Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Rejoinders and Exclamations(!): They Keep the Conversation Flowing
By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
Ever talk on the phone and not hear the person on the other end say anything – I mean, anything at all? Unsettling, isn’t it. The reason isn’t rocket science. It’s that you’re looking for feedback, for that other person to acknowledge (1) that he or she is paying attention to you; (2) that he/she understands what you’re saying; and (3) that she or he feels there’s some kind of worth in what you’re saying. But that’s not all. You also want to know if (1) the listener agrees or disagrees with you; (2) if he or she is being “entertained” or “amused” by what you have to say; and (3) if she/he has anything worthwhile to add.
Wow! That seems like a lot to expect from a listener, and I’m not just talking about somebody on the phone. Oh, no. It can be somebody standing or sitting a few feet from you right there in front of your eyes. Even if you’re looking at the listener (unlike on “regular” phones, which don’t allow for that), you want – no need – some feedback. That’s when rejoinders and exclamations kick in and do their thing.
Rejoinders are quick responses or replies to something that another person has said. So are exclamations, but rejoinders don’t necessarily have the strong emotional reactions that exclamations tend to have. Rejoinders and exclamations not only supply the feedback desired by the person who’s talking, but they also keep the conversation flowing in a very smooth, easy way. Of course you can go with your basic grunt or uh-huh, but we get more sophisticated than that, and you owe it to your students at a certain point to introduce them to some of the more common and useful rejoinders and exclamations they should start developing the habit of using during a conversation.
In alphabetical order, here are some basic rejoinders and exclamations our students should know and start using by the time they reach the intermediate level:
Get out of here!
How about that!
I’ll be damned!
I’ll be darned!
Only time will tell.
Ouch! (not as a reaction to physical pain)
Over my dead body!
Tell me about it.
Well, I’ll be!
What else is new?
Wouldn’t you know it!
You better believe it!
You can say that again!
You don’t say.
You (just) never know.
You’ve got to be kidding!
So what’s the toughest part of teaching rejoinders and exclamations? Nope, it’s not when it’s appropriate to use this one or that one. Actually, it’s easy enough to set up a situation and create what somebody would say to trigger the use of a rejoinder or exclamation. For example . . .
A: Hey, Ken! Guess what.
B: You just won the lottery.
A: Almost as good. The boss just made me general manager.
B: No way!
A: Really! And I’m getting a big raise along with the promotion.
B: Well, I’ll be darned! Congratulations, my friend. You deserve it!
Of course, you can show your students how other rejoinders or exclamations would work just as well with these triggers. Instead of saying No way! a person could just as easily say Get out of here! or No fooling? or You’ve got to be kidding! in order to register surprise and the like.
No, the hardest part of teaching these little conversational gems is pitch, stress, and intonation. In almost all cases, they don’t work unless they’re said with just the right use of these prosodics, these suprasegmental features.
This is usually when a teacher who’s a native speaker is needed. Let’s take Come on! as a perfect example of what I mean. There’s a very different way of saying these two words when you mean “Let’s go” as opposed to “I’m skeptical about what you’ve just said.” And what about the rejoinder Tell me about it. When the correct stress and intonation are used, it means “I agree with you completely,” not “I want you to tell me what happened.” So that’s why a native speaker is usually so necessary, unfortunately, to teaching rejoinders and exclamations.
So, are rejoinders and exclamations important to create fluid, spicier discourse? You better believe it!