Discourse markers

A discourse marker is a word or expression which we use to show the structure of a piece of discourse, whether spoken or written. They can signal when a speaker wants to go on to a new topic (O.K., right …..), give his opinion (I suppose …) or say something the listener might not want to hear (Actually…). Foreign language learners may have problems using these markers correctly. They are often not ‘taught’ in English courses. In conversation, new discourse markers are popularized by native speaker teenagers and if non-native speakers emulate these, they may sound comical if they do not get them exactly right or are from a different age group.

Identifying the function

Look at the functions below. Read the four excerpts and match the function with the excerpt.

To help you, the discourse markers have been written in bold. (Note that there are only 3 excerpts, so one of the functions is not used).

1. Indicates that critical remarks (or a negative opinion) will follow
2. Indicates an alternative point of view
3. Indicates a sequence of steps to be taken
4. Indicates a change of topic

Discourse markers in spoken dialogue.

Some of the most common discourse markers in spoken English are:

Right, okay, good, well, you know, I mean, actually, I think, ‘cos, so, like, you see, I don’t know

Right and okay indicate that the speaker is closing off one topic and about to start another, and does not always indicate agreement.

Like is used in conversation to preface examples, e.g. “You know, like, the best way to lose weight is to skip lunch altogether.” (Here, like indicates that the following clause contains an example).

‘Cos is used informally to justify what has just been said, e.g.

“Don’t go to the one on the corner, ‘cos they charge you for the container. Go to the Chinese takeaway, ‘cos they give you the box for free.”

You see has the function of giving the listener new information, while you know is confirming that the listener knows something. Both indicate that a shared knowledge is necessary for the speaker and listener.

Read the following dialogue to see how the discourse markers are used in context.
Sam: You know that time we were looking for the shop that sells cheap DVD’s
Mark: Yeh, the one in Mong Kok that we never found.
Sam: Yeh, that’s it. Well, I came across it the other day.
Mark: Where was it?
Sam: Well, the thing is, it was down a back street and no-one would ever find it, you need someone to take you there. It was weird. You see, I think it was ‘cos all the stuff was fake.

Spoken discourse

Choose the appropriate discourse marker to fill in the gaps in the following sentences.

Formal and informal discourse markers

In the box below, there are a selection of discourse markers commonly used in spoken discourse. The sentences contain examples of their formal equivalents (in bold) which are usually found in a written context. Replace the formal markers in the sentences with informal markers from the box. You may need to change the punctuation. Two of the informal markers are redundant, to make the task more challenging.

1. all the same

2. on the other hand

3. actually

4. so

5. What’s more

Hide answers.

Further practice

For a list of discourse markers used in conversation and recordings, please refer to


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