Discussing Discourse Particles and Their Importance in Conversations

Discussing Discourse Particles and Their Importance in Conversations

This article has been written by Liam McAlary, a Years 7 – 12, VCE Legal Studies and VCE English Language Tutor at Learnmate. If you’re interested in private tutoring from Liam then please check out his page here.


Hello everyone, here is my article for March. After chatting to clients, I have decided to devote this article to discourse particles. Discourse particles are particularly important when discussing informal conversations in Unit 3 Area of Study 1, however they can be confusing. Depending on the context in which they are used, discourse particles can serve a wide array of purposes.

In doing some research and reading for this article, I came across a YouTube video, which was prepared by Dmitri Dalla-Riva (the owner of Learnmate Tutoring and therefore my boss). It does a fantastic job of explaining discourse particles and some of their functions.

The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg6hWFopkCc and the page referred to by Dmitri (which was made by Dr Jean Mulder and is linked in the video’s description) is exceptional and provides a good outline of where certain discourse particles appear.

Before discussing the functions of discourse particles, it is probably worth quickly talking about what discourse particles are. Discourse particles are commonly referred to as, “speech junk,” however for English Language students, they are vital elements of conversations. A better way of defining them for our purposes is, “words that do not have any semantic value in the conversation, although serve a practical (but not grammatical) function.” These words are essentially fillers (which is why they are more common in informal conversations, which tend to be spontaneous), although they do serve various functions.

**Quick note: It is very important to be aware when a word is and is not a discourse particle. The example I will give to explain this is, “like,” which is one of the most common discourse particles. When you say something such as, “I like listening to the Foo Fighters,” or, “I would like to go for a run,” the word like has actual semantic meaning (it’s dictionary meaning of enjoy), so it is not a discourse particle in this context. A good guide is whether you can remove the potential discourse particle and if the meaning changes in any significant way.**

This is an article and not a book, so I will not go into detail about every possible word that can be used as a discourse particle, nor will I explain every single possible function of discourse particles. Having said that, some of the more common discourse particles include, “like,” “so,” “anyway,” “yeah-nah/yeah-no,” “you know,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “well,” “yeah,” and, “I mean.” There are many more and whether a word is in fact a discourse particle depends on the context in which it is used.

I said earlier that these seemingly unimportant words can serve various functions, so let’s discuss some of them.

Firstly, discourse particles acting as markers. I discussed this in more detail in my article last month (https://learnmate.com.au/topic-and-floor-management-in-conversations/), although I will briefly discuss it again here. Discourse particles being used as markers means that they can be used to introduce a new topic, signal a return to an earlier topic (anyway is particularly common for this), or to indicate that a person wants to take an extended turn (well is particularly commonly used for this).

Additionally, discourse particles are also used to strengthen or soften statements. One example of how discourse particles can strengthen statements by adding emphasis is the, “yeah-no/nah,” discourse particle. Depending on the tone and context, “yeah-no,” can add emphasis to a negative response or a response in the affirmative. More commonly however, discourse particles are used to soften statements and hedge. Hedging is where a person tries to soften a statement to indicate uncertainty or to try and reduce the force of an utterance. Examples of discourse particles used for hedging include, “like,” in a sentence such as, “do you want to like, go to the movies tomorrow night,” as well as, “sort of,” “kind of,” and, “a bit.” There are more that can be used to hedge and whether a term is being used to hedge ultimately depends on context. Furthermore, statements can also be softened through statements such as, “I think,” and, “I guess,” which reduce the force and certainty of the statement.

Finally, discourse particles can also be used in a quotative way. Discourse particles such as, “like,” in the context of, “he was like, …” can be used to introduce something that someone said or did in a previous interaction. This one tends to be quite easy to spot and the discourse particles tend to just make it easier for the speaker to introduce the reported dialogue or expression.

Anyway, I am sorry that this article has been so long, but I hope that it has helped you and I will have another one for you in April.

If you loved this article, you will LOVE all of our other articles, such as: Discussion and Examples of Language Varying to Reflect Identity, Comparing Australian English to American and British Englishes and Transitioning in to Units 3 and 4


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Discussing Discourse Particles and Their Importance in Conversations