession and nuancing, or hedging. It is used both by confident and less confident speakers, and in the corpus, it is most common among skilled workers. There are no gender-exclusive usages, but male speakers in the authors’ data use it more at the beginning of sentences, to mark hesitation, while female speakers tend to prefer sentence-medial uses, to introduce clarifications or for hedging or boosting purposes. This difference might be related to the tendency for less powerful speakers to be more tentative, but might also be due to differences in the topics broached and modes of interaction among male vs. female speakers.

In the last chapter, the author shows that all six markers convey sociability or friendliness, although some of them are stigmatised. As regards their functions, only well and you know are used to take or relinquish a turn; well, in particular, occurs almost exclusively at the beginning of turns, except when used for self-repair. As regards social class, none of the forms is exclusive to one class, although the markers might be dominant in one class, and there is no clear unidirectional stratification. About the age factor, the author finds that well, you know and I mean tend to become more frequent with age, contrary to like and just, which are most common among the 15-24-year-olds. Sort of is most frequent among the 25-34-year-olds. Female speakers use pragmatic markers more than male speakers, yet none of the forms is gender-exclusive. As regards situational variation, only well and like are most frequent in colloquial and informal genres; the others are found to prevail in conversations between unequals (tutors and students, doctors and patients, etc.).

For all these findings, as well as others which could not be mentioned in this review, Kate Beeching’s volume will be very helpful to anyone interested in pragmatics and sociolinguistics, as well as to specialists of pragmatic markers. The corpus-based results sometimes prove slightly disappointing, due to insurmountable constraints (the Old Bailey trials were not transcribed verbatim; the spoken data in the BNC are highly valuable, but necessarily limited when one seeks to distinguish between several parameters; the UWE corpus is restricted to argumentative discourse), but the very clear review of the literature, the definite conclusions that can nonetheless be drawn from the data, and the parallel and systematic study of six markers in the same variety of English, make the volume a most important contribution to the field.


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