Monday 28 January 2013

Coming to the end

Speaker A:            “Let’s discuss the use of final particles in conversational English”
Speaker B:            “Ok … What does that mean though?”

Alexander Haselow was interested in the fact that, during the past few decades, the words actually, even, though, then, and anyway have become more and more present towards the end of an utterance in spoken English.  So, for example, speakers will often say things like I’ll have to do it quickly though or I never liked it anyway. In this position these words are called final particles’ and Haselow wanted to investigate further what their function in conversations might be. He analysed data taken from the British component of the International Corpus of English, focusing only on speech in private, more intimate contexts, as this is unplanned and exactly where final particles occur most frequently.

Although when used in other parts of a sentence (or ‘utterance’ in speech) these words can be labelled grammatically as various things, including ‘adverbs’ or ‘connectives’, Haselow argues that in a final position it is hard to determine what their grammatical function is. It seems that when they are used in this position, they take on a different meaning to that which they have mid-utterance. They seem to provide a type of subjective ‘comment’ on something that has been said earlier in the conversation. For example, then in You’re not coming then suggests that the speaker has understood or ‘inferred’ this from something that has been said earlier or, in the case of I’m not coming actually, the actually suggests that the speaker is going against expectations that may have arisen from what has previously been said. In both of the above examples the main clause itself makes sense without the final particle, so it is not dependent on it. However, this is not the case for the final particle as it cannot stand alone and needs some speech to latch onto, even if it is just one word as in Alright then.

Haselow felt that the main function of final particles is to link its utterance to a previous part of the conversation whilst, at the same time, showing how the speaker wants their utterance to be understood.  It is this second function that determines the final particle that the speaker will use, as can be seen below:

Speaker A:            Bill’s going to the party
Speaker B:            I wouldn’t go then/though/anyway/actually/even

The choice of final particle here determines how Speaker B’s utterance relates to Speaker A’s. Final particles therefore appear to link their utterance to a previous one, either from a different or the same speaker. Because of this, conversations cannot be started with an utterance ending with a final particle. For example, I can’t collect you though isn’t just stating a fact (‘I can’t collect you’) but is also somehow contradicting something that has previously been said. 

So final particles allow speakers to manipulate conversations, as they signal to other participants how they want them to understand what they are saying. They are vital elements of interactive spoken language where utterances need to be linked in order to create a meaningful conversation. It is because speech is unplanned and unrehearsed that this linking often has to be done in retrospect during the conversation itself and this is where final particles play such a vital role. For example, having these words at your disposal during a conversation means that you can use them to correct a preceding utterance, as in I didn’t do it though or maybe ask for the validity of something, as in You didn’t see it then? The end of an utterance is the easiest and most convenient place to slot these words in and the reason that they are most frequently found in this final position.

Who would have thought that having a conversation required such constant negotiation of meaning from its speakers? I never said it was simple though!
Haselow, Alexander  (2012) Subjectivity, intersubjectivity and the negotiation of common ground in spoken discourse: Final particles in English. Language and Communication 32: 182-204.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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