The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s Emma Woodhouse, you know

Q: In rereading Emma, I’ve noticed that several of Jane Austen’s characters, including Emma herself, repeatedly use the phrase “you know.” I would have thought that this was a modern verbal tic. When did people begin you-knowing each other?

A: English speakers have been using “you know” colloquially for emphasis since the Middle Ages. It’s short for “as you know,” “as you may know,” “as you should know,” and so on.

The parenthetical expression is so common that it’s also used as a conversational filler while a speaker considers what to say next. And, as you say, it’s often merely a verbal tic, one we ourselves have struggled to suppress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the emphatic usage, which we’ll expand here, is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), an anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale written around 1200:

“He is my lege man, lelly þou knowes, for holly þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“He is my liege man, truly you know, for wholly the land he has he holds for myself”). In feudal law, a liege man was a vassal.

As for Emma, “you know” is generally used for emphasis and (we assume) to add a conversational tone to the dialogue.

For example, Emma uses the phrase emphatically to remind Mr. Knightly that she arranged (or so she thinks) the marriage between Miss Taylor, her former governess, and Mr. Weston.

“I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.”

Emma’s father uses it for emphasis here: “Whenever James goes over to see his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us.” James is the Woodhouse coachman, and his daughter Hannah is a housemaid for the Westons.

Harriet Smith uses it similarly while talking to Emma about Robert Martin: “I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time.”

The linguist Chi Luu, in a Dec. 12, 2018, article in JSTOR Daily, notes that Harriet overuses “you know” when she’s nervous. Luu considers it a verbal tic in this passage describing a chance encounter with Mr. Martin:

“I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how; and then I took courage, and said it did not rain, and I must go.”

Luu, who has degrees in literature and theoretical linguistics, adds that Austen uses “very,” another intensifier, “so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental.” She cites a study of the language in Emma by the linguist Janine Barchas.

In “Very Austen: Accounting for the Language of Emma,” Barchas includes figures showing that Austen uses “very” 1,212 times in Emma as opposed to 758 in the runner-up, Mansfield Park (from the December 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

We’ll end with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma, in which he playfully notes Austen’s use of intensifiers: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

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