Understanding Discourse Particles & Associated Functions – LearnMate

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Discourse Particle Functions for VCE English Language Students

As the exam is only a couple of weeks away, it’s important that you begin to finalise your knowledge of key content in the study design.

One particular area that many students struggle with is discourse particles and their associated functions. This is from Unit 3 AOS 1 (mainly), and if you get an informally spoken text in the exam, these, therefore, have a high chance of appearing.
To help with this area, I’d recommend creating a definitions list of all the possible discourse particles and their associated functions. Understand that discourse particles usually have more than one function and depends highly on the context. So not only do you need to know the functions you must also select the relevant one for that given context.
But first, what in the world are discourse particles?

In Practical English Usage, Michael Swan defines a ‘discourse marker’ as ‘a word or expression which shows the connection between what is being said and the wider context’. For him, a discourse marker is something that either connects a sentence to what comes before or after or indicates a speaker’s attitude to what he is saying. The main reasons include the following:

  1. to provide a sense of where something is in relation to something else;
  2. to supply a sense of when something is happening;
  3. to compare two ideas and express similarities;
  4. to contrast ideas English provides many examples to signal the notion of difference;
  5. to present additional or supplementary ideas;
  6. to indicate that a point in a discussion has been conceded or already taken into account;
  7. to demonstrate a sense of logical sequence;
  8. to offer an illustration or an example;
  9. to deliver a summary of the ideas discussed.

Examples include: “well”, “now”, “then”, “you know”, “I mean”, “like”, “I think”, “anyway” and “yeah nah”.

To put these into context, I have attached a photo of a sheet that I discovered a few years ago on the various functions. SEE HIGH-RESOLUTION IMAGE HERE.


Okay, great! So you now know the functions, but HOW do you identify it in a text and EXPLAIN its purpose? This can be much harder. Below is an excerpt from a past practice exam (Scotch College) and I’ve highlighted some discourse particles. Ignore the unusual transcription symbols, and focus on the discourse particles. Your task is to also highlight some other discourse particles.

Lenore and Alina have met for a coffee and are discussing an acquaintance.

1 LENORE: [Disgusting].

2 ALINA: [(TSK) Well you know],

3 LENORE: (Hx)

4 ALINA: remember ^Tyke?,

5 .. Lived next door to Mom?.

6 LENORE: .. (%) … Yeah:.

7 ALINA: … Okay.

8 (H) .. Two weeks ago I’m watching TV,

9 .. and David Horowitz is going to have,

10 this former car .. radio thief on?.

11 LENORE: … It’s her boyfriend?.

12 ALINA: (H) .. Yeah,

13 her ex-boyfriend.

14 … ^Mike.

15 … He’s the one that stole ~Hector’s radio.

16 LENORE: … How do you know.

17 ALINA: (H) Well,

18 … cause well,

19 .. he —

20 .. he was a cocaine addict.

21 So he’s talking about,

22 #he —

23 <VOX> #you #know he’s,

24 yeah man,

25 he’s gonna show us,

26 .. you know,

27 how # not #,


29 ALINA: to protect your car,

30 not to get it,

31 you know,

32 ripped off man.

33 Cause,

34 you know,

35 I —

36 .. yeah,

37 I was into it,

38 uh let me show you how easy it was </VOX>.

39 (H) He’s actually pretty intelligent.

40 .. You know he just —

41 … (H) uneducated,

42 so,

43 .. u:m,

44 .. (TSK) yeah:.

45 ~Hector’s radio:,

46 with —

47 I– it was bro:ken,

48 we were gonna s– —

49 take it out and send it back to the factory,

50 to get a new factory,

51 .. (H) radio,

52 we never got a chance,

53 because,

54 the back window was broken,

55 and they stole #it.

56 … The radio.

57 … And you can’t send something back to the factory,

58 that isn’t there any[more],

59 LENORE: [<WH> @@@ </WH>]

60 ALINA: right?,

61 .. So he never got his [radio.

62 LENORE: [It’s really hard.

63 ALINA: (H):]

64 LENORE: <WH> Oh.

65 Shit </WH>].

66 ALINA: So he got another radi[2o this] summer,

67 LENORE: [2(H):]

68 ALINA: but of course that got ripped off also.

69 <VOX> But never mind </VOX>.

70 (Hx[:])

71 LENORE: [He’s #having] bad luck with that car.

In the above excerpt, as shown on line 42 – 44, the discourse particle ‘so yeah’, can be used a way of signally a refocusing on a previous part in the utterance (topic shift or focus).
‘Well’ can be used as a means of introducing a new topic to signal that you’ll be talking for a long period of time. I can also be used a hedging expression ‘Well, I don’t necessarily agree with you.”

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Thanks! I sincerely hope this helps!


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Understanding Discourse Particles & Associated Functions – LearnMate

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