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A friend was noting that his daughter would occasionally start sentences with the phrase "I mean, " simply for emphasis, not for clarification:

Friend: How was the Miley Cyrus concert?

Friend's daughter: I mean, it was the best concert ever!

I have typically seen "I mean" used to join two statements - for example, as a correction:

This juice is orange. Well, I mean, more of a yellowish-orange.

or for clarifying emphasis:

This juice is orange. I mean, it's the most neon orange you've ever seen!

However, his daughter's usage seems to combine the two parts of the "emphasis" example, creating a single independent statement that begins with "I mean":

I mean, this juice is the most neon orange you've ever seen!

Considering that teen girls are leading language change, has "I mean" just been co-opted as an interjection?

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4  
See also: "You know" –  keithjgrant Sep 14 '10 at 21:07
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And, like: "like" –  Jeffrey Kemp Sep 15 '10 at 12:05
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@Jeffrey: there is actually a question about, like: "like". –  RegDwigнt Sep 18 '10 at 15:00
    
"I mean" used in that way, is, like totally, you know, bogus, dude! I mean, way out there! –  birdus Sep 23 '10 at 23:19
    
Usually we're more aware of other people's language than we are of our own. This, for me, is an exception. I know that I say I mean a lot -- it's an annoying verbal tic I'm trying to rid myself of -- but I hadn't noticed other people using it much. –  TRiG Oct 22 '10 at 22:28
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"I mean", like other discourse particles, is tough to nail down. But every discourse element does serve a function, it is just normally a function that is a bit different from other types of words.

Here is some current theory on what "I mean" means. All of my information comes from Fox Tree & Shrock (2002).

The paper has a slightly different focus, so I am picking out part of the article that summarizes some of the literature that explores possible discourse functions of I mean (so don't consider this a complete summary of that paper).

I mean may be used more by some speakers, and in some kinds of talk, because these speakers, or these speakers in these situations, are more willing or able to make adjustments on the fly.

I mean may be more common in thoughtful and opinionated talk...if speakers are being more careful about expressing exactly what they mean to express, and so using I mean to adjust their speech. This may also be true of narratives. On the other hand, I mean may be more common in conversations than in interviews, if speakers are talking more spontaneously in conversations. If talk is planned in advance, or considered carefully before articulating, as it might be in interviews, there is less need for on-the-spot adjustments. Likewise, I mean may be linked with positive politeness because using it reminds conversational participants of more casual talk. At the same time, it may be linked to negative politeness by decreasing face threat; saying I mean may be like saying "I'm not committed to what I just said and will adjust if you are offended."

This article also mentions some research into "I mean" as a device used to assist turn management in a conversation (i.e. how the back-and-forth of a conversation is managed). Specifically, "I mean" can be used when Speaker A takes another turn talking, and wants to indicate that Speaker A is "skipping" what Speaker B just said and continuing the thought that Speaker A was conveying before Speaker B talked. For example, imagine this spontaneous spoken conversation, where each line almost interrupts the one before it:

A: Cats aren't the most loving pets, are they?

B: Personally I find dogs more annoying than cats...

A: I mean... they can't even really be trained and they just hang out on their own....

(The above is my example — I hope it's clear what I am talking about.)

Other uses mentioned in the article:

Repair:

I mean's use in repair conforms with its basic meaning to forewarn upcoming adjustments. With a broad view of repair that extends beyond local phonological or syntactic adjustments, this basic meaning can accommodate many of the other observations, such as that I mean forewarns parenthetical remarks or a change of mind (Erman, 1987: 175). The forewarning adjustments function treats the predictability or the local-globalness of repairs as irrelevant, so the conflicting findings presented earlier pose no threat.

Monitoring:

The forewarning adjustments function also sits well with speakers' increased monitoring of addressee comprehension after an I mean. If speakers have just forewarned an adjustment, they might seek an acknowledgement of understanding from the addressee after the adjustment has been made.

Organizational:

Forewarning adjustments can also account for I mean's uses in topic shifts, such as introducing commentary, justification, phrasal level modification, and new information.

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Aren't most (all?) of these concerned with the use of "I mean" when it follows some previous utterance by the speaker? (That's what "adjustments", "turn management", "repair" etc. all seem to refer to.) But the question contrasts such usage with using "I mean" at the beginning, without being used to adjust/clarify/repair anything that was said previously. (See also the questioner's comment on moioci's answer below.) –  ShreevatsaR Sep 24 '10 at 10:22
    
@ShreevatsaR: What about organizational? It is used for introducing commentary. (Unfortunately, I just have the info I have, and I found that there was a lot more interesting info on "I mean" when it is not at the very beginning.) –  Kosmonaut Sep 24 '10 at 11:40
    
The organizational part says "topic shifts, such as introducing commentary, justification, phrasal level modification, and new information" — which also (to me) suggests something came before. But all the information you gave is very interesting, BTW! I just find the usage mentioned in the question (at the beginning of an answer to a question, not a follow-up to anything) unusual, but it may be too "new" for anyone to have studied it. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Sep 24 '10 at 11:44
    
In terms of turn taking, that one might simply be a means for the second person to establish her turn even though she doesn't know what to say yet... so it buys her a few moments of time to decide. –  Kosmonaut Sep 24 '10 at 11:49
    
@ShreevatsaR is right - your information is fascinating, but it doesn't directly address my "independent statement" question. I'm more interested in this recent evolutionary step. +1 regardless. :) –  mskfisher Feb 25 '11 at 20:10
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Ironically, "I mean" might not mean anything, except just an interjection , as you pointed out in the question itself. I believe that it is largely some sort of a Word-Whisker, inherent devoid of a semantic significance.

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Yes. I mean is always a discourse particle (I prefer the term pragmatic marker) - adding something outside the semantic content of the rest of the sentence. It may be used in the middle of discourse, to build up to what comes next, or to show that a correction or better explanation of what has just been said is about to follow. It may also, as V Garg observes, be merely a filler to help the speaker - like -err- or -you know-. Starting discourse, it can either be a filler or a modality marker (expressing the speaker's view of the truth value of a proposition) meaning In my opinion,. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 18 '12 at 8:04
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Use of this phrase for emphasis is not in any way new. Witness Bertie Wooster in The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy:

The blighter's calm amazed and shocked me. It seemed to indicate that there must be a horrible streak of callousness in him. I mean to say, it wasn't as if he didn't know Honoria Glossop.

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Notice, though, that in that quote it is used to clarify or add to a previous sentence. Its use at the beginning of an independent sentence is what intrigues me. –  mskfisher Sep 20 '10 at 10:33
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protected by Will Hunting Sep 17 '12 at 20:47

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