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Why we use discourse markers and filler words like 'um', 'like', 'you know' and 'er'

It's, um, really more normal than you think

Olivia Blair
Wednesday 05 April 2017 09:10 BST
(Getty istock)

So - this article is – um - about those little – er – short ‘filler’ words that people use – like – in the middle of sentences – you know?

Yes, written down, the above sentence is incredibly infuriating. Yet, to say it aloud does not sound too different from how people talk to each other every single day.

Long considered to be a sign of stupidity or ineptness, linguists are saying this is unfair. Often, the people who make these sounds, in between actual words recognised in the English dictionary, are being especially conscious of who they are talking to.

Professor Michael Handford, a professor of applied linguistics and English language at Cardiff University, says there are two main reasons people use these filler words. Often these are known as “discourse markers” (‘you know’, ‘so’) or “filled pauses”( ‘um’, ‘er’).

“The functions they fill are often interactional and cognitive,” he told The Independent. “The interactional function is to do with politeness. If you invite somebody to a party and they say no without any of those markers they will appeal rude probably. If you say ‘um, well, you know, sorry’ it makes it much more polite. They play a really important politeness function.”

The cognitive use of the words is when the person is trying to process information that might be more complex.

“This is important for the speaker and the listener as well,” Professor Handford says. “If you did speak how people write people wouldn’t be able to understand you as we can’t process that much information… As speakers we are often aware, if we speak too complexly the listener might not understand. We use these items, pretty unconsciously, to help the person process what we are saying.”

This goes for ourselves as well, the reason we tend to over-fill these pauses is when we are not sure of what we are saying, think job interview or if a stranger stops you in the street to ask for directions to a place you are not too familiar with.

“If you don’t know what you’re talking about, if someone asks you a difficult question, then while you’re scratching your head for an answer you are probably going to be using more of them,” Professor Handford says.

Additionally, the words show the person you are going to answer their question or contribute to the question – even if you are pausing for a moment.

“You might have had a bit of an interruption in planning what you are going to say next and you need a moment to plan,” Josef Fruehwald, a lecturer in linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh says. “Rather than just do so in silence, you signal to the person you are talking to that you are planning to say something.”

Young people are believed to say discourse markers such as “like” more than older generations but the functions of the words and the reason why people use them doesn’t change between generations, Professor Handford says.

Both professors are united in believing there is no need to and maintain that, despite the widely held negative associations in society, there is actually nothing wrong with using them. The fact that you get these words in most other languages too shows they are commonplace.

Mr Fruehwald brands the associations of people who use the words a lot as having a lower level of intelligence are “unfounded and unfair”.

“There’s a way to learn to do anything. I don’t concern myself with that as I don’t think people should stop. It’s not my job as a linguist to tell anybody how they should talk. People should feel more confident about the way they talk whether that’s accent or umm-ing and arr-ing.

“I can learn to pat my head and rub my stomach but that doesn’t make me especially virtuous. I’m sure with some kind of training you could stop if you wanted to but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it more than I’d recommend them to learn to pat their head and rub their stomach.”

However, are there situations where it is best to swerve these words?

“If you are in a job interview or exams, in theory, you could use them too much because someone else is deciding what an acceptable amount is. So in those situations perhaps you might want to be careful but in general what would too much be?” Professor Handford says.

So, really, there is no need to worry about these pesky little words, the linguists say. If you are worried about saying them, improve the situation: make sure you are well prepared for the interview or meeting so the cognitive side of your brain does not fill these mind blanks, or, stop being so concerned about being so polite.

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