Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Filler Words

I heard about a study this morning conducted in England that says that about 10 percent of all the words we say each day are meaningless filler, such as "you know," "like," "uhmn," etc. I suspect from listening to my students talk that it might be more than that here in the States.

I began to wonder if writers do this less than other folks, in speech that is, and as I'm mentally going through my list of writers I know I'm leaning toward thinking that we do do less of this. If so, and I have no proof, I'd guess it would have to do with language discipline. We train ourselves as writers to be careful with words, to use the right word in the right place, and to "cut the fat," or the filler. It seems possible that this kind of discipline could spill over into our spoken language.

On the other hand, speech is a much lazier form of communication than writing, and we writers can certainly be lazy. Maybe when we're not "on task" but just yammering we are just as filler prone as anyone else.

What say the masses? As writers, are we less filler, greater taste? Or are we just like anyone else? Or is there a job/career that lends itself to less filler in speech? To more filler? I wonder.

49 comments:

Paul R. McNamee said...

I find myself writing "Yeah" "You know" etc in forums or blog posts but not in my real writing and not when I'm speaking.

Arv said...

I agree with both of you here. I have noticed that I tend to use such fillers when having a causal fun conversation or writing and not otherwise.

I guess the writers are a bit more conscious about it than the others. :)

Billy said...

As usual, a fascinating post. I have been listening to writers interviewed on the Charlie Rose show recently, listening for articulation and conversational repetitons and other things, such as fillers. Many are just average joes who speak like anyone else. (A lot of missing letters, such as "jus" for "just"; "tuh" to "to"; "cuz" for "because"; "ya" for "you.") What I DID notice was that authors who spoke very slowly and deliberatly were far more precise (not a big surprise). My point is that the writer who weighs his words in conversation seems to be the writer who has the most to say when writing, which is mere opinion that may not hold water. Um, well ... at least I guess that's prolly what I think.

Heff said...

I agree. And NOBODY is lazier than Heff. Without filler, I would have nothing.

Want even more filler in speech ? George Bush comes to mind....

Barrie said...

Guess what happens at Toastmasters when you're making a speech and you use a filler word? Someone presses on the clicker!!!

Lisa said...

I battle verbal excess contstantly, but I've noticed that my speech has slowly become a little more precise than it used to be. I've always been guilty of using ten words when two will do. Terry Gross from NPR compiled a book of interviews a couple of years ago and she noted in the introduction that some editing in order to transform the spoken word to the written word was necessary in all of them, but one. She said John Updike speaks exactly the way he writes and that zero editing of his interview was necessary when she transcribed it.

Now if I could just eliminate the word "just" from both my speech and writing...

Josephine Damian said...

I'm way better at written communication (though you'd never know it from my comments - lol) than spoken. Give me a sentence, an idea, that I've rewitten umpteen times as opposed to my disjointed verbal rambling and I'll be happy.

Overall, I think writers tend to be woefully inarticulate - more so than the general population - perhaps it comes from spending all that time writing, and therefore less time talking.

X. Dell said...

Actually, filler words aren't meaningless. They're like placeholders. A person filling in space wants to continue speaking, and the filler words have a tendency to keep other people from interrupting and taking over the conversation before the speaker is ready to finish. One could also use them to intensify a statement. The filler words could also enhance the cadence of spoken language. In written language, these needs are not present.

I found that when writing for actors, they would insert them in anyway, no matter what I put on paper. Sometimes, I felt, they didn't do it in very good spots. So, I simply wrote them in. Now I'm kinda used to doing it with everything else.

Randy Johnson said...

In my admittedly limited experience, writers seem to use filler words less than the so-called "regular" folks. That's in casual conversations. What really drives me up the wall, whether I'm talking to someone or watching conversations on television is the phrase, "You know what I'm saying." I have two friends that use it in every other sentence when conversing with them. I just want to reach out and slap them after just a few minutes.

Sarai said...

I tend to use filler words in writing as well as regular everyday talk. That being said I haven't been writing all that long so maybe in a few years I can tell you if I have curb my fillers ;0)

laughingwolf said...

gotta confess, i have caught myself spouting fillers

humanity being basically lazy, as you say, i don't see filler getting dropped from casual conversation any time soon, but one CAN hope....

Gabby said...

I very rarely use filler words in my writings, which causes me to think that my characters sometimes sound very formal (and therefore, almost makes them seem to lack character). I definitely use filler words in spoken conversation, with "like" and "ya know" probably being my most sinful uses. I try to think hard about removing "like", but it goes in phases. Once in awhile I also stumble over my words while speaking, because my mind is going so quickly that my mouth can't keep up. I sound goofy when I do that. I suppose I just need to slow down. ^_^

writtenwyrdd said...

I heard an interview about this on Fresh Air about two weeks ago. The studies apparently indicate that the particular choice of sound as filler is cultural and learned, and that different choices indicate things like, "Wait, I'm choosing my words carefully here," or "Help I lost my place and I can't find it!" Seriously fascinating.

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul McNamee, I do sometimes when I'm speaking, when I'm not sure of what I'm about to say.

Arv, thanks for visiting. Enjoyed your Rising blogger post. Congrats. I think we are a bit more conscious.

Billy, I definitely will hear that slow, deliberate approach and that's when we get good speech without a lot of fillers.

Heff, I shudder at the Bush but agree.

Barrie, ouch, I'd be scared to speak there.

Lisa, that's very intersting about Updike. I talk alot too but I tell myself part of it is my job.

Josephine, definitely one thing I enjoy about writing is the precision of it.

X-dell, you make a good point and that's why you see some fillers in almost all spoken conversation. However, overeliance on them is certainly a weakness to me, and a sign of imprecision of thought.

Randy Johnson, I see things like that with my students sometimes when they come see me in my office and I'm just so wanting to say, "Get to the point."

Sarai, that will be interesting to see. Let us know what happens.

Laughingwolf, I'd certainly like to see us scrub a majority of our fillers out.

Gabby, I do that in talking too and it's just physically impossible in many cases to talk as fast as we think.

Writtenwyrd, an interesting area. I'll have to do some more studying on it. I'm sure, as x-dell pointed out, some fillers really do contain meaning, but it becomes a bad habit when they are used every sentence.

writtenwyrdd said...

I thought it fascinating, Charles.
I think it was called "Um...a pause for linguistic appreciation" and aired on 4/15. I can't check teh link from work, but it seems to be www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13&prgDate=04-14-2008&view=musicview

Lisa said...

I think use of language and profession are very tied together. I was initially going to say that since I'm in technical sales, I use a lot of filler because in sales, part of the process is to establish trust and rapport with a client, but that led me to conclude that even though a lot of conversation sounds like meaningless small talk, there is a definite purpose to it. I also do a lot of formal presentations and I find that I frequently have to use words to fill a little space while I'm formulating what I really want to communicate -- if that makes any sense. The job has morphed my normal speech into something more formal than it was before. Truly annoying filler words and phrases seem to be more a byproduct of habit: Like, you know, whatever and my step-son's favorite -- blah blah blah seem to be a bit of a slide into laziness in an informal environment where the careful choice of words isn't important. Professionally, I imagine what I do is not much different than what you do when you teach. I choose my words very carefully.

Travis Erwin said...

More filler - gotta be politicians and postal managers.

Less - Boxers after a loss. You choose your words wisely with a wired jaw.

Steve Malley said...

I'm afraid I'm weighing down the curve there. I 'um', 'ah', 'like' and 'y'know' enough for a good ten people.

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, thankee.

Lisa, there's probably a difference too within a single person depending on what role they are playing. Like the roll of a teacher versus the role of husband when I'm home with Lana.

Travis Erwin, very good point about the boxer, I would think.

Steve Malley, it doesn't show up in your writing, although when you're famous and being interviewed on some famous person show I'll be studying your speech patterns to see how much filler you show.

Donnetta Lee said...

Filler words are there for a reason, Charles! They usually give us a moment's pause as the brain thinks through finding the next word or phrase. Sometimes, it means you're under a bit of stress.

Idiomatic phrases may be used for a number of reasons. People who frequently say, "You'll agree with me when I say..." or "Don't you agree with me?" Well, the answer to that is--usually you don't, but the person is manipulating you/setting you up to agree anyway!

Then there are words, phrases, statements that are "stored" at an "automatic" level of the brain that are so ingrained in our speech, that even following a stroke, they pop out whether we want them to or not! Emotions trigger them.

So--I imagine that if a study were done on writers (I'm only guessing here.), that writers would pretty much be like the population at large. Of course, there would be a few who wander away from the "mean" in either direction!

Donnetta

Shauna Roberts said...

Another function for filler words is to space out information so it's less dense and the audience can absorb it better. If I'm giving a talk, I try to add filler or write PAUSE or ASK THE AUDIENCE FOR AN EXAMPLE every so often in my notes.

I don't use many filler words in regular talking. But if I'm unsure where I'm heading or my point is not clear in my own mind, I may go off on tangents or blabber.

writtenwyrdd said...

I can tell you from working n law enforcement that how people say things as well as pauses (which can include um's and ah's and similar blah blah I'm thinking noises) are excellent clues as to what a person is trying not to say as well as what they are thinking.

Which is an interesting thought. I have been pondering the use of um's and etc. in my writing, and I do use them in dialog. Generally, though, it's a younger character who uses these. Totally unrealistic, and probably showing a flaw in my thinking...

Michelle's Spell said...

I try to get more filler out of my speech, but it's so difficult! I lapse into like and yeah and ummm all the time. But I find that when I don't use the filler words, I make more sense so it's worth the effort.

Donnetta Lee said...

Uh, well. Oh, hmm. Huh huh. Well. Let's see. Oh, my. Uh, hmm.
Donnetta

Erik Donald France said...

Talkin', writers seem to more deliberately use fillers as a stalling tactic while they think up new cover stories ;)

I used to stay awake in work meetings by tracking the number of fillers -- made a game of it with peers. Got some new ideas from this exercise, too.

J. L. Krueger said...

I know I'm guilty of using fillers in speech, but it is rare. I do try to engage brain before engaging mouth.

I'll use filler in blog comments and some emails of the informal variety, but don't in "real" writing.

"Like" is my most hated...my teenage daughters like use it like every time when they like talk. ARGH!

I occasionally count the "likes" and report the total to them. Youngest hit 23 "likes" between breaths once...I think she still holds the family record. The girls have proven incapable of creating a single spoken sentence without "like".

steve said...

I believe it was "On the Media," but it may have been another NPR program, that discussed NPR's editing of interviews. The ums and y'knows are often edited out. It's hard to know whether writers use fewer filler words than others, because NPR and others edit them out. Live programs such as Diane Rehm aren't edited for filler words, though, and perhaps writers do use fewer fillers. I know I overuse "basically" when talking.

Christina said...

If I'm stuck giving a speech, I use a lot of filler words. I get extremely nervous. I'm so glad my college years are over for the moment, unless I really do go back for a Master's in Creative Writing.

the walking man said...

umms, ahhs, errs I save for written communication. But the wife is extremely frustrated at my overuse of the "OK?" randomly thrown into my everyday speech.

Public speaking I never need the fillers because I simply quote from a written page.

Peace

mark

Wil said...

I am seriously guilty of this my own damn self. I use "like" a lot. I attribute that to being an 80's teen and that was the norm. I also tend to use the term, "and shit" a lot too. Mostly in my writings as a joke now cause I know it is stupid and means nothing, and shit.

Sidney said...

Well, you know...

Charles Gramlich said...

Donnetta, oh I don't doubt that the occassional filler word is useful but I see interviews with folks on TV, or hear my students, in which every third word is a filler and the communication is just painful. A little bit of filler goes a long way.

Shauna, I use the pauses when I lecture, and also simply ask, "are there any questions?" In writing sometimes you want an extra word or two in there for flow. But the overuse of filler words in conversation really gets me and I hate to talk to folks who do it so much.

Writtenwyrd, great point about how people insert filler words while they're trying to think of something to say, perhaps a lie. But in that case the filler words are not only useless but actively work against the person.

Michelle, I know I do as well when I'm being casual but I am becoming more aware of it.

Erik, I'm going to try that in my next boring faculty meeting. If I can keep awake.

J. L. Krueger, I think that's the main issue, when folks overuse fillers until their speech becomes difficult to follow and actually irritating to try and follow in some cases. Thanks for stopping by.

Steve, "basically," I think you've got me there. Good point about the editing. It makes it hard to make any kind of judgement.

Christina, I tend to use them more when I'm less well prepared for a talk than when I've really nailed it down.

Mark, OK, is one that I use too often as well. I tend not to use them in lectures because I'm well prepared.

Wil, I've never developed the "like" habit, although I've been known to overuse "Dude."

Sid, like you're kidding, right?

Farrah Rochon said...

Definitely guilty of using fillers in everyday conversation. I try not to do so in a more professional setting but have caught myself quite a few times.

Ironically enough, I've find myself having to go back and insert those filler words into my writing. As you said, using filler words have become a part of our speech pattern, and to make my characters as real as possible they must use the occasional "umm.." "well" "okay"

Demon Hunter said...

I think we all do it. It's just the American culture. I think as writers, we tend to use it less in our writings and even in some more professional conversations, but in everyday life, we talke like everyone else, IMHO.

Lana Gramlich said...

I think you're in a whole 'nother class because you speak for a living. Once in a while you throw in an "okay?" but other than that, you're very to the point.

Rachel said...

I've done some transcribing and it's caused me to listen more because you have to record every single "um" and "ya know" and I think we may use fillers more than we realize. I think there's a lot more stuttering that goes on as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

Farrah, yes, I know what you mean about dialogue and I find that very hard to do. Of course, you have to limit how much you do there too or it sounds TOO much like speech.

Demon Hunter, it would be an interesting study. You're probably right. I'd like to see some data on it. Maybe I need to try and gather it.

Lana, maybe it's the OCD.

Rachel, I bet you're right that most of us probably don't notice nearly as much when we do it as when others do.

david mcmahon said...

Aye, Cap'n, there is such a career.

Politics!!!

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Must be related to the quantity of reading a writer does setting a mental template?

Generally, that ratio would be much higher than ten percent in working class areas here.

Travis said...

The one place I've made sure to be disciplined is my use...or I should say non-use...of the "valley girl" like in my speech. That really grates on me.

"It's like, and I was like, and then he was like" and so forth. GACK!

I do find that I use other filler, such as "you know", or "uhm", when I'm reaching for the next thing I want to say. It's almost as if I'm afraid to yield the floor to the next speaker, so I use filler so the other person realizes that I still have stuff to say.

I submit that, while writers may still use filler, that we are aware that we're doing it when many non-writers don't realize they are.

I will also say that I've gotten better at recognizing the binary...when yes or no will suffice, I limit myself to yes or no.

Danette Haworth said...

Guilty as charged. My crimes: like, you know, I was all [insert verb here], um, and a bunch of stuff I don't realize I say.

Lana Gramlich said...

OCD my butt...You're a talented speaker. Practice makes perfect, & you, sir, are purrrrrrrrfect! :)

Charles Gramlich said...

David, I agree with you completely.

Julie, I think the study was originally done in England and I figured it would be quite a bit higher here in the states.

Travis, Yes, I think "like" is the worst of them. I do use "uhm," on occasion, when a word won't come to me.

Danette, fortunately there's no punishment for the crime.

Lana, come whisper that in my ear. ;)

Quilldancer said...

I know I am concise with my speech and will even stop talking and search my brain for exactly the right word. It drives my sisters nuts. They finish my sentences for me, often with totally weak and inappropriate verbs.

laughingwolf said...

one way to clear the crap out of your writing: screenplays!

best help for ANY kind of writing, not just scripts: the screenwriter's bible, by dave trottier

amazing the info this guy gives

agreed, i even try to catch the 'uh', 'um', 'er', etc. ...all indications of a mouth in gear before brain is engaged....

Sandi McBride said...

I agree with you, I don't think we do the ummmm and ya know and uhhhh thing nearly as much as our children. It's almost as though they don't have a grasp of the language or they are just killing time, hoping to slip away to get back to their gameboy, lol! Great post, and David sent me over.
Sandi

Thalia's Child said...

When I started university 15 years ago, my antropology prof referenced a study regarding filler words. Apparently, contrary to what one would think, profs in the sciences used fewer fillers than profs in the humanities. And the worst offenders? English Lit Profs.

I came by way of David (author blog), by the way.

Miladysa said...

Wow! Look at all these comments
:-D

As I have arrived here late and do not have the time to read all the comments before me please forgive me if I repeat anything anyone has already said.

It would appear to me that Americans on the whole do seem to use 'fillers' more that we [UK] do.

Personally I am quite sparse with 'filllers' yet I am very articulate with my hands when speaking.

Ahmed Alhussein said...

Hi there
I am very interested in pause fillers (discourse markers, filler words or whatever..)(like, kind of ,err, ah,mmm etc).I do agree with most of you that filler words scattered in our everyday talk aren't meaningless. They are significant & have many functions To your astonishment, I study Linguistics and am going to do my Master's on this topic, which is not much trodden by , as to the best of my knowledge , by researchers.