Discourse Markers in Oral Narrative


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Discourse Markers in Oral Narrative

Neal R. Norrick

Chair, English Linguistics

Faculty 4: Anglistik

Saarland University

66144 Saarbrücken, Germany

e-mail: N.Norrick@rz.uni-sb.de

Abbreviated Title: Discourse Markers in Oral Narrative


This article seeks to demonstrate that well and but function as a special sort of discourse marker (DM) in oral narratives, and that their functions within the oral narrative context follow neither from their usual meanings nor from their usual DM functions in other contexts. Instead, both well and but are keyed on participant expectations about narrative structures and storytelling procedures. Excerpts from conversational narratives will illustrate how well and but initiate and conclude narrative action, how they guide listeners back to the main sequence of narrative elements following interruptions and digressions, and how listeners can invoke well and but to re-orient the primary teller to the expected order of narrative presentation.

If, as Fraser (1990) says, discourse markers signal a sequential discourse relationship, then specifically narrative DMs provide particularly clear evidence of an independent DM function not related to any lexical meaning. The analysis of well and but in oral narrative shows that DMs enjoy specialized functions in this particular type of discourse due to its highly coded sequentiality and storytelling conventions.

Discourse Markers in Oral Narrative

Neal R. Norrick

0. Introduction

It is the purpose of this paper to explore the specifically narrative functions of the discourse markers well and but. I hope to show that well and but fulfill particular functions in oral narrative which follow neither from the lexical senses of these two words nor from their usual discourse marker functions. Instead, the functions of both well and but in oral narrative reflect expectations about the structures and conventions of storytelling.

Minami (1998) demonstrates that Japanese storytellers employ particular linguistic devices as specifically narrative discourse markers keyed on the verse/stanza organization of Japanese oral personal narratives. My own recent work (Norrick 1998a, 1998b) shows that oral storytellers strategically deploy disfluencies, repetition and formulaicity to mark specific narrative elements and transitions. The research on well and but reported below represents a further step toward an account of specifically narrative functions of discourse markers.

As an initial example, consider Twain's use of well as a discourse marker of the intended kind to lend verisimilitude to the oral narrative technique of a traditional storyteller in "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." After an extended introduction with several narrative digressions of its own, the teller finally introduces the story of the jumping frog as follows.

. . . It always makes me feel sorry when I think of that last fight of his'n, and the way it turned out.

Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom-cats and all them kind of things, till you couldn't rest.

Twain's raconteur begins a second story exactly the same way, as his listener is leaving.

. . . he buttonholed me and recommenced:

"Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, . . .

In these two parallel passages, well serves as a discourse marker signaling the beginning of a story following a digression or interruption. Transcriptions of recorded oral narratives exhibit these discourse marker functions and related ones for both well and but, as we will see below.

Discourse markers (DMs), according to Fraser (1990, 1996), are pragmatic markers which provide a commentary on the following utterance; that is they lead off an utterance and indicate how the speaker intends its basic message to relate to the prior discourse. Hence, DMs signal a sequential discourse relationship. Many DMs are ambiguous due to homophony with a lexical item representing a traditional part of speech, though their functions as DMs do not follow from the sense of the homophonous lexical items in any linear way. In the case of well, this would mean that the DM function is unrelated to any of the adjectival or adverbial meanings; in the case of but, it would mean that the DM function would not bear any necessary connection to the adversative meaning of the adverbial conjunct. DMs orient listeners, but they do not create meaning; therefore, DMs can be deleted with no loss of meaning, though the force of the utterance will be less clear. In realizing sequentially determined functions obviously distinct from the meanings of their homophonous lexical counterparts, as traditionally described, narrative DMs provide particularly clear evidence of an independent DM function.

Schourup (1985), Schiffrin (1987), Fraser (1988) and others posit a core meaning for each DM with local context explaining the range of functions. Now, the local context includes how participants identify the type of talk exchange in progress; and storytelling is a type of talk with its own structural conventions and interactional relevance. Storytelling differs significantly from regular turn-by-turn conversation in its sequential implications, so that we might expect it to invest DMs with special organizational functions not found in other forms of talk. Past research, however, has tended to focus on the give-and-take of everyday talk. In turn-by-turn conversation, well at the head of a response signals hesitation due to a contribution somehow inconsistent with the foregoing discourse. When but initiates a response, it signals contrast or cancels some feature of the foregoing discourse. In oral storytelling, however, both well and but can introduce the initial expository section to set the action in motion as well as mark transitions to succeeding sections, including the final summary of a story. Moreover, well and but fulfill essentially the same narrative functions, despite the differences attributed to them in other types of discourse. Thus, I view them as DMs keyed on expectations about the organization of a narrative in progress.

In conversational narratives generally, well and but are oriented toward furthering the main action and formulating the point of the story. Besides initiating and concluding the narrative action, well and but can recall listener attention to the developing plot or the point of a story. Even a listener can take advantage of this narrative DM function of well and but to elicit a statement of a story's resolution or point from the primary teller, as we will see.

I will begin with a consideration of well, because its DM status is more obviously independent of its lexical senses, then move on to but, which seems more problematic, illustrating its particularly narrative DM functions more copiously.

1. Well as a discourse marker

As suggested by the citations from Twain above, well routinely fulfills discourse functions independent of its lexical meanings of 'healthy' in (1), 'admirably' in (2) and 'substantially' in (3).

  1. Judy has not been well lately.

  2. Judy has played well lately.

  3. Judy is well on her way to improvement.

The usual dialogic functions identified for well as a DM are to preface utterances which reject, cancel or disagree with the content or tenor of the foregoing discourse (see Lakoff 1973, Svartvik 1980, Owen 1983, Pomerantz 1984, Schiffrin 1987). In this function, well serves as a lefthand discourse bracket, as described by Watts (1989). According to Schourup (1985), speakers use well as an "evincive," indicating that they are consulting their own thoughts and producing a response insuffient in some way. Schiffrin (1987) expresses roughly the same point in writing that well signals that the speaker is "deferring" the full content of the response. Thus, well goes hand in hand with speaker hesitation and an implication that the following contribution is undesirable or inadequate in some way, for instance in the direct denial in the initial conversational passage below1.

Jacob: Then I talked him into

writing a letter to Donna.

I knew he'd never do it,

on his own.

Erik: Sober.

Jacob: Yeah,

well, no,

I knew he'd just never do it,

plain, y'know, do it, on his own.

Similarly, well may signal rejection of a presupposition made by another speaker:

Yvonne: Did you defeat the purpose? {laughing}

Tom: Well, the purpose was,

maybe at the time just a medium.

When well is used by a single speaker to continue, it often introduces an explanatory comment, according to Halliday & Hasan (1976). Watts (1989: 224) describes a similar same-speaker bridging use of well as a "cohesive topical link on a metalinguistic level." In a special case of this function, well cancels a foregoing assertion in order to perform a self-correction, as in the excerpt below.

Tom: Was that just last night?

No it was not,

well, yeah it was,

[I was just, I was in the mood for,]

Sybil: [You wanted something fresh and crispy,]

Lakoff (1973) claims that a single speaker may employ well to signal narrative elision, as in her example:

. . . he asked him, "How can I get the silver screw out of my bellybutton?" Well, to make a long story short, the witch doctor . . .

However, as Schourup (1985) points out, it is the phrase "to make a long story short" that signals elision here, not the DM well. Schourup goes on to claim that well realizes evincive function here, signaling that the speaker is consulting uncommunicated thoughts; but this interpretation takes us no further, since it, too, is redundant given the summarizing effect of "to make a long story short." More to the point is the simple recognition that well is oriented to the main action or point of the story in progress. Svartvik (1980)

comes close to this analysis with his "topic shifting function," whereby well closes preceding discourse and focuses on following discourse.

If we specify that the topic shift is keyed to narrative organization, then it even seems to account for well to introduce new stories and new episodes, as in the Twain citations above. Precisely this orientation on narrative organization makes up the central tenet of the analysis presented below. This last function comes closest to the switch marked by well in narratives, where the teller segues back into a story from a digression or interruption.

2. Well as a specifically narrative discourse marker

In this section, I will present examples of well in spoken narratives which go beyond the descriptions of well as a lexical item or DM or the non-narrative types described so far. For present purposes, we can assume that storytellers and their audiences orient themselves to a narrative framework like that proposed by Labov & Waletzky (1967) and Labov (1972), according to which a narrative consists of six principal parts:

A An abstract which identifies the point or summarizes the action of the story;

B An orientation which provides general background information and describes the particular circumstances of the action;

C The complicating action reported in sequential order;

D The result or resolution of the action;

E A final coda to close the story, often relating it to the current context;

F Evaluation at various points to guide the audience to the intended point of through the narrative.

Consider first a conversational example of well used as an organizational DM to signal the beginning of a story. This is the same function we saw in the passages cited from Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frog" above.

A: something I want to go back to.

I acquired an absolutely magnificent sewingmachine

by foul means.

Did I tell you about that?

B: No.

A: Well when I was doing freelance advertising,

the advertising agency

that I sometimes did some work for

rang me

In this passage adapted from the London-Lund Corpus (Svartvik and Quirk 1980: 84), well serves to introduce the first expository clause and full narrative clause of a story, following the abstract in the sense of Labov & Waletzky (1967). Once the teller gets a confirmation that the story is new to her listener, she begins the narrative proper with well. Far from cancelling or denying the information in the abstract, well carries the promised story forward. Thus, it signals a primary element of the story line, setting it off from digressions, interruptions and topical turn-by-turn talk. This same basic functional description also applies to the uses of well to be treated below.

Consider also how well can signal the beginning of a new episode, as in the passage from DOG STORY below. Notice that well heads up an expression of how much time has passed in order to provide a frame for the new set of complicating actions to come. Complete transcripts of DOG STORY and all the other excerpts cited from my data base appear in the Appendix to this article.

Tammy: So my dad crated-up these two

beautifully little matched puppies

and shipped them from Missouri to Florida,

to this man.

And reminded him,

“be sure you chain the puppies up.”

Well about, seven eight months later,

here those two dogs return to Missouri.

The teller Tammy employs well to bridge the time lapse between the shipping of the dogs and their return home. In this way, she keys well on the expected organization of the narrative in progress. One might claim that well signals a cancellation of the action in Florida and returns the listeners' attention to Missouri, but this interpretation itself seems oriented toward the expected narrative structure of the tale being told.

In parallel fashion, well may be oriented toward the end of an oral narrative as a summary coda in the sense of Labov & Waletzky (1967). In the passage from EXPOSING below, Jim closes by formulating the point in a clause prefaced with well. The excerpt represents the final chunk of a longish story about playing doctor and patient as a child.

Pamela: It sure is nice to have a boy and a girl

I tell you

Teddy: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: Yeah.

Vera: {laughs}

Pamela: We won't have to show them anything.

Jim: [Right right.]

Vera: [That's right.]

Jim: Well I think y'know

here were two sisters

who didn't have a brother

and two brothers who didn't have a sister

and I think the idea was an exchange of [a kind]

Vera: [You were] being an educator.

Jim: Yeah.

Well not only summarizes the point of the story from Jim's perspective, it even takes into account the comments about boy and girl siblings by Pamela and Vera, so that it can hardly be said to signal a cancellation or denial of the foregoing discourse. If we insist that well must express a cancellation or denial of some kind, then we can note that it ends speculations about the desirability of different-sex siblings and moves to the summary coda, and thus it represents the next step expected in the dynamic narrative organization. But this amounts to saying that the most appropriate description of well involves its function as a DM keyed on a narrative organization in which a coda follows the resolution of the action.

2.1 Well to return to the main theme of a story

Besides leading into beginnings and endings of oral narratives, well also regularly serves to re-establish the main story line or theme following digressions and interruptions. This function perhaps differs least from the non-narrative potential of well to signal hesitation and to reject, cancel or disagree with the content or tenor of the foregoing discourse, as described by earlier writers. Nevertheless, this sequential use of well is clearly similar to the foregoing functions described, which are keyed on dynamic narrative organization to a greater degree than on any adversative sense.

In the next example CHIPMUNK, Patricia uses well to move from the dialogue about who believed what back into the main story line.

Amy: it was twice.

and the first time,

"there's a rat in there,

there's a big mouse in there.

I saw it."

Marsha: {laughs}

Amy: "no, there's nothing in there."

"yes, I saw it."

Marsha: I wouldn't believe her.

Patricia: well I went out.


and set the bag-

it was a bag of cans.

that was when we were looking for the golf ball,

cause you hit the ball in the can.

Patricia's description of the events surrounding the discovery of the chipmunk serves primarily to clarify the event, rather than to cancel or reject the story as related by Amy to this point. Indeed, Patricia seems primarily concerned with recording the story's main complicating action in the sense of Labov & Waletzky. At the same time, however, Patricia cements her role as a co-narrator and makes a bid to switch the story perspective to her own. Thus, if well cancels anything here, it can only be Amy's perspective on the events in favor of Patricia's. From Patricia's point of view, well must serve to lead back into the main story following inconsequential comments by Amy and Mary, so that well functions here again as a DM keyed on narrative organization.

2.2 Well from listener for problems in story organization

Tellers can only successfully employ DMs keyed to features of narrative organization and performance, if the other participants listen for them and interpret them properly. Of course, if tellers use DMs to direct listener attention to the organization of the narrative in progress, then the other participants may also have recourse to DMs to call attention to organizational problems. In the example below, a listener does just this, invoking well to mark an attempt to finish up a floundering story.

In the previous example, we saw how a co-narrator employed well to return a story to its main complicating action. In the passage below from the story entitled SPIN OUT, a listener similarly exploits the narrative DM function of well to formulate the point of Marsha's story and thereby produce an acceptable coda. Marsha has been telling and re-telling the story of an automobile accident from the previous night, apparently trying to work through it herself, while her mother Patricia seems to desire clear closure.

Marsha: and then he said he was coming over.

he said "I can't get it out of my mind."

he said "I just keep playing it

over and over and over in my mind."

he said "I can't get it out."

and he doesn't remember too much about it.

Patricia: you never do,

because it takes seconds for it to happen.

Marsha: he- I can-

he fought the car for a good ten, fifteen seconds

before we lost total control.

Patricia: well the only thing you can both say

is thank God you're safe.

that's all.

Patricia seems to be attempting a kind of coda with her statement "You never do, because it takes seconds for it to happen," but Mary continues, contradicting Patricia's claims about memory and time. Then Patricia uses well to preface a very final-sounding judgment, and even tacks on "That's all" to make it quite clear she intends her statement as a coda.

Thus, we have seen that listeners, too, can appeal to well to mark utterances addressed to the form and meaning of narratives. If well acts as a specifically narrative DM keyed on expectations about the organization of stories, then it is available for use by both tellers and listeners.

3. But as a conjunct and a discourse marker

In this section, I will first illustrate some typical "core" cases of but in its connective and contrastive uses, in order to set the stage for my description of its specifically narrative functions. As a contrastive adverbial conjunct in the terminology of Quirk et al. (1985) or an "adversative conjunctive element" in that of Halliday & Hasan (1976), but has a range of meanings variously described as adversative or antithetic, as in (4), concessive, as in (5), corrective or replacive, as in (6), and dismissive, as in (7).

  1. Judy expected to win gold, but got only silver.

  2. She had little chance of winning, but it was worth a try.

  3. Judy didn't exactly fall down, but she tripped.

  4. Judy was quite disappointed, but it doesn't matter.

In its clear DM functions, but signals contrast or a "denial of expectations" (Foolen 1991). The contrast may be lexically expressed, as in (8), or it may be inferred from the content of the preceding discourse, as in (9).

  1. Larry is big. But his daughter is small.

  2. Larry is big. But he's not good at basketball.

Dascal & Katriel (1977) and Katriel & Dascal (1984) describe the function of but as cancelling some level of meaning in the foregoing utterance. As Bell (1998) shows, the levels of meaning may be ideational, rhetorical or sequential; indeed, but may cancel meaning in the previous utterance on more than one of these levels at once. Thus, the function of but in the passage below could arguably be both ideational and rhetorical: ideational in shifting from Astrid to her husband Keith, and rhetorical in switching the topic of conversation from greeting Astrid to seeing Keith waiting tables.

Brianne: Did Astrid say hi to you

or anything like that?

Addie: No, I kind of avoided her

and she didn't see me.

But he was there, serv-

Keith was serving.

The notion that but cancels meanings developed in the preceding discourse provides a natural explanation for the next passage, again adapted from Svartvik & Quirk (1980: 664). Here the speaker uses but to cancel the contradiction he has produced and to clear the way for his rather lengthy clarification, apparently prodded by his hearer's repeated questioning.

B: it was in the middle of this Dubrovniki Garden.

which is a very overgrown kind of a garden.

I mean it's not overgrown.

A:    Yeah?

B:    but things start off.

with plenty of space between them.

on the ground.

A: Yes?

B: but when they get up to the sort of foliage level.

A: {laughs}

B: they're all sort of interlinked.

Notice that but serves to cancel out the contradiction as a whole. It certainly does not cancel the immediately preceding statement that "it's not overgrown," which in fact jibes with the assertion of "plenty of space." Of course, this latter assertion redundantly cancels the initial claim that the garden is overgrown, which was already denied in the second half of the contradiction. Thus the force of but here must be to cancel the contradiction, preparing the way for some sort of resolution.

Halliday & Hasan (1976) further identify an "internal" adversative meaning 'contrary to expectation' directed at the ongoing communication process. Similar is Schiffrin's (1987) description of a "speaker-return" from secondary to primary information, or alternatively to cancel the topic domain of the foregoing discourse in favor of a new perspective. Bell (1998) calls this function of but sequentially contrastive, saying that it cancels expectations about what should come next in the discourse. In this sequential function, but marks off a digression or other subordinate section of a discourse and signals a return to its main topic or point, as in the following example from Bell (1998: 530).

Suddenly, his telephone is ringing with producers interested in his next project.

But what most delights him

is that Americans will see his film.

The function of but to signal a shift in voice here and to segue into a new perspective is similar to the particularly narrative functions I will identify for but below. In both cases, but as a DM is keyed to the organization of the ongoing discourse.

4. But as a specifically narrative discourse marker

I will proceed here as in the description of narrative DM functions of well, citing examples of but in spoken narratives which do not fit the descriptions of but as a contrastive adverbial conjunct or DM. Again assuming that storytellers and their audiences orient themselves to a Labovian narrative framework, let us consider an excerpt (from Labov & Waletzky 1967: 16-17, 23-27), where but introduces the first expository clause in a story, immediately following the abstract. Once the teller has established the background for his story with a general frame "I was in the boy scouts at the time" and a particular frame for the action "we was doing the 50-yard dash, racing," he begins the orientation with a clause introduced by but.

yeh I was in the boy scouts at the time

and we was doing the 50-yard dash


but we was at the pier, marked off

and so we was doing the 50-yard dash

there was about eight or ten of us, you know,

going down, coming back

Far from expressing contrast of any kind or canceling the background information in the preceding clauses, but instead ratifies and builds on this information. But seems to fulfill our expectations of where a swimming race would take place rather than to deny them. Nor, in this narrative context, can but establish a contrast between a digression or other subordinate section of a discourse and its main topic or point, as Halliday & Hasan (1976), Schiffrin (1987) and Bell (1998) require for sequential contrast.

The simplest description of but in the passage above is that it is keyed on the narrative structure in which an orientation follows an initial abstract, so that it marks the next step in the narrative structure. Like well, but functions as a specialized organizational DM in the context of the oral narrative. If the description absolutely must contain some notion of contrast or adversity for purposes of consistency, we might say that the use of but in this way conveys the contrastive information that the completed prefatory abstract must give way to the initial exposition of the narrative in the orientation.

For a second example of but used as an organizational DM to begin a story, consider the passage below--again adapted from Svartvik & Quirk (1980: 343)--in which but segues from the orientation section to the main complicating action of a conversational narrative.

B: And they were

I think because of the disgrace of it all,

they were going to move to Spain

where they'd built themself

this grand house in Spain.

But apparently

you uh they spent uh when it was finished

they went out there to spend a winter there

and they found they were so bored

cos all the other English people

did nothing but play golf and uh drink

A: m

B: that they came back after a month.

They said "Well it's all right for a a winter holiday,"

cos they're very active people

Following the background information about the family disgrace and the house in Spain, but introduces the first attempt at a genuine narrative clause with spent. Although the teller breaks off and reformulates the whole initial clause, the complicating action finally begins to move and the story takes shape.

Here again but lacks any obvious adversative, contrastive or cancellative force. Instead, it represents the obvious next step expected in the dynamic narrative organization; and again the most appropriate description of but must be in terms of its function as a DM keyed on the narrative structure in which the complicating action follows an orientation section.

As was the case for well, but can be directed toward the end of an oral narrative as a summary coda. Consider as evidence the passage from SPADE below, representing the last third of a conversational narrative, which Woody closes by formulating the humorous point in a clause initiated by but um. The extension of but in this function as but um or but uh is fairly common in the oral narrative data I have investigated. In extending but, tellers perhaps seek to augment the length and significance of the DM.

Woody: he had to have been twenty-five thirty yards away,

and Paul w- went back with the shovel,

hurled it.

I mean y’know just threw it.

Grant, Ginger: {laugh}

Woody: and I mean what is the likelihood of that thing-

that damn shovel came right down on [his head.]

Grant, Ginger: {laugh}

Woody: I mean- I mean it came down and it flattened him. {Woody punctuates with hand clap}

I mean he fell flat on the ground.

I mean he had a rip in the back of his head,

Grant: o-oh

Woody: and he thought he was dead.

and of course he wasn’t.

he was just knocked-out a little bit

and had a nasty concussion

and so on and so forth.

but um, I mean

who would have thought that that shovel

and that boy

would have connected at that distance.

Now, certainly a formulation of the main point or summary of a foregoing narrative cannot express contrast or cancellation in any normal sense. Halliday & Hasan (1976) could perhaps identify a meaning 'contrary to expectation' at the particular point reached in the text, though a coda is precisely what we should expect according to Labov & Waletzky. Schiffrin (1987) might argue that this use of but presents a functional contrast and "creates an anaphoric tie" (165) to an earlier point in the text. Similarly, Bell (1998) might say, following Dascal & Katriel (1977) and Katriel & Dascal (1984), that but picks out certain features of the foregoing discourse for cancellation, perhaps the presupposition that the teller would prefer to detail the local effects rather than returning to the main point. However, it seems again that the correct description must involve reference to the story-in-progress and directedness toward its organization. In particular, but marks the significance statement which serves as the final step in the overall structure of the story. If one felt the description should make reference to the notion of contrast, as above, one could again appeal to the fact that the use of but in this way conveys the contrastive information that the complicating action in the body of the narrative here gives way to the coda or final expression of the point of the story.

In the foregoing example SPADE, but (in the extended form but um) marked the formulation of the main point of a narrative as its coda, while in the excerpt BASKETBALL below, but um marks the resolution of the narrative under construction. Again the passage represents the final third of a conversational narrative, which the teller seeks to close with a statement of relevance.

Audrey: {laughing} So, so I went I went in,

and I had the ball,

and I just like turned around

and I shot it-

didn’t even look

and it like hit off the backboard so hard.

It was so bad

like it I could just like like-

it was just so embarrassing.

Lana: Oh Audrey.

Audrey: But, um,

I know like it all just paid off

because my Senior Year

I’d never done so well in anything.

And I got a lot of offers

to play at schools and-

Lana: And you decided not to?

Audrey: No because,

my like,

my whole-

I don’t know why

but my whole life was geared to like college.

I could not wait to go to college.

And to go to a small college,

Lana: Right, right, right.

A successful statement of relevance can hardly contrast on any higher level of meaning with the preceding discourse, though we might well expect contrasts and/or cancellations on lower levels. Thus, one might say that but marks a contrast between the detail level in the foregoing turn to the general level of the final turn. But even in this formulation we perceive an orientation to the function of but in relation to the organization of the ongoing narrative.

4.1 But to return to the main theme of a story

The use of but to signal a return to the main point or action of a story again parallels well. This third DM function of but in oral narrative most closely approximates the sequentially contrastive functions identified by earlier writers. By introducing it after the two others, I hope to more clearly show how this function, too, is keyed on the dynamic narrative organization over and above any contrastive functions.

In her story PATCHED WASHCLOTHS, Lydia twice uses but to lead back into her story after interruptions by others, the first time to introduce background information as part of the orientation, and the second time to express evaluation through direct appeal to one of her listeners.

Lydia: well see I said

if you grew up in a house

where your mother [patched washcloths].

Ned: [remember darning, Sherry?]

Sherry: I was going-

"what are darned dish towels."

Ned: well.

it's when you don't want to say

damn dish towels.

{General laughter}

don't you call that process darning?

Lydia: but my mother just

put them under the sewing machine

and took two washcloths and made one.

and patched the middle of a washcloth

when it was worn out.

Ned: your mother didn't invent that. {laughing}

Lydia: and I said

when you grow up like that

it's hard to get with this world

that throws things away.

Claire: {arriving} here are darned dish towels.

Sherry: {laughing} darned dish towels.

Lydia: but were you ever embarrassed, Claire?

when you invited friends to your house,

did you ever have to be embarrassed?

I was embarrassed

when the girls from town came.

{Laughter from Sherry, Brandon and others}

Ned: our mother was embarrassed?

Lydia: and saw my mother's patched washcloths.

I tried to hide them really fast.

Just as but leads back to the main story line following a listener interruption, so may but serve to bridge the teller's own digression. For example, in the next excerpt (adapted from Svartvik & Quirk 1980: 91-92) um but returns attention to the main story after a digression by the primary teller herself. Such buts might be said to contrast with or cancel the digression, but even then the recognition of certain phrases and exchanges as constituting digressions vis-à-vis the main story line again depends on an adjustment to the dynamic development of the narrative in progress.

A: the um lunch was all right

lun- lunch was fairly civilized

except that I don't know if you can imagine

having lunch at high table

in a college

um an hour before you`ve got an interview

b: m

A: I mean normally I don`t eat for three days

[before an interview]

c: [yes]

b, c: {laugh}

A: um but I you lunch one just sort of went into

and there were all the undergraduates

at these long tables eating

and then you clambered up on the platform

and you took

b: m

A: something from a side table

and you ate it

and y- when you finished you went away

and there was no formality

Notice the trouble the teller has in determining her perspective, shifting from I to you and then to one, presumably because she was not sure whether or not she was still in the scenario introduced by "I don't know if you can imagine" in the turn preceding the digression. Though she moves back to you fairly rapidly. These moves, too, reflect a keying to the ongoing narrative performance and to narrative conventions generally.

4.2 But from listener for problems in story organization

As we saw above with well, listeners can turn the tables on storytellers, using DMs to draw attention to the organization of the narrative in progress. In the two passages below, listeners resort to the DM but to ask questions leading back to the main story line.

In the next excerpt from ACCIDENTS, Mike exploits the narrative DM function of but to induce Jason to return to the expected organizational sequence. When Jason says "You met her," it sounds as if he were already establishing present relevance as in a coda before producing a proper result or resolution. Mike's question about what happened is perfectly formulated to guide Jason back to the expected result or resolution--though it appears Mike does not possess the information necessary to complete the story.

Jacob: you know what happened to my aunt Florence

when she was a little girl?

Mark: ooh what happened.

Jacob: she was like screwing around

like around Christmas time?

and like she,

I- I guess this was like

when they had candles on trees?

she lit her hair on fire.

Mark: oh wow.

Jacob: you met her.

Mark: but did anything happen?

she get a burned head or something?

Jacob: uh I don’t know,

maybe you could shave her

and look for scar tissue.

Mark: oh I don't want to shave your aunt Florence's head.

If but serves to mark contrast or to cancel any previous meaning or presupposition in this passage, it could only be the assumption that the story will end without a result or resolution. Saying that but signals the shift from one speaker to the other or from narrative to questioning the narrative either begs the question or misses the point. Clearly, it is more adequate to say that but serves to direct the teller back to the orderly presentation of the story.

In my final example, again taken from the end of a longer story in the London-Lund Corpus (Svartvik & Quirk 1980: 339-340), the teller tacks an additional unexpected observation unto an apparent coda, thereby muddling the point of the narrative for the listeners. At first, the teller seems to be concluding a story about guests at a ball dancing with their winter outerwear on, then he shifts the focus to the effects of the fires in the ballroom, suggesting that he and his partner suffered for their failure to dress warmly enough. Either the clause about the clothing or the clause about the fires and their effects might serve as an appropriate coda to the story in the conversational context, so that one of the listeners formulates a request for the teller to clarify the point of the story, of course initiated with the DM but. It is particularly noteworthy, I believe, that both the listener who requested clarification and a second listener as well provide audible back-channels--three in all--while the teller seeks to acquit himself for his failure to properly conclude his story.

A: in this vast ballroom

uh of the hotel we happened to be in

they were having a Christmas Eve dance.

It's the only time I've ever seen people

at a Christmas Eve dance

wearing gloves and fur coats fur hats.

And there were three enormous fires in the room

which if you were within ten feet of them

you singed

but fifteen feet away from them

it was uh perishing.

B: um but did you not know it was going to be so cold and you had no fur gloves and fur hats

and things with you

so you nearly died of the cold?

A: no we'd we'd got clo- uh warm clothes with us

cos we knew,

no it was just surprising that

B: m

C: m

B: m

A: where I say it was a

a dance going on

with people wearing gloves

The listeners in this passage certainly give the impression of applying pressure on the teller to produce a narrative in the expected order with an unambiguous point; and the teller is at pains to obliterate the unintended inference and to reinforce the image of couples dancing at a ball wearing coats, hats and gloves. Apparently, once the teller has expressed the coda of a story, no related point may rival it until the audience has responded. Since tellers and listeners recognize the function of but as a narrative DM keyed on the organization of stories, both can have recourse to but to mark utterances expressing their concern with the form and meaning of narratives.

5. Conclusions

The most immediate conclusion is that both well and but function as a special sort of DM within the oral narrative context. In fact, the two DMs are surprisingly similar in their specifically narrative applications. In particular, I have argued that both well and but are keyed on participant expectations about narrative structures and storytelling procedures. I presented excerpts from conversational narratives, showing (1) how well and but segue from an abstract to an orientation and from the complicating action to a coda and a result or resolution, (2) how well and but guide listeners back to the main sequence of narrative elements following interruptions and digressions, and (3) how listeners can invoke well and but in a parallel way to re-orient the primary teller to the expected order of narrative presentation.

More generally, we have seen that DMs can have specialized functions in one particular type of discourse. Since the sequentiality of storytelling differs from that of greetings, question-answer sequences, arguments and other genres of talk, certainly the functions of DMs like well and but should differ accordingly. I feel that Schiffrin's (1987) description of well and but in conversation and so and because in narrative structure clearly lead to this conclusion as well, though she apparently never claimed as much explicitly, perhaps because it detracts from her goal of offering the most general treatment possible of the individual DMs. It seems to me that local sequential determination bound to particular discourse types offers the most compelling evidence available that DMs are genuine pragmatic markers a là Fraser (1990) with functions independent of the lexical readings traditionally assigned them. As Schiffrin puts it in her own definition (1987: 31), DMs are "sequentially dependent elements which bracket units of talk." Indeed, as I hope to have demonstrated, DMs in oral narratives are elements dependent upon expectations about story structures and conventions and they bracket appropriate units in accordance with the organizational conventions of this genre.

I suggest that we need more research on the local determination of DM functions in different narrative genres in different linguistic communities and storytelling traditions. We should expect to find not only sets of lexical items but also various other linguistic devices acting as DMs. And we should bear in mind that DMs serve not only to signal tellers' intentions about particular utterances and overall organization, but also as cues to audience expectations about the narrative in progress.

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Fraser, Bruce, 1990. An approach to discourse markers. Journal of Pragmatics 14: 383-95.

Fraser, Bruce, 1996. Pragmatic markers. Pragmatics 6: 167-90.

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Lakoff, Robin, 1973. Questionable answers and answerable questions. In Braj Kachru et al., eds., Papers in honor of Henry and Renee Kahane, 453-67. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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Owen, Marion L., 1983. Apologies and remedial exchanges. The Hague: Mouton.

Pomerantz, Anita, 1984. Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred / dispreferred turn shapes. In Maxwell J. Atkinson and John Heritage, eds., Structures of social action, 57-101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quirk, Randolph et al., 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.

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Shourup, Lawrence C., 1985. Common discourse particles in English: "like," "well," "y'know." New York: Garland.

Svartvik, Jan, 1980. Well in conversation. In Sidney Greenbaum et al., eds., Studies in English linguistics for Randolph Quirk, 167-77. London: Longman.

Svartvik, Jan and Quirk, Randolph, 1980. A corpus of English conversation. Lund: Gleerup.


1Unless otherwise specified, examples are cited from my own corpus of audio-taped conversation. All the stories cited in the text, along with a growing number of other transcribed conversational narratives, can be found at my website:


Passages from other sources have been adapted to match these conventions.

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