Filled Pause
Research Center

Filled Pause
Research Center

Filled Pause
Research Center

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

Investigating 'um' and 'uh' and other hesitation phenomena

Filled pauses for non-academics

I'm sure there are a number of people who want to find out what we know about filled pauses, but don't really want to wade through the academic jargon and theoretical baggage of journal papers. If that description suits you, then this list is for you! Following are a number of works that are well-written and informed by close study of the filled pause literature.

There are a number of academic works that are more descriptive in nature and would be interesting to readers who want to see some data on filled pauses from a broad point of view. Gunnel Tottie's “On the use of uh and um in American English”[XX] is a good place to start, along with Jean Fox Tree's “Folk notions of um and uh, you know, and like”[2] and also Alex Boulton's “To er is human: Silent pauses and speech dysfunctions of the 2004 US presidential debates”[3]. And Stanley Schachter and colleagues' “Speech Disfluency and the Structure of Knowledge”[4] is an early work that established a foundation for much later work and thought on filled pause research. Though it is a full-blown empirical research paper, it is very engaging and persuasive.

Another important mention here is the wonderful book by Michael Erard, “Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean”[5], though the scope is much wider than just filled pauses, as the title implies. Another journalist, Dan Nosowitz write a fine article about filled pauses a few years ago called “The Mystery and Occasional Poetry of, Uh, Filled Pauses”[6] (full disclosure: I was one of Dan's interviewees). Of a rather more encyclopedic nature is the Wikipedia page, “Filler (linguistics)”[7]. Like Michael Erard's work, the scope is broader than just filled pauses, but it contains a fascinating list of fillers from a large number of languages; among them, the typical filled pause forms are listed, showing that wide variation in forms across languages.

Finally, a couple of good blog articles round out the list. Mark Liberman's “Dysfluency considered Harmful”[8] post is mainly about what we should call filled pauses, but he reviews some interesting information about them in the process. Julie Sedivy's “Your Speech Is Packed With Misunderstood, Unconscious Messages”[9] is a nice overview of the topic as well, with strong words for those who frown on the use of filled pauses in speech. But if you're really interested in that last point, then you should probably read Nicholas Christenfeld's “Does it Hurt to Say Um?”[10], an excellent look at the question with a very useful conclusion. [Spoiler: the short answer is "no".]

All of these works are rather entertaining in their own way as they each give an accessible picture of the use of filled pauses in everyday life by everyone. If you just want a light introduction to the topic, pick one and enjoy.


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  • Jean E. Fox Tree, “Folk notions of um and uh, you know, and like,” Text & Talk, vol. 22, no. 3, 2007, pp. 297-314. DOI: 10.1515/TEXT.2007.012.

    Abstract The current study measures laypeople’s uses of 'um', 'uh', 'you know', and 'like', including folk notions of meanings, self-assessments of use, history of discussing use, and attitudes toward the words. Unlike the prevalent idea in the popular press that these discourse markers are interchangeable speaker production flaws, respondents in this study demonstrated that people do possess folk notions of meanings and uses that dramatically distinguish markers from each other. 'Um' and 'uh' were thought to indicate production trouble, 'you know' was thought to be used in checking for understanding and connecting with listeners, and 'like' defied definition. The folk notions of 'um', 'uh', and 'you know' accord well with researchers’ ideas about the meanings of these words. The use of 'like' may be too subtle for laypeople to articulate. Most researchers’ views of 'like' involve some kind of discrepancy between what’s said and what’s meant. Even if they cannot state a meaning, people do treat the different markers differently.

    Keywords Discourse markers, fillers, like, meaning, spontaneous speech, you know

  • Alex Boulton, “To er is human: Silent pauses and speech dysfunctions of the 2004 US presidential debates,” in Le Désaccord, Pereiro, M. and Daniels, H., Ed.Nancy: AMAES, 2006, pp. 7-32.

    Abstract It has become fashionable, even axiomatic in some circles today, to suppose that politics is all about form, not content—it’s not what they say but the way that they say it. It ought to follow that the most powerful politicians should be the best speakers, so this paper takes as its starting point the 2004 US presidential debates. These televised confrontations, where each candidate has to react to new questions as well as to counter his opponent, are notoriously high-risk, and present considerable opportunities for various speech "dysfunctions". These are analysed in relation to media reaction and public perception of the outcome.

    Keywords cognitive science, disfluency, hesitation, linguistics, presidential debate, speed of articulation

  • Stanley Schachter, Nicholas Christenfeld, Bernard Ravina, and Frances Bilous, “Speech Disfluency and the Structure of Knowledge,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 60, no. 3, 1991, pp. 362-367. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.362.

    Abstract It is generally accepted that filled pauses ("uh," "er," and "um") indicate time out while the speaker searches for the next word or phrase. It is hypothesized that the more options, the more likely that a speaker will say "uh." The academic disciplines differ in the extent to which their subject matter and mode of thought require a speaker to choose among options. The more formal, structured, and factual the discipline, the fewer the options. It follows that lecturers in the humanities should use more filled pauses during lectures than social scientists and that natural scientists should use fewest of all. Observations of lecturers in 10 academic disciplines indicate that this is the case. That this is due to subject matter rather than to self-selection into disciplines is suggested by observations of this same set of lecturers all speaking on a common subject. In this circumstance, the academic disciplines are identical in the number of filled pauses used.

    Keywords lecturers, number of filled pauses in speech, word options in academic discipline

  • Michael Erard, Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. New York: Penguin Random House.August 2008.

    Abstract This original, entertaining, and surprising book investigates verbal blunders: what they are, what they say about those who make them, and how and why we’ve come to judge them.Um… is about how you really speak, and why it’s normal for your everyday speech to be filled with errors—about one in every ten words. In this charming, engaging account of language in the wild, linguist and writer Michael Erard also explains why our attention to some blunders rises and falls. Where did the Freudian slip come from? Why do we prize "umlessness" in speaking—and should we? And how do we explain the American presidents who are famous for their verbal stumbles? Full of entertaining examples, Um… is essential reading for talkers and listeners of all stripes.

  • Dan Nosowitz, “The Mystery and Occasional Poetry of, Uh, Filled Pauses,” January 2017.

    Abstract NEARLY EVERY LANGUAGE AND EVERY culture has what are called “filled pauses,” a notoriously difficult-to-define concept that generally refers to sounds or words that a speaker uses when, well, not exactly speaking. In American English, the most common are “uh” and “um.”

  • Wikipedia contributors, “Filler (linguistics) -- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,” October 2020.

    Abstract In linguistics, a filler, filled pause, hesitation marker or planner is a sound or word that is spoken in conversation by one participant to signal to others a pause to think without giving the impression of having finished speaking. (These are not to be confused with placeholder names, such as thingamajig, whatchamacallit, whosawhatsa and whats'isface, which refer to objects or people whose names are temporarily forgotten, irrelevant, or unknown.) Fillers fall into the category of formulaic language, and different languages have different characteristic filler sounds. The term filler also has a separate use in the syntactic description of wh-movement constructions.

  • Mark Liberman, “Dysfluency considered Harmful,” May 2019.

    Abstract … as a technical term, that is. Disfluency is no better, although the prefix is less judgmental. There are two problems: 1. These terms pathologize normal behavior, creating confusion between pathological symptoms and common phenomena in normal speech, which may be different not only in their causes and their frequency but also in behavioral detail; 2. Applied to normal speech, these terms often treat intrinsic aspects of the content and performance of spoken messages as if they were disruptions or failures.

  • Julie Sedivy, “Your Speech Is Packed With Misunderstood, Unconscious Messages,” March 2018.

    Abstract Imagine standing up to give a speech in front of a critical audience. As you do your best to wax eloquent, someone in the room uses a clicker to conspicuously count your every stumble, hesitation, um and uh; once you’ve finished, this person loudly announces how many of these blemishes have marred your presentation...

  • Nicholas Christenfeld, “Does it Hurt to Say Um?,” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, vol. 19, no. 3, 1995, pp. 171-186. DOI: 10.1007/BF02175503.

    Abstract This paper examines whether the profusion of ums that so many speakers produce is noticed, and whether these ums influence what audiences think of speakers. Even though ums do not seem to be a product of anxiety or lack of preparation, the first study, using a simple questionnaire, indicated that the average listener assumes that they are. The second study manipulated um rates by editing a tape to create a version where ums were replaced by silence or were eliminated. The original and edited versions were played to audiences who were told to focus on either the content or the style, or were not given any particular instructions. Estimates of ums showed no sensitivity whatsoever in the content focus, some sensitivity without focus instruction, and greatest sensitivity with the style focus, suggesting that ums can be, but are not always, processed automatically. On subjective ratings of the speaker, filled pauses created a better impression than silent pauses, but no pauses proved best of all. The ums had an effect even in conditions where the audience was unable to report their presence.