If POTUS can still impress with an "um" here or there, so can you.

If POTUS can still impress with an "um" here or there, so can you. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Can't Quit Saying ‘Um’ and ‘Ah’? Just Learn How to Use Them Better

Where you place a filler word matters.

Filler words—like, you know, I mean, uh, um—are an inescapable part of our everyday lives. President Barack Obama, a typically eloquent speaker, uses them; they’re littered throughout Kim Kardashian’s speech; and according to experts, you probably use them every five seconds when you’re speaking spontaneously.

This is not a new phenomenon (the earliest use has been dated back to 1469), and it’s not exclusive to the English language. Filler wordsappear in every language and every culture,” says Steven D. Cohen, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Baltimore. The English um, for example, has a Korean equivalent, eum and a French counterpart, euh. According to Cohen, people around the globe are constantly using filler words, making it a “pervasive habit.”

Despite this, filler words typically have a bad rep. Overusing the word like, for example, stereotypically gives off an airhead vibe, while saying uh and um can make you seem hesitant, insecure or unconfident. A conversation packed with these unnecessary interjections can be distracting and imply scattered thought. Many people feel they clutter speech, can undermine your credibility, and are considered unbecoming in professional settings. Cohen, who believes there is no place for disfluency in our everyday language, finds filler words “impede our ability to speak with power” and “become interrupters that detract from our message.”

But there are a not-insignificant number of studies to suggest we’ve got it all wrong. Not only might filler words be inevitable, it’s possible they’re actually a useful part of our linguistic evolution. In fact, they might even be beneficial, at least according to some of the science.

So, like, really?

There are two variables that are indicative of filler frequency and word choice: age and gender. That’s according to research by James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. For instance, while men and women both use filler phrases at an equally high rate, the men prefer uh while women opt for um. Young people typically use filler words more, since they are “socially insecure,” he says. Generally, most people grow out of it over time.

“This is a very normal way that people speak,” says Pennebaker. “Most of us have gone through a period [of overusing filler words] and we always have.”

Still, listeners tend to have a negative opinion of speakers who overuse these words, particularly the word um, a small 1995 study found.

But research conducted over the last decade has suggested that these short utterances may have benefits, particularly in their ability to command the listener’s attention. A 2014 study from Pennebaker and his team found a correlation between filler words and conscientiousness, in the way the words can be seen as social and personality markers. In 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois found they help with listener recall, and a 2003 study by University of Rochester researchers found these words weren’t just superfluous, but actually helped with listener comprehension.

These studies give merit to the notion that using filler words in moderation can be a strategic tool. The key is finding the right frequency, knowing which words to use and being cognizant of where you are placing filler words in a sentence.

And, um, how?

People use about two filler words per 100 on average, and that can help a person understand a story better, says Scott Fraundorf, co-author of the listener recall study and an assistant professor in Psychology at University of Pittsburgh. The flipside of course is that using too many filler words can make comprehension harder. “A balanced way to use filler words might be to use a few, but not too many,” Fraundorf says.

As for which filler words to use, Cohen suggests like and I mean over uh and um.

“Some words are more easily identified,” says Cohen. “People know that um and uh, for instance, are ‘bad’ pervasive filler words. People are more forgiving, perhaps, when it comes to I mean or like.”

Where you place a filler word matters. There are two places in spontaneous speech where filler words commonly appear, Cohen explains: at the beginning (e.g. umuhso) and in the middle of a sentence (e.g. likeyou know what I mean). Of the two, filler words located in the middle of a sentence—also known as discourse markers—are not as noticeable, and are not as readily perceived as a filler word, than those in the front and tail end of a thought.

To eliminate the use of filled pauses at the beginning of a thought, or to cut down on your use of these words, Cohen recommends recruiting friends or family members to clap when you use a filler word so you can get into the habit of omitting them.

His most important tip, however, is replacing filler words with a pause.

“A simple pause can have a dramatic impact on our filler word use and how other people perceive us,” says Cohen. “We are conditioned to give immediate responses. We don’t allow ourselves to think. Instead, we share the first thing that pops into our head.”

There is no denying that overusing filler words makes you less articulate—but the reality is, we’re not actors flawlessly rattling off a word-heavy Aaron Sorkin script. If POTUS can still impress with an um here or there, so can you. You just need to be, like, judicious about it.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.