Dialogue Design Guide


Discourse markers

The Issue

Discourse markers are linguistic expressions used to signal the relation of an utterance to its immediate context, with the primary function of bringing to the listener's attention a particular kind of linkage of the upcoming utterance with the immediate discourse context (Redeker, 1990).

Some examples of discourse markers in English are: "well", "now", '"actually", and "OK".

A conversation is "much less lively and less 'personal' without [discourse markers] signalling receipt of information, agreement and involvement." (Stenstrom, 1994:17).

Discourse markers are used in the prompts of automated telephone service dialogues in order to create and maintain this sense of a more lively and personal relationship with the user.

Some commonly used discourse markers

The discourse markers below have all been used in recent research into new dialogue designs carried out as part of the SPOTLIGHT project. Click on in the example boxes to hear recorded samples of the prompts in action.

"Well" serves various functions in discourse depending on the context and its position in the utterance. Stenstrom states that "well" at the beginning of a turn serves as a response marker to what has gone before.


Well, I can also give you like Funds Transfer, Item Search, Order Statement or Change TIN.

Here the "well" at the beginning of the prompt is used in response to the user's request for another service (within a banking application). It serves to accept what the user has requested before moving onto to respond to that request. In this way, it forms a cohesive tie within the dialogue.

"Now" at the beginning of a turn is used as a transition marker, introducing a new topic and changing the direction of the discourse. In the case of automated dialogues, where the application may be very specific, "now" can be used to move from one part of the dialogue to another.


Now, would you like to select another service?

This prompt would be played after a user had completed a particular transaction. One part of the dialogue is complete (for example a request for balance information has been made and the information given). The dialogue then moves onto something new: whether the user has any other banking transactions to complete.

Smith and Jucker (2000) claim that "actually" gives processing instructions to a listener about how the particular utterance should be understood.

For the hearer, use of "actually" highlights the fact that something is now being said that might not have been expected in this context but that is relevant nevertheless (Lenk 1998:167).

"Actually" can therefore be used to signal to the hearer that although what follows is relevant to the ongoing discourse, it will contain (in the opinion of the speaker) information that the hearer is not expecting.


In one SPOTLIGHT trial, when a user requested a postal statement to be sent, the following prompt started with the discourse marker "actually".

Actually, there is a charge of 3 for an interim postal statement. Would you like one to be sent?

In this way, the design ensured that the listener would be prepared that the information following, although relevant, may not be what they were expecting.

"OK" has a rather informal status in spoken English, but can have many uses in spoken dialogue systems, depending on the level of formality required for the service. Stenstrom assigns various functions to "OK" depending on its location within an utterance.

"OK" at the beginning of a turn expresses agreement, and can also indicate acknowledgement of the preceding utterance.

"OK" in second position following "yes" emphasizes the agreement expressed by "yes". However, that role depends on the intonation of the utterance. For example, " Yes, OK" (spoken with a sigh) potentially indicates reluctant agreement or consent. On the other hand, "Yes, OK" (spoken with stress on "OK") indicates impatience with the interlocutor.

"OK" within the turn finishes a topic, and "OK" at the end of a turn asks for confirmation. (Again depending on intonation).


In one SPOTLIGHT experiment, "OK" in first position was used to indicate an acknowledgement of the user's utterance. In response to a 'help' request from the user at 'another service' stage, the dialogue proceeded as follows:

OK, just tell me if you want another service.

Here the "OK" serves as an acknowledgement of the user's request for help.

Design hints
  • Use discourse markers to indicate acknowledgement, agreement and involvement.
  • Consider each prompt in the context of the dialogue as a whole. Make the dialogue flow as naturally as possible. Discourse markers can help because they help to form cohesive ties within the dialogue.

Lenk, Uta. (1998): Marking Discourse Coherence: Functions of Discourse Markers. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag

Redeker, Gisela. (1990). Ideational and pragmatic markers of discourse structure. Journal of Pragmatics, 14, 367-381.

Smith, Sara W. & Andreas H. Jucker (2000). Actually and other markers of an apparent discrepancy between propositional attitudes of conversational partners. In G. Andersen & T. Fretheim (eds.) Pragmatic Markers and Propositional Attitude. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Stenstrom, Anna-Brita. (1994): An Introduction to Spoken Interaction. London: Longman