Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Midsentence filibuster.

Psychologists at Stanford and UC are apparently researching
the meaning of interjections like "uh" and "um". I can't comment on the research itself (since I haven't seen it), but an article on the work merely states the obvious. I'm wondering now: don't most people understand why they say "uh" and "um"?

When I was a kid, my father (a seasoned public speaker) explained that people use "uh" and "um" as placeholders to retain conversational control. In normal conversation, pauses of more than a breath usually signal "end of transmission", which means someone else gets to talk. When a speaker realizes she needs to think for a moment mid-sentence, and she's not willing to give up control yet, she interjects an "um" to stave off any potential respondents.

While this is natural (or at least common) in casual conversation, it's widely considered poor form to do the same in formal or public speech. It shows that you haven't thought your sentence through, and it makes you sound stupid.

The strange thing about the article is that, because they've "discovered" the role of these words, they seem to think the words have new legitimacy and value.

"In school we were taught not to use these phrases, but the fact is, everybody uses them," said Fox Tree, who says her high school debate teachers used to discourage the use of "um's" and "uh's." "So we think they must have a role."

The article stops short of suggesting that these words are good to use, but it seems like that's where they're leading. I hope the next generation of public speakers isn't taught to embrace these linguistic tools, intentionally punctuating its speech with dramatic "um"s. Listening to the State of the Union Address would be even more unbearable than it already is.


  1. Recently our engineering department held it's annual conference: two days of presentations from numerous engineers. We were all equipped with pads and pens and the most common use for them was to record how many "uh"s and "um"s each presenter uttered. Some averaged in the hundreds for a 45 minutes presentation! One presenter had his own placeholders: "ok" and "right". While it was a refreshing change from the "uh" and "um" duo, it made his presentation sound quick and rushed. And at one point I couldn't help but think back to Lethal Weapon 2 and hearing Joe Pesci's voice in my head, "Ok, ok, ok, ok..."Personally, I think that if presenting to a group - where you'd normally not be interrupted mid-speach - it is ok to simply pause instead using a placeholder.That's just my, uh, $0.02

  2. Yeah, my point is not to insult people who say "um" or who can't speak publicly without pausing to gather their thoughts.
    (I suffer from both.) My point is that it's valuable, as a public speaker, to recognize "um" for what it is: a signal that you're having trouble finishing your sentence in one go. The more you work at it avoiding "um", the more smooth (and thus effective) your public speaking becomes. Thus, it's valuable for "debate teachers" to continue advising against the "um". And this article, in its linguistic zeal, seems to downplay the undesirable nature of the "um".

  3. Roberto made me think of a great way to compensate for the us of "ums" in speech.
    He stated: "That's just my, uh, $0.02"
    One could buy ums and uhs for cash. You can pre-purchase these holders for 2 cents beforehand, or pay 4 cents afterwards for any extra you use during you speech. Note-takers would tally your count (just like Roberto did) and hand you your bill at the end of your speech. You would subtract your pre-purchased "ums" and settle with the cashier on your way out.