That's what they say, you know?

Aug 4, 2013

  Everybody does it. When a conversation begins to lack, we fill the silence with a simple “You know,” or “I mean.”

These phrases are often viewed as meaningless, but on this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan explains how these harmless phrases are actually doing more in speech than you may think.

Although at times overused the words “you know” actually has a significant purpose, as Anne Curzan explains:

“So these little words or phrases that sit at the margins of discourse, and help to organize it, are something that linguists call discourse markers. ‘You know’ and ‘I mean’ are two very common ones. They can help to signal to a listener what’s about to happen in the conversation.”

These words can take on many roles in everyday speech. Discourse markers give us clues to what’s next in a conversation, but also set solidarity and establish relationships. Discourse markers even act as flags in a conversation, letting you know when it’s your turn to speak.

“When you think about conversations, one of the tricky things is taking turns; when do I know that you’re done speaking, when do you know that I’m done speaking? One is I just stop talking and sit there in silence…another is that I can end my turn with ‘You know,'" says Curzan.

The phrase “I mean” is another common discourse marker, but tends to take on a different role in everyday speech, as Curzan explains:

“’I mean’ is one of the ways that we signal adjustment. So if I needed to adjust something I’ve just said, I can say: ‘I would never do that! I mean, if it was an emergency, I might.’”

Keep an ear keen to these discourse markers and you’ll be able to navigate even the least attention grabbing conversations.

--Austin Davis