The Discourse Marker Well in Preference Organizations

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The Discourse Marker Well in Preference Organizations Bai Ruixue 1. Introduction A discourse marker refers to a word which is loosely attached to a larger structure in a stretch of speech and which has discoursally defined role such as indicating a change in the direction of the discourse, or signaling the speaker's stance towrds what has been said. As for the members of disc..

The Discourse Marker Well in Preference Organizations

Bai Ruixue

1. Introduction

    A discourse marker refers to a word which is loosely attached to a larger structure in a stretch of speech and which has discoursally defined role such as indicating a change in the direction of the discourse, or signaling the speaker's stance towrds what has been said. As for the members of discourse markers, however, there is no general agreement. Here I prefer Holker’s criteria for discourse markers.

    Holker lists four basic features that characterize discourse markers . (1) they do not affect the truth conditions of an utterance; (2) they do not add anything to the prepositional content of an utterance; (3) they are related to the speech situation and not to the situation talked about; and (4) they have an emotive, expressive function rather than a referential, denotative, or cognitive function. According to all these, Well used in the way as in (1) is recognized as a discourse marker.

    (1) A: but who has to but it?

    B: well the the state has to but it but„

    The presence or absence of well in B’s utterance does not change the truth-condition

    and it does not add anything to the prepositional content of B’s utterance. The utterance would be a true or false representation of B’s opinion in exactly the same circumstances

    if B had omitted well. It does not add any information to the proposition that “the state has to buy it”. It probably indicates that the answer should have been clear to A, and thus it relates to the speech situation rather than to the situation talked about. Moreover, it does not have any referential function in this utterance, but it reflects the speaker’s attitude towards the question.

    The discourse marker well has received a great deal of attention. In the previous discussions, it has been accounted for in terms of marking an “insufficiency in response” (Lakoff), signaling a “face-threatening act” (Owen) or a “dispreferred”

    response (Levinson), marking a “response which is not fully consonant with prior coherence options” (Schiffrin), and indicating “acceptance/qualification” of a previous dialogue move (Wierzbicka: Carlson). My analysis here will be focused on the use of well in preference organizations, because, as Levinson points out, in contrast to “preferred” responses, “dispreferred seconds are marked by various kinds of structural complexity” and are typically delivered “after some significant delay” or with “some preface marking their dispreferred status, often the particle well.”

2. Preference organization and the use of well

    2.1 We will begin out discussion with the contiguous, alternating turns of talk, known as "adjacency pairs." The first part of an adjacency pair produces the expectation of a relevant and acceptable rejoinder in the second part. For example, a question by one speaker in the first part prompts an answer by the second speaker in the second part. The pragmatic function or purposive intention of the speaker in the first part (e.g., to elicit information by way of a question), then, constrains the kind of pragmatic function of the second part (in this case, to supply the information requested), provided that the second speaker wishes to be cooperative. Second parts differ, however, in the degree to which the second part is socially preferred or dispreferred. The cultural ranking of second parts as preferred or dispreferred is known as preference organization. Since the adjacency pair is not a linguistic structure, the occurrence of well , like other specific linguistic structures employed within adjacency pairs, does not necessarily entail a dispreferred response. This is abundantly evident in the following two examples of adjacency pairs:

    (2). A. Can you read music?

    B. Yes. [preferred]

    B'. Uh, yeah. Well, actually, kind of. [dispreferred]

    In this adjacency pair, the first speaker elicits information concerning the second speaker's musical abilities, and the response of the second speaker in (b) is preferred in that it provides the elicited information, the so-called minimal answer. To this we can compare a completely analogous adjacency pair with the same linguistic structure, but different pragmatics:

    (3) A. Can you tell me the time?

    B. Yes. [dispreferred]

    B’. Uh, yeah. Well, let's see. It's, uh, 10:30. [preferred]

    The response in (3B) is undoubtedly a dispreferred response; the first speaker does not elicit information concerning the second individual's time telling abilities, but wants the individual to convey what the time is. However, the dispreferred response in (3B) is linguistically identical to the preferred response in (2B); conversely, the preferred response in (3B') is linguistically identical to the dispreferred response in (2B'). The examples in (2) and (3) illustrate that linguistic structure is not at work in the preferential organization of adjacency pairs; rather, pragmatics and social convention determine whether or not a second is preferred or dispreferred.

    2.2 Owen (1981) has found the dispreferred response marked by well falls into two categories, disagreement and non-compliance.

(4) (disagreement)

    A: because some records are expensive aren’t they

    B: well they all are in a way

    (5) (non-compliance)

    A: can I see them

    B: um, well I’m not allowed to do that

    Actually, well marks any dispreferred seconds as opposed to the “unmarked” preferred form, such as request rejections, refusal of offers, disagreements after evaluative assessments, non-minimization of apology, etc. All these are based upon the flouting of Gricean maxims, in that well signals that flouting of one maxim or a combination of maxims will occur and thus prepares the first speaker for the implicature inference. (6) A: Where are my glasses?

    B: Well, they’re not here.

    Lakoff(1973a) has pointed out that one might characterize at least one sense of well as follows: well serves notice that the speaker is aware that he is unable to meet the requirements of the maxim of Quantity in full. As shown in the above example, the use of well indicates the contribution on the part of the second speaker can not be as informative as is required and thus forms a dispreferred response. In this way, the response-initial particle reminds the listener of the implicature followed, that is, “I don’t know where your glasses are” or “I haven’t taken your glasses”.

    Another classic example comes from Lakoff.

    (7) A: Did you kill your wife?

    B: Yes.

    B’: Well, yes.

    Although the addition of well in the second answer does not change the truth-condition of the answer in the same set of circumstances, the two options are not interchangeable. The first is a direct answer as well as a preferred one, since yes-no questions prefer minimal answers, which gives all the information asked for by A, the judge. The second answer, however, with the use of well, flouts the Quantity maxim as well by providing extra information seemingly more than what is required. The flouting here suggests that yes on its own is not a complete answer presumably because there are extenuating circumstances. The judge would most probably follow up the second answer by something

    like “what do you mean by “well yes”?” or “which of the assumptions made manifest previous to your utterance do you suggest are invalid?”

    (2). A. Can you read music?

    B. Yes. [preferred]

    B'. Uh, yeah. Well, actually, kind of. [dispreferred]

    Reexamining the already mentioned pair (2), we will the dispreferred answer in B’ constitutes a flouting of not only the Quantity maxim, but also the maxim of Manner, in that well, together with other “hedges” like “kind of”, renders the answer into obscure and somewhat vague.

    2.3 The motives behind the use of well as preferred response marker can sometimes be attributed to the politeness considerations as a pragmatic strategy, which is absent within Grice’s Cooperative Principles. The superficial irrelevant answer in (1), for

    example, serves the rejection function in an indirect and polite way to avoid offensiveness. On such occasions, the particle “softens” the dispreference. It is in this sense that Owen establishes an association between the presence of well and “face-threatening acts” and refers to the speaker’s use of well as a “strategy for signaling that a face threat is about to occur, thereby giving attention to alter’s face and reducing the subsequent threat”.

    3. Conclusion

    As analyzed above, the interjection well is used in preference organizations to mark the dispreferred response and thus to prepare the listener for the inference of the speaker’s implicature, if there is any in the dispreferred response, in terms of the cooperative principles. The introduction of this marker into the dispreferred answer as the initiator is due to the politeness considerations.

    Similar discourse markers can also be found cross-linguistically. In Chinese, for instance, some markers such as “这个”,“唔”?“嗯”have dispreferred or deferral uses.

    A comparison is supposed to be conducted in later papers, which would be worthwhile.


    1. Leech, G.1983. Principles of Pragmatics. Longman.

2. Levinson, S.1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press.

    3. Sperber, D& D.Wilson.1986. Relevance:Communication and cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    4. Schiffrin, D. 1987. Discourse markers. Cambridge University Press.

    5. Greasley, P. 1992. An investigation into the use of the particle well: Commentaries on a game of snooker.

    Journal of Pragmatics 22.

    6. Jucker, A. H. 1991. The discourse marker well: A relevance-theoretical account. Journal of Pragmatics 19.

7. 何自然? 1995? 语用学与英语学习. 上海外语教育出版社。----1987?语用学概论. 湖南


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