“And I’m like, ‘Well, here’s the thing…'”

I have long suspected–without a shred of evidence, mind you–that language is primarily expressive and emotive, and only later becomes semantic and descriptive. In other words, it’s more music than dictionary.

For instance, check out this fun interactive map, “The Emotions Recognized in Vocal Bursts,” based on a study from American Psychologist. (Stay away from “Ecstasy” if anyone else happens to be listening.)

These bursts are so powerful, they can reduce an entire classroom of zoned-out students to a state of embarrassed hysteria in a matter seconds.

However, of the conventional eight parts of speech in English–nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections–seven are purely descriptive, while only the last one hints at any interpretive/emotive stance. The rest of the list feels, well, sterile.

What we need is to define new parts of speech. Jessica Love, in a 2011 article in The American Scholar, titled “And I’m Like, Read This!,” offers a good example. Love refers to the conversational use of “like” as the “quotative” case.

So what’s the deal with the quotative ‘like’? Is it just a lazier, slangier way of saying ‘says’? Linguists are like, No! The general consensus is that the quotative ‘like’ encourages a speaker to embody the participants in a conversation. Thus, the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not. 

And an interesting thing about “like” is that its quotative nature depends entirely on the absence of the most pesky of punctuation marks. “[E]ven in the venerable New Yorker,” Love writes, “the quotative like is often prefaced by a comma, as though it were a filler: He was, like, Dude, get your act together. This serves to both deny the construction its dramatic power and make its speaker look somewhat incoherent. Not cool.” It’s amazing what a little pause can do. Or, in this case, undo.

Allow me to add another example: “Well.” I have seen the word pop up time and again in student papers this semester and, even though it’s not standard academese, I must say I’m liking it.

What’s going on here? Well, it’s complicated. The word itself can be a noun, a verb, and an adverb. (One can “feel well,” “do well,” and, in the final analysis, “be well.”) It can even be an interjection:

“Wellll doggies!”

And the etymology of the word is like Alice’s rabbit hole:

Proto-Germanic *wel- (source also of Old Saxon wela, Old Norse vel, Old Frisian wel, Dutch wel, Old High German wela, German wohl, Gothic waila “well”), from PIE root *wel- (2) “to wish, will” (source also of Sanskrit prati varam “at will,” Old Church Slavonic vole “well,” Welsh gwell “better,” Latin velle “to wish, will,” Old English willan “to wish;” see will (v.))…

It’s “well”s all the way down.

The use of “well” in our case, though, seems to be doing a special job. Here it is in the opening to a student paper titled “A Look at the Sublime and High Place Phenomenon,” commonly known as “the urge to jump”:

Many of us have had an experience while doing something a bit dangerous, where you hear that little voice in your head say, “What do you think would happen if I jumped right now?” or maybe it was more along the lines of, “What if I swerved my car into oncoming traffic, just because I can?”. Your body often tries to guess if you would survive from certain heights, speeds, or situations; it tends to make you feel crazy, and you doubt all the trust you’ve previously placed in your mind and body. Well, what if I told you that you’re not crazy and this is a fully normal phenomenon with its own name.

Initially, it acts as a transition, and it’s tempting to call it a conjunction and be done with it. Unlike other conjunctions, though, which we are told should never start off a sentence (a rule that I ignore myself, and encourage my students to break whenever necessary), “well” is always the first word, giving it a bit more heft. Instead of just leading us forward, it pulls us up to simultaneously take a glance backward, a bit like the Roman god, Janus. And what it looks back at is a situation or a question that calls for a response:


But–and here’s the important thing– it responds to a question, either actual or implied, raised in the writer’s own discourse. It’s mind in conversation with itself.

So, inspired by Jessica Love calling “like” the “quotative” case, here, after far too much deliberation, is my definition of this particular part of speech: “Well” is the explanative case with conjunctive effects.

Well, anyway, as my dear friend, Paul Ankener, used to say, “It’s a deep subject. And a wet one!”

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