15 of the 18
February 23, 2001 1:48 AM   Subscribe

15 of the 18 sentences beginning with the word "Well" in this transcript mark a speaker responding to a question or taking his/her turn. I'm sick of it.
posted by Mo Nickels (27 comments total)

Ugh. Something else to add to my list of vile words: the Reagan well.

Got any others?
posted by pracowity at 2:04 AM on February 23, 2001

Like, um, yeah.
posted by Mick at 5:05 AM on February 23, 2001

"Well" is a well-studied word in discourse analysis. It seems to be used (not just by pols and other public figures) to mark a place where a speaker is going to say something indirectly--like "I'm going to answer your question but not in the way that your question wants to be answered." Like "like" (which is used to mark "focus"), it's not just a verbal tic.
posted by rodii at 6:17 AM on February 23, 2001

Nothing pisses me off more than having to listen to people use bad speaking style. It's like fingernails on a black board.

Don't these people know that the bad grammar and poor sentence structure instantly label them as ignorant and uneducated clods? Where did these idiots grow up that they can't be more considerate?

People who use bad sentence structure should be rooted out an made fun of. It makes me so mad!
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:59 AM on February 23, 2001

"Well" is a well-studied word in discourse analysis. It seems to be used (not just by pols and other public figures) to mark a place where a speaker is going to say something indirectly--like "I'm going to answer your question but not in the way that your question wants to be answered." Like "like" (which is used to mark "focus"), it's not just a verbal tic.

Yes, that's true, but I wasn't going to get into it. I generally also take it as a marker for deception or doubtful content.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:11 AM on February 23, 2001

"Well" certainly beats "basically." About a month ago I heard a speaker throw in so many "basically"s and "obviously"s I nearly had to strike him across the face.
posted by argybarg at 7:15 AM on February 23, 2001

pracowity, I enjoyed reading your list, but as someone who recently used "bottom line" and "proactive" in posts I'm afraid I'll be a bit self-conscious for a while.
posted by gimli at 7:16 AM on February 23, 2001

I use bad grammar alla time, but I'm well aware of it. I don't care. I like bad grammar. You grammar nazis can all do the grammar-rot-linedance in grammar-hell!
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:22 AM on February 23, 2001

pracowity, after reading your list, I will do my best to replace "I feel," "learnings" and "and/or" in business meetings with "sodomite."
posted by argybarg at 7:37 AM on February 23, 2001

There are many people who will add a meaningless word to the beginning of a sentence because it gives them another moment to prepare to respond to the question. In some cases it's "well" in others it's "actually" and in still others it's the time-honoured "hmm."

I find it interesting that adding a nonsequitur at the start of a phrase is considered a sign of impending dishonesty, when in fact it could be merely the sign of someone taking time to form a statement of fact. If these speakers paused for a few seconds before replying to a question (instead of adding an unnecessary word to make their reply seem more prompt than it is) how would that be viewed?

It may not read well in transcript and it certainly isn't grammatically correct, but it has long been a part of idiomatic English with many uses.
posted by Dreama at 7:39 AM on February 23, 2001

Do other languages suffer from such a preponderance of superfluous words and statements? I think the word "pues", which means "then", can be used in Spanish in a similar way to "well" in English. It doesn't seem to appear as frequently, though.
posted by gimli at 8:04 AM on February 23, 2001

Saying "well" is also a way to get the other person to shut up so you can take your turn. But on a less serious note...
posted by frykitty at 8:04 AM on February 23, 2001

Growing up in Texas among "spanglish" speakers, I remember hearing "como" being used as the Spanish "well" or "you know". I don't know if this was due to the American need to insert noise in pauses or if it was a distinct Mexican cultural holdover.
posted by Avogadro at 8:07 AM on February 23, 2001

In Poland, I frequently hear 'wies?' ('you know?') as filler.
posted by pracowity at 8:18 AM on February 23, 2001

If I'm listening to a speaker (as opposed to reading their words), one thing that will drive me nuts is the "pre-verbal smack", that wet smacking sound made when some people open their mouths to speak.

It's not so bad when strung together with actual speech, but when someone opens their mouth, then pauses for dramatic effect, then speaks - grrrrr! - you're entire attention can get focused on the damn wet sound. Bill Clinton was/is terrible about this.

I know, I need to lighten up, but I can't help it. I find myself furiously switching radio channels in a desparate attempt to flee if an interview pops up with a lot of "smacks". It's like listening to a news broadcast and focusing on the sounds of people inhaling, raather than the words they speak while exhaling. Pretty soon, it'll drive you up the wall.
posted by kokogiak at 9:30 AM on February 23, 2001

Well, this is the kind of stuff that I study for a living (or at least a thesis) (warning - this is a PDF version of an abstract of some research that I'm presenting at a human sentence processing conference. It's jargonful in order to meet the word limit.) these days (that is, paralinguistic features of speech). Herb Clark, who's currently at Stanford, describes a phenomenon that might be at work here. In order to hold on to the floor, people start talking before they are ready. Thus, they throw out something that is not necessarily part of the message - but is used as a signal that the speaker wants the floor. It's also possible that the person was still trying to formulate a response to the question. Speakers abhor dead air: so they toss in some filler material - maybe an 'um' or an 'uh' or a 'well'. A lot of academics use 'so . . .' One more neat thing about the beginnings of utterances: people will repeat the beginning of their utterance over and over, and get louder and louder in order to gain the floor. However, during spontaneous speech, people often aren't aware (postscript file) of all of this other stuff that goes on. That's why exact transcripts look really bad. Our language processor is adapted for dealing with junk in the speech stream, not junk in reading - even though you notice when someone is 'um'-ing too frequently (on in the wrong syntactic place), spontaneous speech is anything but 'ideal' (in the prescriptive Language Arts class sense). And yet we still are able to comprehend each other, despite all the extraneous stuff in spontaneous speech. That's cool.
Hmmmm, I may be getting too excited about this. Sometimes you just get so obsessed with the topic of your research. :)
posted by iceberg273 at 9:58 AM on February 23, 2001

My bad. The first (relevant, yet self-referential) link should point here. For what it's worth.
posted by iceberg273 at 10:02 AM on February 23, 2001

This use of "well" is certainly not ungrammatical! I won't get into the whole prescriptive/descriptive thing so dear to us linguists, but I think y'all are too quick to judge based on some dubious idea of "grammaticality" that was beaten into you at some tender age, and to make judgments about the character of people based on the way they speak. And people who use prescriptive ideas to bash the way other people speak often don't understand the phenomena very well themselves. How many people are vaguely aware of the proscription on "split infinitives" but have no idea why people believe that?

In a lot of the sentence in the transcript, well is used in a "well, yes, but" context as a response to a leading questions. It indicates "I am going to agree with the factual content of your question, but I think that the implication you're drawing is wrong, so don't take my confirmation of your words as agreement with your agenda." That's an important thing to be able to say when you're dealing with journalists and politicians, who are often trying to get you to fall into verbal "traps." It's a way of rejecting the premise of a question. It can indicate evasion or dishonesty, but it can also represent an attempt to wrest control of the conversation away from someone else.

In answer to Gimli's question, yes, every language has such "particles" that are used to indicate all kinds of things--the speaker's feelings about the "evidential" status of what he or she is saying, attitudes, new/old topic, indirectness, informality, respect, differences in social status or age--there is lots and lots and lots (and lots) of that in every language. In some languages they're relatively "grammaticalized" (that is, incorporated into the formal syntax of the language), in others they remain basically pragmatics. Some cultures treat them as basic components of communication (Japanese, Chinese, most Southeast Asian traditions), and some don't. In European-descended cultures, we have grammatical traditions descended from Greek and Latin grammarians, and those grammarians were mainly concerned with the comple morphology of words. Because these "particles" don't really have much morphology, they didn't handle them very well--lumping them in a meaningless garbage-can category of "interjections"--so we don't think very clearly about them today. But they're there, and they're an important component in communication, universally.
posted by rodii at 10:50 AM on February 23, 2001

God, my typing's horrible. "comple" should be "complex", "pragmatics" should be "pragmatic", etc.
posted by rodii at 10:53 AM on February 23, 2001

Can I just say how much it warms the cockles of my heart to see other linguists geeking out here?

On the subject of floor-holding -- especially for you, kokogiak -- I'm reminded of a little story that Charles Fillmore (now emeritus at UC Berkeley) used to tell about how linguists can make themselves obnoxious (that is, aside from our habit of boring everyone by going on and on about our topic of study). When dining out with friends, he liked to say "Um," or make some other floor-taking/holding indicator just after he'd put a bite of food in his mouth. Everyone would look to him, and he'd point to his cheek to indicate that he was still chewing. Everybody would wait patiently to hear what he would say when he'd swallowed -- then he'd calmly put another bite of food in his mouth, inciting sometimes quite violent indignation in his companions. Hee.

To digress completely: If any of the other linguists here are planning to go to ICLC (the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference) in Santa Barbara this summer, we could have a tiny little MeFiCon!
posted by redfoxtail at 12:49 PM on February 23, 2001

That is the kind of informal speech up with which I shall not put!

Hey, y6, chill. These people are speaking in a highly stressful situation. The fact is, most newspaper quotes clean up what people say, removing the "well"s and "uh-huh"s and fixing their sentence structure. It's true. (Though sometimes, as in the case of Bush, certain reporters/editors will get a little snarky and present what's said syllable-for-syllable. An old reporter's trick.)

When I was in Sweden I found my relatives would listen intently and interject a frequent "ja ja" (say it faster than "yo-yo"). Took me a while to accept it was just their version of "uhm-hmm [continue, I'm listening]", because to my American ears it sounded more like "get on with it, I'm impatient". This is all known as paralanguage: communication outside of the form of the written language (which, after all, came later).

rodii hit the nail on the head. In French, for example, you have in addition to oui and non a word si, which is a yes used exclusively to answer a question in the negative.

Are you coming? .... Oui.

Are you coming? ... Non.

Aren't you coming? ... Si. [Yes, I'm coming.]

It seems to me that well in this context operates somewhat similarly. A version can be found in formal speech: I'm glad you asked that, because... Basically, it's short for "I'm going to disagree with you, politely."
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on February 23, 2001

As a Brit, I notice that I'll preface questions with a "I don't suppose..." or a "Would you mind...", when Americans just ask the damn question. But this isn't just an affectation of politeness, I think. It's a phatic way of alerting the listener that a question's on the way, so that he or she doesn't miss what I'm asking and have to ask it be repeated. And it generally works.

There's nothing wrong with rhetorical foreplay, as long as it doesn't become the main attraction.
posted by holgate at 2:50 PM on February 23, 2001

I really hate "know what I mean," know what I mean? It seems very popular in the younger vernacular, know what I mean? And it ends every sentence, know what I mean? It gets to a point where that's all I hear, know what I mean?

I have a friend who used to count all the times Cheech and Chong used the word "man" in their movies and when he got to 100, he'd walk out, know what I mean? It usually took about 15 minutes. Know what I mean?
posted by honkzilla at 3:03 PM on February 23, 2001

Don't these people know that the bad grammar and poor sentence structure instantly label them as ignorant and uneducated clods? Where did these idiots grow up that they can't be more considerate?

Probably America, any time since the 1950's. We don't learn grammar. You can be a very educated, intelligent person and make simple grammatical mistakes, simply because it's not taught very well.
posted by dagnyscott at 3:20 PM on February 23, 2001


I had a teacher in middle-school that broke the entire class of the "knowwhatImean?" habit. She'd simply answer: "No, I don't."
posted by frykitty at 3:29 PM on February 23, 2001

Probably America, any time since the 1950's.

dagny, I see the beginnings of a pattern here. I'm vaguely interested; are you privy to some catastrophic, culture destroying event to which the rest of us have been unaware, or are you a disgruntled WWII vet in disguise?

posted by Avogadro at 7:45 PM on February 24, 2001

I'm vaguely interested; are you privy to some catastrophic, culture destroying event to which the rest of us have been unaware....?

You mean other than the Interstate Highway System?
posted by daveadams at 8:04 PM on February 25, 2001

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