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I noted that in conversational language and slang, English native speakers often use "you know". Should this phrase be understood as a question "do you understand what I'm trying to say?" or as an assertion "as you probably know"?

  • Welcome to ELL! If you have a minute or two, you might want to take the tour and browse our help center to learn more about this site. Looking forward to more contributions from you! – Stephie Oct 22 '16 at 17:09
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    In practice, yunno (usually rendered like that in "eye-dialect") often means I don't know [the right words for the thing I'm trying to say]. With no particular implication that the audience know either - the speaker is just buying time while he thinks of other ways to express himself. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 22 '16 at 17:51
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It's a bit more complicated:

..., you know,... inserted somewhat randomly is one of those typical "fillers" with little to no semantic content. In almost all cases the speaker could simply leave it out - but so they could do with well,.... erm.... etc.

Hint: There will often be a small break in the "flow" of the speech, a deep breath while the speaker unconsciously gathers their thoughts. All signs for filler words. Note that the Wikipedia article linked above explicitly lists "y'know" as an example.

In the few cases where "you know" really is significant,

  • it will either come as a clearly recognizable question (even in spoken language you should be able to "hear" a question) being short for Do you know?

    You know my sister? (possibly points to person)

  • or as a statement (again: listen), being short for As you (probably) know...

    You know I've been interviewing for that job - I'll start Monday!

Context is key, as usual.

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    I have a feeling that "you know" also works quite well as an emphasis of what's following if you put a bit of stress on it. Certainly better than the simple "well". – yo' Oct 22 '16 at 20:25
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    I don't think those are good examples of where y'know is important since both appear to be rhetorical questions. "You know my sister - she got married". I think most people, if they expected an answer, would not shorten "do you know" to "y'know" - although I agree that in those cases the "y'know" forms part of a full-ish sentence and is more than just a vocal tick. – Mr_Thyroid Oct 22 '16 at 23:53
  • Strange, I can't upvote this answer again ... – user43569 Oct 23 '16 at 12:14
  • @Nullachtfünfzehn not strange, one of the SE mechanisms. Your vote is locked until the post is edited. – Stephie Oct 23 '16 at 12:19
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"You know" frequently joins "ummm", "aaah", "I mean", "the thing is", "like" and numerous other expressions as a vocal pause for thought (to which some speakers seem addicted).

It is properly used at the end of a statement for emphasis or to seek a positive response.

(http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/you+know)

  • Should this phrase be understood as a question "do you understand what I'm trying to say?" or as an assertion "as you probably know"? – user43569 Oct 22 '16 at 16:45
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    @Nullachtfünfzehn the latter. Could also mean "Are you still listening? Nod, please..." – Stephie Oct 22 '16 at 16:56
  • @Nullachtfünfzehn I am not as certain as Stephie. In context, yunno could clearly mean "do you understand what I'm trying to say". In some dialects, this is even explicit, e.g.: "Yunno I'm sayin?" (The word what is elided after know.) It is interpreted as either a statement or an exhortative seeking affirmation (You do know what I'm saying, right?) or an explicit question (Do you know what I'm saying?) depending on context. If pronounced at the end of a sentence as an interrogative (with a global rising intonation or "↗") yunno is certainly not always an assertion. – P. E. Dant Oct 22 '16 at 21:12
  • @Nullachtfünfzehn no, but I happen to have a life outside ELL... Your comment came around midnight local time. I wrote "little to no semantic content" and pointed out a few other uses in my answer. Like many pause sounds, it may have subtle undertones, as other posters have also shown. Without an actual context, giving a definitive answer is impossible. – Stephie Oct 23 '16 at 11:30
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    @Stephie: Sorry about that. – user43569 Oct 23 '16 at 12:14
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While I agree with the answers already present that it's often used as a "filler" like "like" etc, I'll add another use which is to reduce perceived condescension when you're either adding context or background information.

For example "When you turn a computer off, you know, it takes a few seconds to shut down - well this new tablet computer doesn't!"

The "you know" here is being used to soften me telling my conversation partner something they probably already know, without implying that I'm teaching them the basics, in order for me to then add some further information to that background/contextual information.

It's also occasionally used to cut yourself short when you realize you're over-explaining the background information: in this context it's being used to mean "You get the gist, and you already understand what I'm talking about, so I'll get on with the rest of my sentence". This usage is usually used when you just need to get your conversation partner "onto the same page", eg to make sure they know vaguely what topic you're talking about.

These are both fairly subtle uses of the phrase, and frankly I wouldn't worry about it: they're mostly just an additional social skill relating to "judging your audience", in order to help conversations flow better.

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