Bad boy fillers

Here’s the second in Glosso’s mini-series about “extra-curricular” speech phrases, habits and social cues that add nuance and extra clues to what we’re actually saying. Let’s look at fillers. What’s your – er – filler? Is it “uh”, “um”, “like”, or “OK”? We all use them — don’t kid yourself if you think you don’t. But do these bad boys really deserve the poor reputation they carry around with them? You might be surprised to discover some of the good stuff they offer.

We use fillers to to signal to our listeners that we’re pausing to … like … think, but that we haven’t finished … um … talking. The most common linguistic fillers (also called “discourse markers” or “verbal pauses”) in the English language are “uh”, “ah”, “er” and “um”, but you’ve heard many others, like “you know”, “I mean”, “OK”, “so”, “actually”, “basically”, “right”, and — um — “like”. They generally get a bad rap, these fillers, because people assume they smack of ignorance, laziness, or a lack of education, thought or preparation. See the video above, and then read that sentence again. Right. ….

In fact these fillers serve a number of different purposes in speech, and they’re not all bad; sometimes they’re full of good will.

  • They allow for more thought and consideration: they give our brains time to catch up with our mouths. This is important for the listener as well as the speaker. Especially when we’re discussing complex matters, we as speakers (with lots of experience on the other end of the speech equation – i.e. as listeners) use fillers unconsciously to help our conversation partners process what we’re saying.
  • They’re a social cue to our listener, letting them know that we are going to answer their question or contribute to the conversation – even if we’re pausing for thought or reaching for the right word. A filler can be more helpful than meaningless silence.
  • Fillers in fact project politeness in speech; our statements are perceived as more polite if they’re dotted with pauses and fillers, and they can provide a cushion or buffer for topics of special sensitivity. Declining an invitation with a filler can make the difference between curt rudeness and considerate sensitivity. E.g. in response to “Would you like to come to dinner next week?”, the reply “Sorry, I can’t make it” might be softened with a few fillers, such as: “ErYou know, sorry, butactually, I can’t make it.”
  • They can provide emphasis to whatever follows. “He was, like, angry” makes him sound more angry than simply “he was angry.”
  • Paradoxically they can also suggest reluctance, lack of confidence, or even lack of certainty (unlike the emphasis effect above). “I’m … er … ready” doesn’t sound very ready; “she’s … er … perfect for the part” makes me think we should keep looking …

So next time you hear an “um” coming out of your mouth, give yourself a break. You might be doing someone a favor, or being kind to them.