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Sample conversation:

Person 1: What did you think of the movie?
Person 2: Well, the acting was great, but the plot was terrible.

What does "well" actually add to the body of the sentence? I have never heard any sentence spoken or written whose meaning was absolutely dependent on beginning with "well".

It seems akin to an "um" or "uh", serving as a vocal void filler while the speaker collects their thoughts and puts their words together before actually speaking them.

If that's the case, why do people actually type it? People clearly have time to think about what they're going to say before posting a comment on a blog or replying to an email. Has it become a sort of accepted language anomaly much in the same way Midwesterners like to say things like "Where did you put it at?"

  • 10
    This abstract has a summary: The discourse marker well has four distinct uses in Modern English: as a frame it introduces a new topic or prefaces direct reported speech; as a qualifier it prefaces a reply which is only a partial answer to a question; as a face-threat mitigator it prefaces a disagreement; and as a pause filler it bridges interactional silence. – snailcar Aug 10 '13 at 2:45
  • Ah, the last part pretty much sums up my theory: "and, as a pause filler, it bridges interactional silence". I added commas where they belong =D. – oscilatingcretin Aug 10 '13 at 2:46
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    It is more than just a gap-filler, though. Without it, your example sentence would read as quite curt and brusque. ‘Well’ adds a certain softening to the sentence. This makes it all the more important in writing than in speech, because writing cannot rely on intonation and non-verbal communication to relay that information; it must be done verbally. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 10 '13 at 2:58
  • @oscilatingcretin: In your example, I think it rather prefaces disagreement, or possibly also a partial answer. Snailboat's categories sound...sound. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Aug 10 '13 at 3:15
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"Well" does not serve any grammatical usage in this sentence. That's because, in this context, "well" is an interjection, a word that expresses emotion. Depending on how it is enunciated, "well" could indicate impatience, surprise, nervousness, and a variety of other emotions.

However, here it seems to function as a filler, similar to "uh." It doesn't have any true meaning. People type it for the same reason as they type the interjections "oh" or "uh" - to convey emotion or to fill space while thinking of what to say.

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1) A pause while the speaker considers a politic answer.

Q: "What did you think of my sister's cooking?" A: "Well ... it was very filling."

2) An indication that the rest of the answer is going to be a mix of positive and negative. See your own example.

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There are 8 parts of speech. People seem to have forgotten about Interjections. They express emotion, good or bad. They are the "Golly Gee" and "Holy Cow" from days gone by, which have now been replaced by vulgar slang and swears: We currently see a lot of 'F-ing hell', tons of 'what the f-', the forever loving 'sh--' exclamation.

Well, when used as an interjection or an exclamation is not the same as 'uh, um, er, you know, or like. Those are merely fillers because of stalling and trying to prevent silence. They are not exclamations nor interjections of any emotion.

Well, can also stand for "Well, in my opinion, the acting was good, but the plot was terrible.'

I miss the fact that people no longer exclaim, "Alas!" Ah, those were the well spoken days!

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'well' at the beginning of a spoken statement ( answers Or Questions) simply means that the respondent either have a LONG but well planned / well thought point wise answer to the question asked OR the question posed to the respondent is such that requires a recollection of memories i.e. thinking & then replying ( but short answer).

  • I agree with this answer, but I sure would like to see it edited to include some references, citations, or other evidence to back up what it is asserting. – Dan Bron Mar 21 '16 at 17:27
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To express the speaker's nuance of feeling, depending on his inflection, tone of voice, loudness, or feeling when saying the word 'well', a lot of information can be gained at the start of a sentence before even going into the subject of conversation.

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A sentence is a complete thought. When there is only one clause in a sentence (simple), and you begin it with a conjunction (Coordinate or Subordinate, Correlative, etc.), then you do not have a complete thought. I explained this in a comment and got 3 negative votes! Well, I guess this is why we need more sites like this one because the basic sentence is being forgotten and is being reborn as a sentence fragment. This also raises that issue of pausing when speaking. Commas can separate clauses (etc). You should pause between clauses. Every pause is NOT a new sentence, and every pause does NOT require a comma or a period. I think it's odd that so many EFL speakers don't know these very basics. There were rules (like them or not), but the people weren't happy with them. Grammar keeps becoming more complicated by less rules, newer rules, and newer interpretations and analysis of what most people never learned. Read Reed & Kellogg books from the early 1900s. Begin there, and then expand into the modern nightmare of newfangled grammar rules. I love Grammar, and sentence diagramming. I write pretty good sentences, too!

  • You know, beginning sentences with conjunctions is not at all new. It doesn't even make sense linguistically, either; some languages have conjunctions like but, so, and and that can only possibly start sentences, never be wedged into their middle. – Aeon Akechi Oct 31 '15 at 2:21
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It depends on the sentence, but in this case it appears to indicate that only a partial answer to the question is being given, as @snailboat suggested in a comment. Person 2 probably had lots of thoughts about the movie but only wrote a few words.

Without the word 'well' the answer would suggest that they had no other thoughts about the movie.

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The most common abuse I see (hear) of the word "well" is found on television news, a place where I assume they have people who have some training or education in public speaking. The ubiquitous "well" can be heard preceding almost every answer posed to a reporter/commentator.
"We now go to John Smith, our reporter at the scene--what's happening, there, John?" "Well, George, we're at the site of..." or how about "Let's check with the weather--what do you expect tonight, Susan?" "Well, Brett, it looks like rain..." What's the purpose of the "well"? If you listen for it, it is everywhere on television. My 7th grade English teacher, Mrs Nelson, would stop us if we EVER answered a question with that word. She would say,"If you bring that up, you will get a silo!" (get it??)

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I think when people do this, "well" is used as a qualifying noise more than a word. "The acting was good, but the plot was terrible" could seem harsh if the asker really enjoyed the movie; putting "well" in front leaves room for the asker to voice his or her opinion without feeling the tension of disagreeing with the responder (which, generally when someone asks how a movie or even was, his or her own opinion is sure to follow shortly).

protected by tchrist Mar 21 '16 at 10:55

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