The Secret Lives Of Little Words

If you’re reading LitReactor, you’re either a writer, book lover, or lost web surfer washed up on these literary shores. In any case, you’ve probably got a pretty spiffy vocabulary and would scoff if I told you that you might not truly understand how common words such as “okay,” “well,” and “so” function in conversation. Well, prepare to scoff because odds are, you've got a lot to learn about the hidden lives of the tiny words we use every day.

Now, I’m not saying you don’t know the definition of these words. Of course you do. Why? Because grammarians and linguists have been studying the written language since the sixth century BC, and they’ve done a damn fine job of documenting formal definitions and grammatical structures. But spoken language is different. We’ve really only been studying it since the 1950s, when it became possible to record conversations for analysis. In that brief time, linguists have figured out some neat stuff: For example, compared to written language, our verbal communication features more complex sentences, verbs, adverbs, and personal pronouns, but less lexical diversity and fewer nouns and adjectives.

Where The Magic Happens

Those details are (kinda) interesting, but here’s where things get EXCITING! Something downright magical happens in spoken conversation; some of the words coming out of our mouths start doing double duty. What’s so magical about that? Even though linguists are still trying to figure out all the ways these words shape our conversations, every one of us makes these words do our bidding every day. From the time we learn to speak, we all use these words the same way, and we understand—at least subconsciously—what they mean when others use them. It's like being able to drive a car even though you have no idea what's going on under the hood. (Gnomes turning gears? Hamsters peddling bikes?)

The little words we're discussing (called discourse markers, which are not part of a sentence’s meaning or vital structure) have to work harder during conversations than they do on the page because spoken language is about more than definitions and conveying information. It's about negotiating a complex interactive collaboration. We don’t realize it, but during every discussion, we are constantly setting expectations, softening ego-threatening language, hedging, steering topics, managing turn-taking, and checking on the status of our communication—and we do it using these seemingly insipid utterances. 

Why Bother?

So if we’re already using discourse markers every day to successfully guide our conversations, why bother learning how they work?  Three words: Human. Lie. Detector. Amaze your friends; confound your enemies. Since we employ these words largely subconsciously, when someone is lying, they tend to overthink their language and the discourse markers get screwed up. If you know how these words are supposed to function, you can spot when they’re out of place. 

There are also other reasons to get a handle on the secret lives of these words. As a writer, you can create more genuine sounding dialogue if you have a better grasp on how spoken language works. Conversations are full of false starts, broken words, unfinished clauses, repetition, and overlap (this is a typical transcription). You don’t want to replicate that mess in your dialogue, but you also don’t want to misuse important markers that would be present in genuine spoken conversations. Get to know your words’ secret jobs to make sure your character doesn’t come across as a socially awkward shut-in…unless your character is a socially awkward shut-in.

Mm Hmm

Pop quiz: In this conversation, what do the “mm hmm” responses mean?

Panda 1: Skittles are much more delicious than bamboo.
Panda 2: Mm hmm
Panda 1: My paws were stained orange and green for like two days, but it was totally worth it.
Panda 2: Mm hmm
Panda 1: I’m all about tasting the rainbow, yo.

If you are a woman, you likely thought the minimal responses of “mm hmm” showed that Panda 2 is listening and wants her Skittles freak friend to continue the story. If you’re a man, you probably thought the responses indicated agreement and that Panda 2 was just as into Skittles as Panda 1. Therein lies one of the many communication problems between genders. When women are trying to show that they’re listening, men are under the impression that we are agreeing. When men are agreeing, women think they’re just telling us to continue. We all know where this ends: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Actually vs. Really

Merriam-Webster says “really” means “actually," and “actually” means “really.” So they're interchangeable. Case closed... Not so fast. When it comes to how we use the two words, there is a difference. “Actually” tends to come before adjectives that have a simple opposite (true/false) because it indicates a choice between two things. “Really,” on the other hand, tends to come before adjectives that can be measured by degrees. So: My car is actually new, but you wouldn’t know it because it’s looked really gross ever since someone spray-painted a penis and balls on the back window. Try swapping the “really” and the “actually” in that example, and it turns into a bit of a mess.

A similar pattern emerges when you put these words in front of verbs. “Actually” generally comes before verbs like “saw” or “read” because, again, there’s a choice between two things. You either saw something, or you didn’t. You either read something, or you didn’t. “Really” is more likely to come before verbs such as “like” and “want” because those verbs are measurable. You can kind of want something or really want it or even really, really, really wanna zig-a-zig-ah.

There are, of course, cases when either word makes sense in a sentence, but they’re still not interchangeable because the substitution alters the meaning. So “I actually want to try Captain D’s new heart-shaped fish sticks” shows you are choosing between two options: trying the fish sticks (do you like fish sticks?) and not trying the fish sticks. Whereas “I really want to try Captain D’s new heart-shaped fish sticks” means it’s pretty much a given that you were going to try them, just a matter of how stoked you are about it.

Going back to your Human Lie Detector kit, the black-and-white nature of “actually” can help you spot dodgy business. Here's a reasonable interaction:

Obnoxious B&N Nook Pusher: Have you bought the new eBook by that Navy Seal?
Joe: Actually, I bought the paperback.

It makes sense for Joe to use “actually” because he’s contrasting two things: the ebook and the paperback.

This interaction, on the other hand, seems dodgy:

Sgt. Handsome: Where were you when the murder occurred?
Sketchy McGee: Actually, I was at the mall shopping for cured pork.

McGee wasn’t given two options to choose from, but his use of “actually” indicates that he did indeed choose between two options—in his head, if not aloud—possibly the answer he gave and the true answer. It’s not enough to peg him for murder, but it is telling. Forensic linguists watch for these kinds of slip-ups, among other things.

Well

"Well" seems pretty boring, but is a super nice guy. He has two secret jobs: The first is taking the sting out of disagreement, request rejections, and other conversational nasties. He softens the message, giving you time to process what's coming and save face. His second job is to warn you that what you're about to get might not be exactly what you expected, like a friend at a party who tells you not to eat the delicious-looking cheese dip because some dude with Ebola just sneezed into it. When you ask someone a question, and they begin with "Well...," their answer isn't going to provide the exact information you requested. In many cases though, it's just a less direct interpretation that still lets you deduce the full answer. 

Glowstick vendor: 'Gangnam Style' is the best song ever written. You should totes cover it on your next album!
James Murphy: Well, that isn't the plan. 

In this example, "well" does both jobs: indicating an indirect answer is coming—though one that allows the asker to deduce the direct answer—and softening the blow of a denied request. 

Oh vs. So

The dictionary says "oh" is used to "express an emotion," but in real conversations, "oh" means the speaker has just received unexpected information. Someone won't say "oh" unless they've just remembered a forgotten fact or received a new fact. (Tuck that little tidbit into your Human Lie Detector kit.)

Woman: What does it say on there? "I want sprinkles"? I meant you should put actual sprinkles on the cake. 
Baker: Oh.

There is one exception though, and it's fascinating. It has to do with bringing up a new topic. See, culturally, it's considered impolite to talk about yourself too much. At the same time, we've all got this unspoken understanding of how discourse markers work, so we understand what "oh" does. In order to avoid looking like we've simply been waiting for someone to shut up so that we could talk about ourselves, we often wait for a lull then launch into personal stories with "oh." This gives the impression that we just remembered to tell the listener about our fabulous new jacket. It serves to make us look less self-centered and to downplay our own importance, which sounds like something you'd do if you had wicked-bad self-esteem but is actually just a normal way of maintaining conversational equilibrium.

Scott: The shark costume was stolen off the porch, so I'll have to get another one.
Me: Yeah. (Pause) Oh, by the way, I finally finished those edits I was working on. 

"So" is also used to introduce new topics—generally those that focus on someone other than the speaker. We are so good at this distinction that during one researcher's transcription, the speaker starts to introduce a self-centered topic with "so," then stops and restarts using "oh." If you asked her why she did that, she wouldn't be able to tell you. That's the magic of these interactional cues.

Starting a new topic with "so" is especially common when someone wants to chat about something that has either already been discussed and abandoned, or something that was supposed to be discussed (because it was the reason for the phone call, for example) but was delayed. 

Girl Who Called To Talk About Her Mom's Promotion: Hello?
Mom: Hi, honey. Just a second, your father has the TV up too loud. 
Girl: Okay.
Mom: Okay, this movie we're watching is so good. "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore." Have you heard of it?
Girl: Yeah. I haven't seen it though.
Mom: Oh, you really should.
Girl: I'll look into it. (Pause) So, congrats on the promotion.

In this example, "oh" shows that Mom didn't know her daughter hadn't seen the movie and "so" serves to change to the topic the girl originally called to discuss.

Um vs. Uh

Pop quiz 2: Do people use "um" and "uh" more or less often when they're lying? Your gut might tell you that it happens more, but the opposite is true. The more carefully someone chooses their words, the fewer hesitation fillers there are.

More fun um/uh facts: These two words not only tell your listener that you're having trouble coming up with the next word, they also let them know how long a delay to expect. "Uh" comes before shorter pauses; "um" before longer ones. Studies have shown that "uh" has a beneficial effect on the listener's ability to quickly recognize and comprehend the word that comes after it. "Um" doesn't have the same effect. 

Okay vs. Alright

Here are two more words that a dictionary will tell you are interchangeable, but they help us manage the flow of conversation in different ways. Both can be used to change the subject, but their job is to help you anticipate how big a jump to expect. A change to a topic related to the current topic is proceeded by "okay." A change to something completely unrelated is proceeded by "alright." 

Alpaca farmer: So that's how you put an alpaca in a sling. He's hanging there, happy as Larry.
Apprentice alpaca farmer: Okay, how would you go about trimming his hooves then?
Farmer: We can go over that tomorrow. It's easy, but I'm done for today. 
Apprentice: Alright, I'm going to hit the pub then if you wanna come.

The line starting with "okay" changes the topic from setting up the alpaca sling to cutting the animal's hooves. Like all good things, it's still alpaca related. The line starting with "alright" moves to something completely unrelated: drinks at the pub. 

"Okay" and "alright" also have very specific jobs when it comes to closing phone conversations. They help the two parties collaborate on when the call ends. When someone is ready to wrap things up, they'll signal that by throwing out an "okay." They wait for the other speaker to echo back with an "okay" of their own. This might happen several times. Once the second person has given an "okay," they'll move on to "alright." Usually, both parties will give an "alright" then the call will quickly come to an end. This little dance is shockingly predictable (trust me, my thesis was on this phenomenon, which means I spent a year of my life transcribing phone calls and checking for this pattern). The sequence happens with some non-telephone conversations as well. Now that you know about it, you'll never be able to ignore it again. Welcome to my personal hell. 


Do the alter egos of any of these everyday words surprise you? 

Image via the Telegraph

Image of An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method
Author: James Paul Gee
Price: $37.95
Publisher: Routledge (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Image of Language Shock: Understanding The Culture Of Conversation
Author: Michael H. Agar
Price: $17.97
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 288 pages
Image of Language in the Real World: An Introduction to Linguistics
Author:
Price: $54.95
Publisher: Routledge (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 392 pages
Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Comments

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. September 26, 2012 - 1:40pm

I think 'all right' looks better than 'alright'.  Although, Quagmire has ruined 'all right' for me.  

Irina Tănase's picture
Irina Tănase September 26, 2012 - 2:12pm

i loved this, awesome job.

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. September 26, 2012 - 3:00pm

If you wanna be my lover...

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus September 26, 2012 - 3:15pm

This is all great stuff! Truly fascinating. But my response to the first topic, the "hm mmm," tells me that you left out a category of understanding:

Gay men - like me - understand the "mm hmm" to be sarcastic. "Skittles? Yeah, right. You gotta be kiddin' me! Next!"

--Ed

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill September 26, 2012 - 3:23pm

@bryanhowie Yeah, that's an oft-debated point. Your way is definitely considered more standard. My version is more common in British English, and I wrote my thesis on it at the University of New South Wales in Australia, so that's probably why that spelling has stuck with me. I probably should've used the more standard spelling in this column, now that I think about it. From a descriptivist standpoint though, it also seems to have a slightly different meaning to me, but that's a lengthy conversation in and of itself. And that Quagmire clip's hilarious.

@Irina Thank you.

@Bret Thank you for catching and running with my lame 16-year-old pop song reference.

@Ed I'm sure that there have been studies on the speech patterns of gay men. If not, I'm gonna get on that because it'd be fascinating.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 26, 2012 - 7:06pm

This is the most fun I've had since my bemused experience watching the Gangnam Style YouTube. You are too, too funny, Kimberly! Now I am going to go off to remove my comma-shaped cake from the oven.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands is reading Brian Evenson's Windeye September 29, 2012 - 12:04am

Great article.

Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself September 29, 2012 - 12:22am

Really nice read. For anyone interested in another book about this subject, I recommend UM: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What they Mean by Michael Erard. I did a video review of it recently, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC2wg_h2wEg