From a bit of processed cheese to a bit of a car accident and a little bit of “oh really” — The journey of Australian English a bit (of)

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This is a corpus-based study of the behaviour of a bit (of) in modern Australian English, as spoken by mainstream Anglo-Australian speakers; examples are drawn from the UWA Corpus of English in Australia (Rodríguez Louro, 2011–2020). We start by briefly tracking the phrase as it makes its way along the well-trodden road from propositional to expressive meaning: a bit of milk (propositional) > a bit cold (propositional) > a bit of a babe yeah (textual) > a bit of a car accident (expressive). We also describe the recent appearance of a quite different function, that of a quotative (as in a bit of “oh really”). This use we argue (like Fleischman and Yaguello, 2004 for like) is the natural extension of both the focus and hedging functions. The grammaticalization processes we outline here take place in the context of regional, social, and cultural factors, and current Australian English a bit (of), like other discourse-pragmatic markers, is a powerful expression of cultural values and ideas. Our examination of the texts reveals that the hedging uses are by far the most frequent and these we place, together with quotative a bit (of), under the general umbrella of “loose talk” (Andersen, 1998). Like other vague expressions, it performs a number of in-group solidarity functions, including informality and politeness (underplaying ill-health, softening complaints and criticisms, indicating tentativeness in requests and questions, and minimizing distance between speakers). The corpus also has many examples of tongue-in-cheek a bit, reflecting the self-deprecating humour and laconic understatement so often described for Australians (Manns, 2020).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-30
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • (inter)subjectivity
  • Australian English
  • Discourse-pragmatic markers
  • Grammaticalization

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