In the film Caddyshack, American actor Bill Murray plays a golf caddy. He carries golf clubs for other people and offers them advice on how to play the sport.
At one point in the film, Murray tells an outrageous story. He claims to have traveled to the Himalayas and helped the Dalai Lama play golf. After one game, Murray says he asked the Tibetan spiritual leader for money.
Here are a few lines from the movie.
"So we finish 18 and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something? You know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, 'Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.'"
Today, we will not explore the world of golf. Instead, we will consider the meaning of two words: you know. You heard them used twice in our example.
We will show you how and why Americans use this expression. You might be surprised to learn how "you know" has many uses.
If you listen to Americans as they speak, you will often hear them say "you know" in strange places in a sentence. You might hear it at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence.
When Americans say "you know," they might mean it in a literal sense, as in the following:
"Do you know that person?"
"Yes, I know him."
However, today we are talking about how English speakers use "you know" in other ways. These include social uses, such as saying "you know" to soften the meaning of a statement.
Language experts have a term for such an expression: an "acknowledgement marker."*
You do not need to worry about the term now. Just remember that English speakers choose some words for social uses. They mean more than the individual words suggest.
Do not fear: we will clarify these points by giving you examples from popular culture.
"You know" in social situations
"You know" gives other people the idea that you have some kind of shared knowledge with them. People use it to show that they have a common understanding.
Sometimes people use an acknowledgment marker because they want to know if you agree with them. Other times, they use it as a way to fill spaces in a conversation or discussion. Saying "you know" gives the speaker time to think of what to say next.
The context tells you which of these purposes "you know" serves.
Let's study an example. Think back to the line from Caddyshack:
“And I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something? You know, for the effort, you know.’”
Here, Murray is asking for a tip – a small payment. When Murray says "you know" before and after the words "for the effort," he is suggesting that the Dalai Lama knows he has worked hard.
Murray uses "you know" to offer a suggestion. He does not want to ask for money directly. He wants to improve his chances of getting the tip by using indirect language.
Murray's caddy could have simply said, "Can you give me a tip for helping you?" Such a direct question would be considered disrespectful in American culture.
Let's look at another example. Consider this exchange from the 1994 film, Leon The Professional.
- "My parents died in a car accident four weeks ago. It was terrible."
- "You know, we didn't have the time to get to know one another when you first came here. But I want you to know that I'm not the kind of woman who'd let down a child, whatever her situation, whatever her mistake.
Here, the second speaker begins her sentence with "you know." In this situation, she wants to gain the trust of the young girl.
She begins her sentence with "you know" so that it gives the girl the idea that they have a connection. She wants to give her new information, but she also wants to make her words sound familiar. She also wants to improve her chances of a positive response from the young girl.
Here is one final example. Imagine two people are staying late at work. One person might tell another person they need to go.
She might say:
"Hey, Jane, you know, the last train leaves in 15 minutes!"
Here the speaker is presenting information about the train, as if it is known information. Jane probably does not know that the train is leaving soon. But her coworker wants to soften the statement by using language that suggests she does know that the train is leaving.
History and "you know"
The term "you know" is not a new form of slang. "You know" has a long history, according to John McWhorter, a language expert.
He says that English speakers have long used words and expressions such as "you know."
McWhorter points to lines in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as an example. Chaucer wrote the now famous work in the 14th century.
In the Knight's Tale, the character Emily says the words "thou woost."
The word "thou" later became "you" as the English language changed over time. "Woost" is the verb that eventually became "know." McWhorter notes that "thou woost" was the 14th century version of the modern-day "you know."*
What can you do?
The next time you are listening to an English speaker, try to find examples of "you know." How often does the person use those words? Why do you think they are using them?
You should be careful about using "you know." Sometimes English learners become nervous and use "you know" too often. This overuse of "you know" means that they do not practice using other expressions or vocabulary.
The point of today's story was to show you how English speakers use certain words and expressions for social uses. There are many others – which we can explore in another Everyday Grammar program.
-"You know, I think we should end our report now."
-"Ok – I think you are right."
I'm Jill Robbins.
And I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
*McWhorter, John. Words on the Move: Why English Won't – and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally). Henry Holt and Co. 2016. Pg. 34
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Words in This Story
outrageous – adj. very strange or unusual
going to stiff (someone) – expression – to not pay someone the amount of money that you should pay them; to fail to pay a tip
consciousness – n. the condition of being conscious; the normal state of being awake and able to understand what is happening around you
literal – adj. involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
context – n. the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning
slang – n. words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people
practice – n. to do something again and again in order to become better at it