Columns > Published on September 26th, 2012

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" 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

About the author

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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