You know, um, I’d kind of like to talk about filler words

It’s even possible to say ‘um’ in American Sign Language

Rebecca Armstrong
Sunday 02 June 2013 18:39

So, like, the easiest way to make yourself cringe like you’ve never cringed before is to, you know, record yourself speaking and realise how much conversational chaff there is among the words you speak.

Filler words – ums, uhs, likes, you knows, actuallys, basicallys – aren’t something I usually notice in my, or anyone else’s, everyday speech, but whenever I conduct an interview for the paper, my dictaphone records all these verbal tics and more.

Suddenly, every sentence that an interviewee forms begins with “at the end of the day” and every question I ask has its clarity befogged by sort ofs, kind ofs and you knows. Having to transcribe one’s witterings is punishment for journalists who, like me, never quite got up to speed with their, you know, shorthand. Last week, though, I realised it’s possible to go one worse. I watched a film of an interview I’d done (where I was being asked the questions, rather than the other way round), and while the interviewer, a charming broadcast journalism masters student named Luke Garratt (if there are any telly folk reading, give that guy a job), was a consummate professional, I you-knowed to dangerously embarrassing levels. I also learned never to lean back in a relaxed manner when being videoed, because it makes me look as though I’m wearing a snood made out of my own neck fat. Good to know.

As I viewed the finished interview through the filter of a large glass of wine, my husband helpfully pointed out every time I rushed my words and said you know. But once it was over and we were chatting about life, the universe and the pet tortoise, he suddenly realised his own filler flashpoints. Yep, you know, basically, I mean. Even if you watch yourself, they march, ant-like, into conversation wherever they can.

However, what I didn’t realise was that not only do filler words help speakers – we use them when our mouth is moving faster than our brain – they can give listeners time to process the information being imparted. Recent research has show that the occasional “um” can increase the listener’s memory for the word that comes after “um”. It can also be harder to follow conversations when filler words aren’t used. And there’s another fascinating fact that made me feel better about my inarticulacy. Every language has filler words, including American Sign Language. OK, so fillers don’t make for the most elegant way of expressing ourselves, but they do have a place. But, you know, I’m going to try and use them a little more sparingly.

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