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Review of  Understanding Pragmatic Markers

Reviewer: Edie Furniss
Book Title: Understanding Pragmatic Markers
Book Author: Karin Aijmer
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.1307

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The book under review is an analysis of several pragmatic markers in English. The author uses a variational approach to illuminate the ways in which these markers function across text types and varieties. Aijmer begins the work with a definition of pragmatic markers, an introduction to the research that has been done in this area, and a description of the field of variational pragmatics. This is followed by three separate studies on the pragmatic markers ‘well’, ‘in fact’ and ‘actually’, and general extenders (such as ‘and stuff like that’).

In her introduction, Aijmer notes the recent proliferation of research on pragmatic markers, summarizing the various approaches that have been used. In this book, she takes a variational pragmatic approach to these markers. This approach examines the ways in which social, cultural, and regional factors affect the functions of pragmatic markers.

Aijmer begins with a definition of pragmatic markers and their role in general pragmatic theory. She argues that pragmatic markers are reflexive in that they serve as “indicators of metapragmatic awareness” (p. 5), thereby, for example, organizing discourse, which reflects the speaker’s internal planning processes. They also serve as contextualization cues that aid the hearer in understanding when a change takes place in the activity or in speaker roles -- e.g., closing a telephone conversation.

She then discusses her methodology for the studies included in the book, justifying her extensive use of the ICE-GB Corpus (the British Component of the International Corpus of English). The corpus includes recordings of the constituent texts, allowing for prosodic analysis of the pragmatic markers under study. Further, it contains texts across a variety of genres, which Aijmer exploits in her analyses. A corpus-based approach, she argues, allows researchers access to both quantitative and qualitative information.

Aijmer discusses the various linguistic theories that address the relationship between pragmatic markers and context: integrative theories (which are richly descriptive in nature, e.g., Schiffrin 1987); relevance theory; and the theory of meaning potentials. Aijmer adopts the meaning potential approach, which highlights the role of context in the use of pragmatic markers. In this view, the meaning of a given pragmatic marker arises in communication; the range of meaning potentials is part of the speaker’s knowledge of language. This kind of approach, Aijmer argues, is critical as these markers are highly polysemous.

Aijmer continues with a discussion of the indexical function of pragmatic markers -- they can index the speaker, hearer, social identities, stance, and the speech event. Thus, these markers require both speaker and hearer to utilize their linguistic resources in order to use and interpret them correctly. She emphasizes the importance of formal features, particularly placement, in discussing the meaning potentials of pragmatic markers.

The first study deals with the pragmatic marker ‘well’. Aijmer gives a thorough overview of previous studies of this marker -- one of the most commonly studied, likely because it is highly frequent in English -- noting that its functions and its meaning (if any) are under question.

Aijmer then describes her study of ‘well’, first providing statistics on its distribution across text types (private and public dialogue, unscripted monologues, and others). According to data from the ICE-GB corpus, ‘well’ is largely confined to spoken language, occurring rarely in writing (and only in fiction and social letters). ‘Well’ is dialogic, as it is used more frequently in dialogue than monologue. She chooses the following representative text types for her investigation of ‘well’: face-to-face conversation, telephone conversation, broadcast discussion, cross-examination, and spontaneous commentary (e.g., sports commentary). Aijmer begins her analysis with a description of the formal features of ‘well’ (its prosodic features, position, and co-occurrence with pauses), followed by mention of its frequent collocates (‘okay’, ‘now’, ‘at least’, ‘anyway’).

Next, the author considers the various functions of ‘well’. It functions as a coherence marker with the following sub-senses: word search and self-repair; projecting a new turn; transition according to an agenda; and transition to a quotation. She provides several corpus excerpts illustrating each function. In the word-search and self-repair function, ‘well’ “is closely associated with consideration, deliberation, hesitation” (p. 32), thereby exercising its reflexive nature. It can be used as a turn-taking device, with a transitional function (signaling a change of topic), and to introduce direct speech (often accompanied by an interjection or another pragmatic marker). ‘Well’ also expresses involvement: agreement, disagreement, positive or negative evaluation, and provides feedback to a question (it often indicates an insufficient answer). Finally, ‘well’ has a politeness function -- generally, it is used to hedge.

After examining the functions of ‘well’ found in the corpus, Aijmer looks at its use across genres. For instance, ‘well’ is used differently in telephone conversation and in face-to-face conversation. She describes the differences by looking at the functions most characteristic of each genre, and the variation in formal features. ‘Well’ occurs more frequently in telephone than in face-to-face conversation, and it functions largely as a floor-holding signal. This, Aijmer argues, is due to the difficult nature of turn-taking in telephone conversation. She then looks at ‘well’ in public dialogue, which includes broadcast discussions and interviews, classroom lessons, parliamentary debates, legal cross-examinations and business transactions. ‘Well’ in broadcast discussion “indexes functions associated with the roles as moderator or participant in the debate” (p. 57). For example, when a discussant uses ‘well’ with a preface like ‘let me address that directly’, the marker conveys a sense of authority to the utterance that follows. Moderators use ‘well’ to introduce topics, invite new speakers to take a turn, and in other discourse management functions. The broadcast discussion frame, which includes both the nature of the talk (debate) and the typical participant roles (moderator and expert discussants) promotes the use of certain functions of ‘well’ over others. In cross-examinations, ‘well’ is not typically indexing politeness, but rather “can be a sign of power and aggressiveness depending on who uses it” (p. 64). When used by a prosecutor, it can introduce a challenging question and stress the speaker’s authority; when used by a witness or defendant, it signals correction or denial of the question being responded to. Finally, Aijmer looks at the use of ‘well’ in spontaneous commentaries (mainly on sports events), where it takes on a punctuating function as the speaker attends to the game action in real-time. This is related to the nature of such commentaries: they are time-constrained and therefore related to the need for speed and fluency.

The second study contrasts the two pragmatic markers ‘in fact’ and ‘actually’. Again, Aijmer looks at how these markers function across text types and social situations in order to analyze their subtle differences. She uses the ICE-GB Corpus again, finding that these two markers are more common in speech than writing; that ‘actually’ is, overall, more common than ‘in fact’; and that ‘in fact’ is more frequent in monologue while ‘actually’ is more frequent in dialogue. Previous research has suggested that both of these markers have an adversative (contrastive or oppositive) function. Aijmer first categorizes the various functions of ‘in fact’: emphasizing reality (meaning the truthfulness of what is said); opposition (both strong and weak); elaboration (through clarification or upgrading a claim); hedging (downtowning opposition); and softening (generally in end position). In conversation, ‘in fact’ is most often associated with elaboration, but functions in more specialized ways depending on speaker identity, the relationship between the speaker and the hearer, and activity goals. ‘In fact’ is used in cross-examinations to “mark the transition to a question where both the speaker and the hearer know the answer to the question” (p. 103); in broadcast discussions, it carries a persuasive force; in demonstrations (where one person speaks to an audience) ‘in fact’ marks an utterance as an explanation, and strengthens the speaker’s argument; and in unscripted speeches ‘in fact’ “was used to argue against what is commonly thought” (p. 103).

Aijmer determined that ‘actually’ is found in text types with high levels of interaction and involvement and is typically dialogical. As for formal features, it occurred most frequently in medial position (56.5%), was never followed by a pause, and collocated most frequently with ‘well’. The author found the following functions of ‘actually’, some of which overlap with the functions of ‘in fact’: emphasizing reality; opposition; hedging and politeness (often signaling an apology); introducing something unexpected or surprising; emphasizing the speaker’s position (with a slight adversative meaning); elaboration (including a change of perspective); topic shift; and softening (again, generally in end position). ‘Actually’ occurred most frequently in conversation “to strengthen co-operation and to establish familiarity and solidarity by conveying an apology or a defensive attitude with regard to some opposition” (p. 123). However, like ‘in fact’, it has specialized functions in other text types: in business transactions it emphasizes the personal position of the speaker in order to aid in decision making; in the classroom, it is often used in teacher explanations; and in demonstrations, it highlights the speaker’s authority and the unexpected nature of a result. The author summarizes the differences between ‘in fact’ and ‘actually’ in a table (p. 124), showing that, while these two pragmatic markers are similar, they have formal and functional differences across text types.

In the book’s final study, Aijmer examines general extenders (‘and things’, ‘and stuff like that’, among others) across varieties of English. First, she describes the formal structure of extenders, listing the typical collocational frames which “contain ‘and’ and ‘or’ followed by a generic noun or an indefinite pronoun” (p. 130). Again, she uses data from the ICE-project, covering a range of regional varieties: British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and Singaporean; and from the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English. The study gives quantitative figures for the distribution of a selection of general extenders across the varieties, then examines their variability “in terms of their association with politeness norms favoured by different regional varieties” (p. 137). Aijmer discusses the role of grammaticalization in variation, finding that short forms of extenders appear to be more grammaticalized than long forms, and are therefore more frequent and serve interpersonal functions (like invoking shared knowledge).

She also makes a distinction between general extenders starting with ‘and’ and those starting with ‘or’, arguing that ‘and’-extenders emphasize social similarity and group membership, while ‘or’-extenders mark vagueness. ‘And’-extenders can also serve to punctuate utterances, in addition to marking shared knowledge. Further, general extenders can aid in fluency, as they ‘buy’ the speaker time to plan their speech.


Aijmer’s volume on pragmatic markers is thorough, nuanced, and highly sensitive to contextual factors. The role of context is crucial to any discussion of pragmatics, but is, unfortunately, all too often overlooked in the analysis of markers. Aijmer harnesses a range of corpora to aid her investigation, thus giving it an edge that many other studies of pragmatic markers lack. Further, by taking into account formal, functional, and contextual information, the author produces a deep and subtle analysis of the linguistic elements at hand.

In her analysis of ‘well’, Aijmer convincingly argues that the neglect of contextual features like text type and speaker role have resulted in a lack of understanding of the wide range of functions of ‘well’ -- past research has focused predominantly on ‘well’ in conversation, with little attention paid to other genres. The author illustrates all of these functions with well-chosen corpus excerpts and quantitative information on frequency of the various functions. Her analysis addresses, systematically and in great detail, the dynamic nature of ‘well’ -- its preferred meanings vary depending on context, genre, speaker roles, and so on.

The other two studies are more limited in scope, but should inspire further scholarship dedicated to these less-studied areas. In her chapter on ‘in fact’ and ‘actually’, Aijmer provides an excellent foundation for future research on these markers; more focused studies of the various text types and functions examined therein will add even more nuance to discussions of these pragmatic markers. In the book’s final study, Aijmer touches upon the role of grammaticalization in general extender variation; this is an intriguing proposition that deserves further investigation.

A variational approach to the study of general extenders (and pragmatic markers in general) is crucial to understanding their functions, which can vary due to “different cultural habits as regards politeness or speech style and co-operative principles” (p. 145); however, this issue was not investigated in detail in the study at hand. Aijmer notes that ‘and all that’ in Singapore English seems to be a solidarity marker, but provides only one example of this usage; she acknowledges that this study is only a beginning. Another shortcoming, which Aijmer notes in the footnotes, is that the study does not use a ‘function first’ or bottom-up approach to locating general extenders, instead first compiling a list of general extenders then searching for them in the corpus. This is a rich area for future research.

This book is a considerable achievement in an understudied area. Because pragmatic markers are so pervasive in language, yet can be so difficult to define and pin down, variational approaches are particularly attractive as they make their study much more manageable. Further, referring to the meaning potential of these markers accounts for their instability and flexibility of meaning, and provides a sound explanation for the ability of language users to interpret pragmatic markers in all their variety. Many elements come into play: text type, speaker role, speaker and hearer relationship, and formal features like position and prosody. Markers that appear to be synonymous, like ‘actually’ and ‘in fact’, serve different functions depending on such contextual factors. This is important for pedagogical purposes, as general definitions of such words and phrases do not account for nuances in usage. “Understanding Pragmatic Markers” will be of interest to sociolinguistic researchers, discourse analysts, specialists in pragmatic markers, and researchers and instructors of spoken language.


Schiffrin, Deborah. 1987. Discourse markers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edie Furniss is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include formulaic language, pragmatics, materials development, corpus linguistics, and Russian language and culture.

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