“Go up to miss thingy”. “He’s probably like a whatsit or something”. Placeholders in focus. The differences in use between teenagers and adults in spoken English

Ignacio M. Palacios Martínez and Paloma Núñez Pertejo


In this paper we focus on some of the so-called ‘placeholders’, words that are almost empty semantically, used with multiple functions in communication and whose meaning has to be inferred by the listener (Jucker et al. 2003: 1749). This category of placeholders includes terms such as thing, thingy, stuff, thingummybob, thingybob and whatsit. We firstly identify the most common words in this category in the language of British adults and teenagers and we then consider them from a syntactic, a semantic and a pragmatic perspective. Our findings suggest that (i) the importance of these words lies in their pragmatic rather than in their semantic functions; (ii) contrary to what we expected, placeholders are not more common, statistically speaking, in the language of the younger generations than in that of adults; (iii) adults and teenagers share some of the uses of these terms; (iv) in the language of teenagers these dummy words are used in a wider range of contexts and situations. We finally contend that these lexical items show properties typical of pragmatic markers, since they help in the organisation of discourse, they are sometimes used as devices to hold or cede the floor and they also function interpersonally by promoting cooperation between the participants in the conversation.

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