Eradicating filler words from your speech has been the holy grail of public speakers for more than 100 years—at least since the founding of Toastmasters. Speaker coaches, like me, are tasked repeatedly with helping clients avoid these pesky vocal habits and speak with more fluency, clarity, and conciseness. It’s usually the number-one request of individuals who contact me to help them become more confident communicators.
Habitual use of filler words has been stereotyped to signal poor speech, novice speakers, lack of poise and professionalism. Though these verbal tics are much maligned, we use them often. Fillers constitute about 6 percent of what we utter during spontaneous speaking.
Fillers constitute about 6 percent of what we utter during spontaneous speaking
Linguists refer to ums and uhs (or ahs) as filled pauses, disfluencies, or hesitation markers. These sounds are a sign that a speaker is struggling to find the words for what they want to say or scouring memory for a name, fact, or other detail important for their message.
Other filler words such as like, you know, I mean, well and assorted others, categorized by linguists as discourse markers, have been treated as verbal clutter that detract from meaningful communication.
That is, until now.
New research shows that fillers can be beneficial to both the speaker and listener.
Let me unpack that for you.
Dr. Valerie Fridland, professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, believes there’s more than one way to look at language. She makes the case for the merits of filler words in her new book, Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English.
Fridland writes that ums and uhs are signs that our brains are working hard to find the right words. “The harder we have to think about formulating what we say, the more we show signs of this cognitive effort by using um and uh.”
She adds that you shouldn’t be surprised if um and uh pop up in your speech when it’s your turn to talk in meetings because it takes time to come up with what you’re going to say. This is the case when you’re tasked with speaking about something new and unfamiliar to you. Fillers help with speech planning, she argues.
Fillers indicate you need more time to finish your thoughts.
Filled pauses are unexpectedly helpful to both speakers and listeners, according to Fridland. They also indicate that you need some space to finish your thoughts. If there’s silence instead, others may want to jump in thinking it’s their turn to weigh in.
Fillers buy you time to keep the ball of conversation in your court. This could be part of your communication strategy, she says. Filled pauses instead of silent ones convey a message to our conversation partners.
For example, there’s a difference between how we use um and uhs. Research shows that we use them to communicate different types of delays in our responses. The uh sound tells your listener to wait a second or two for an answer, while um says they need to be even more patient.
One more detail from the research: men use uh and ah more often than women. I was happy to learn that.
This change in approach to filler sounds and words is daunting to a speaker coach. Do I now train a client to accept a certain type and number of filler words as a sign of high cognitive processing and message cadence? That is, displaying how intensely you’re thinking and a cue when it’s the other person’s turn to talk?
Keep the fillers in as long as they are not distracting.
Fridland offers an answer. This is what she said on Kawasaki’s podcast:
Filled pauses have value because they convey linguistic information and communicative efficiency. “You should leave them in as long as they are not distracting.“
A blog post on filler words is not complete without exploring like, you know, I mean and other discourse markers.
Fridland believes that much of what we think of as language rules are social preferences and norms considered desirable as indicators of class and sophistication. She writes that lower‑status speakers have led the linguistic innovations that have become well‑accepted parts of our language.
Language is both function and fashion, she says, and though we often blame the young and uneducated for its “downfall,” we should thank them for their linguistic ingenuity. Think of the many slang words that have become part of our standard vocabulary.
Take the word like which is statistically the most common filler word in the English language.
A lot of people have a negative view of like and think that if you use it often when you speak, you aren’t sure of what you’re saying. Its use is most common among adolescents and tapers off in adulthood. It’s associated with hesitation and has generated the widely held belief that younger generations harbor a fear of making a definite statement.
Fridland believes that there’s a place for like outside of its conventional uses as a verb, noun, or preposition. It adds texture and nuance to a conversation. She argues that we should stop grumbling about language tics and recognize that they’re inevitable and useful.
Here’s another point about filler words:
A little bit of ums and uhs does make wooden, robotic speech more human. When you call an airline, your pharmacy, or ask your smart speaker for a song not included with your subscription, notice the deliberate placement of fillers in the AI-generated responses. There are more of them every day to suggest a more personal, softer response. The halting ums and hesitant uhs make the exchange sound more natural and the long wait times may seem more bearable.
Fridland’s work has opened my thinking about the use of filler words in eloquent speech. Perhaps it’s time to stop counting the number of filler words and start listening more for the meaning and intention of the message. That is, until they become a distraction and impediment to speaking with impact.