Filler Words in Everyday Speech
In the past, Discourse Markers and Fillers (those little words we use to...um...fill silences) were considered a sign of stupidity or lower intelligence. Nowadays, however, we know that this is not the case. Studies in linguistics have shown that filler words and phrases, and discourse markers - such as like, eh and wow - serve a very important function in everyday communication. In an interview with the UK Independent, Professor Michael Handford, a Professor of Applied Linguistics and English language at Cardiff University, suggests two reasons people use these kinds of words, sounds and phrases when communicating:
When interacting with others, we use filler words when we have an awareness of who we are talking to. They are often used to help us sound more polite. If we are declining an invitation, for example, it sounds much more polite to answer, “Um, I'm sorry, I…uh…can't go, I'm afraid”, than giving a direct, “No, I can't”. So one function of fillers and discourse markers relates to politeness.
A similar thing happens when you are having a conversation with someone, and you might appear disinterested and socially awkward if you don't respond to what the other person is saying. Discourse markers are a great way to show you are listening and interested; and to show how you feel about what the other person is saying, without interrupting.
Cognition means anything related to how your brain processes information. When we are trying to process information that is more complex or difficult to understand, we tend to use more filler words. This is important for both the speaker and the person who is listening. For the speaker, using filler words allows the listener to have more time to process what the speaker is saying. On the speaker's behalf, it demonstrates an understanding of the listener's ability to process advanced information.
Fillers can also indicate that you intend to speak. If someone wants to ask a question and you are put on the spot - to ask for directions, for example - you might make a sound such as 'Hmm', 'Okay' or 'right', to let the other person know that you are thinking about the answer. This can work well in large discussions also, coming in with a filler word in a discussion is a good indication to everyone that you intend to speak or you have something to contribute to the conversation.
There is a belief, however, that using too many fillers when giving a presentation or in a job interview, for example, can sometimes have a negative effect: overusing fillers can sometimes make it seem as if you are weak, nervous or unprepared. Unfortunately, we don't have any research that tells us how many fillers are too much. In a situation like a presentation or a job interview, it is the listener who decides. So, in these situations, we advise you to practice and to be familiar with your material, narrowing the time needed to think between what you are saying.
As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to using different fillers in different situations. It would be very unusual to have a conversation with a fluent English speaker who didn't use any fillers or sounds to demonstrate that they are listening. Some sounds and words we use in English to show we are listening are:
I don't believe you.
Sometimes you will be asked a difficult question or even a surprising one, and you will need to think about how to answer. In this situation, fillers are useful and you will hear fluent speakers use them all the time. If you're buying time or thinking about how to respond, you can use the following:
To be honest...
Or you might say one of the following and repeat whatever question you are asked:
Or repeat the questions and add 'well':
Or clarify understanding:
Some fillers show nervousness or can indicate that someone is under-prepared. These kinds of fillers don't have much meaning and are usually just sounds. They can have a negative impact if you are making a presentation or reporting to a group, so it can be useful to practice your speech or presentation without using them:
Fillers are used all the time in English and knowing how and when to use them and understand them will help you sound more fluent and in command of the language.
Jane: Darren, did you remember to pack the sunscreen for the beach?
Darren: Eh...I think so...hold on a moment. Ehm...No. Sorry, I didn't.
Jane: Oh, wow. Eh, there aren't any shops around.
Darren: I know, I um, I'm sorry. We could stay in the shade?
Jane: Ugh, I don't know. I wanted to be in the sun. That was the…eh…reason I wanted to go to the beach.
Darren: I was really busy earlier, sorry I forgot. I…um…remembered to bring the umbrella, though.
Nicky: You won't believe what happened to me today!
Megan: Oh? What?
Nicky: Well...eh…I was going shopping, right?
Megan: Umm hmm
Nicky: And I met John.
Megan: Okay, so…you met John.
Nicky: Yes, John. Do you remember?
Nicky: The guy I arranged a date with.
Megan: Last month?
Nicky: Yes. But then I told him I couldn't make it.
Megan: Oh, yeah, that’s right! You told him you were sick.
Nicky: Yes, but I ended up going on a date anyway, but with a different guy. Mark.
Nicky: Yeah, but eh, you'll never guess what!
Megan: Go on.
Nicky: The other man I went on a date with that night instead...Mark…
Megan: Tell me!
Nicky: …was John's housemate!
Megan: No way!
Nicky: I know. I was so embarrassed!
Megan: Does John know you were lying when you said you couldn't make it?
Nicky: Yes, it was really embarrassing. Mark told him all about our date. Eh, he knew I was lying.
Megan: Ugh, what did he say?
Nicky: He eh, actually, well…he asked me on another date.
Megan: Ha Ha! No way! You’re kidding!
Megan: Well, you can't cancel this time!
Categories: English learning tips