This paper explores the functional and social meanings of the formal variants of the expressions i don't know and i don't think. The qualitative analysis of the data shows that i don't know and i don't think are highly routinized discourse formulae that perform multiple interpersonal and textual functions. The quantification of their phonetic and grammatical variants across function, age and gender reveals that the occurrence of non-localized and localized variants of i don't know and i don't think is conditioned by different parameters. Non-localized variants show function-specific patterning: variants of i don't know pattern with broad functional categories; variants of i don't think reflect fine-grained functional differences at a micro-level of analysis. Localized variants, by contrast, do not carry a functional load but evince orderly social heterogeneity. The results demonstrate that social variation in discourse extends beyond differential frequencies and strategic uses of discourse markers (DMs) to their formal encoding, and that function plays an important role in accounting for patterns of formal variation in discourse. The paper argues for a fuller integration of qualitative methods in the study of language variation and change in discourse, and calls for the form and function of discourse variables to be studied in greater detail.
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