“Excuse me” as Discourse Marker

Enjoy this guest post by Paula Hagen! — MLR

Similar to Megan’s entry about the use of ‘bastard’ as a discourse marker, I looked into the phrase ‘excuse me’ to see if anything interesting was happening there. All of my examples came from a combination of spoken and written English, all transcribed into the Corpus of Contemporary American English and personally selected by me to find different examples of this discourse marker. In the class that we were in, we were working off of Fraser’s paper about expressive meaning. He outlines two main dividing points in interpreting sentence meaning: content meaning and pragmatic meaning. Simply put, I realized that when something like [1] is uttered, the phrase carries content meaning. In this sentence, the content of what the verb excuse literally means is taken into account when interpreting the entire sentence.

[1] Would you please excuse me? Nature calls.

When this discourse marker carries pragmatic meaning, however, is when things start to get a little bit more intriguing. Fraser outlines three different subcategories of pragmatic meaning: basic pragmatic markers, commentary pragmatic markers, and parallel pragmatic markers. In an example like [2], we can see that the phrase is used when the speaker has made a mistake and is attempting to quickly correct him/herself.

[2] You know what, Chicago – – excuse me, Illinois instituted a recall measure and now it’s starting to move.

We can also (possibly) assume that the phrase is used to signify that the hearer of the utterance may be in a position in which s/he would know that this slip of the tongue would have been a mistake (although this may be debatable, depending on the context). In this case I have decided that the phrase is being used as a commentary pragmatic marker, as it encodes a message that comments on the message itself.

In a sentence in which the speaker is signifying that s/he wants the attention of the other person, as in [3], it seems to me that the phrase is being used as a basic pragmatic marker, signaling illocutionary force that the speaker intends something specific (in this case, to get the attention of the other person).

[3] Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice how good you are with her.

Of course, in a different context [3] might signify content meaning instead: a situation in which the speaker literally means that s/he needs to be excused because the following statement might be a little rude, unexpected, and/or taboo.

In sentences like [4] and [5], I found that the phrase is functioning almost like an idiom, in which the surface meaning is not taken into account as much as the phrase functions in a different way during a set of discourse.

[4] Because he wanted to teach Americans how to be charitable. Excuse me? Americans don’t need a lesson on charity.

[5] Do you go by Bethany or just Beth? … Excuse me? What?

In these cases, the phrase signifies one of two things:  either the speaker literally did not hear what he other person said and is communicating that s/he needs the utterance to be repeated, for the sake of clarification, or that the speaker is communicating that what was just said is something to be thought of as… unbelievable or baffling. In [4] we see this kind of usage, as the entire quote is one man talking in front of an audience on a talk show. The phrase is expressing that he thinks the previously mentioned information is baffling – and so using excuse me as a sort of rhetorical device. To get back to Fraser’s subcategories of pragmatic meaning, I feel as though the phrase of used as a parallel pragmatic marker, as they encode their own message that is separate from something basic and/or parallel.

The last interesting example found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is [6], in which the speaker is expressing sarcasm (also see Megan’s previous entry about Gricean connections in the use of sarcasm)

[6] You’re the damn therapist – oh, excuse me, psychiatrist!

This was a particular favorite of mine, as it is interesting that the phrase can convey such a clear and specific expression of sarcasm (it is also important to note that the quote originally came from a novel, recorded in the corpus). There is clearly something happening here where a native speaker can automatically understand the meaning behind this sentence, instead of thinking that the speaker may have (like the other examples before) made an honest mistake in saying therapist instead of psychiatrist. Although this was interesting, I felt like this where I started to fall short as far as being able to explain what, semantically and pragmatically, might be happening here.

It seems to me that this last sarcastic use of the discourse marker starts to open up a lot of questions for us… what do you all think? Is it possible that this last example sentence signifies an entirely different kind of pragmatic meaning that has not yet been defined? Uh oh, do I DARE go there?!            :]

Paula Hagen



Filed under Linguistics

3 responses to ““Excuse me” as Discourse Marker

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  2. I think in the case of example six, the exclamation mark goes a long way to making the phrase sarcastic. Was the “excuse me” highlighted in the original as it is in the example? I think italicising the phrase would also mark it as being said sarcastically.

    • Paula Hagen

      In the original quote ‘excuse me’ was not in bold, and I don’t believe that any of the words were recorded as italicized. After thinking about this for a while now, I’m starting to think that maybe there is a connection between how the discourse marker functions in [4] as it does in [6]. If you think about how sarcasm usually works in application, a big part of it being successful (maybe even the only part) is the other person understanding that it is sarcastic. This creates a certain kind of relationship between speaker and listener – as the speaker relies on the listener to see the irony (and perhaps ‘baffling’ nature) of the utterance. Just like in [4] where the speaker relies on the audience to see his point of view that the information is unbelievable/baffling, a sarcastic use seems very similar to this. So… maybe this last use is an example of a parallel pragmatic marker? Thoughts?

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