UM, I'M NOT LIKE DUMB

A linguistic anthropologist explains why, um, “filler words” are OK to use

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

A few days ago, The New York Times published an article by Christopher Mele about so-called “filler words”, telling people to stop using them. Reporting on language often frustrates me, and this was no exception. In fact, thirty-odd linguists—including me—sent them a letter detailing our many concerns with this article. In particular, the article makes two major mistakes:

  1. It doesn’t address the many valuable functions these words play.
  2. It perpetuates a sneaky type of bias against women and young people.

What’s a discourse marker, anyway?

Language never occurs without context, and can’t be analyzed as if it did. Discourse, according to linguists, is the use of spoken or written language in a social context.

Meanwhile, discourse markers are words or phrases that help manage the flow of discourse.

To give a full list of discourse markers in English is probably impossible, but they include:

  1. Connectors like and, or, and but
  2. Markers of time like now, then, and next
  3. Words that show similarity and difference, including like and unlike
  4. Cause-and-effect words like then, therefore, and because
  5. Ways to introduce examples, such as for instance and such as
    summarizing words and phrases like briefly, to sum up, and as I was saying
    and all of the other words and phrases that connect our speech and writing to its larger context

Writing anything beyond a few sentences would get very awkward without them: Imagine an essay without in short or however or although!

What this means is that we can’t just get rid of them. Without discourse markers, we’d be limited to one short phrase at a time, with no way to explain how they’re related. We’d lack contrast (but and despite and although) and connection (and and also and in addition).

Rather than just telling you, let me show you. Here’s the beginning of the Bible, English Standard Version:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Here it is again, without discourse markers:

In the beginning, God created the heavens. God created the earth. The earth was without form. The earth was (without) void. Darkness was over the face of the deep. The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Awkward, right?

Verbalized pauses: um, like, you know

Among the many types of discourse markers are a subset sometimes known as verbalized pauses. People who are not linguists also call them “filler words” and “verbal crutches,” but those terms are misleading.

Why don’t we just get rid of them, the Times article asks. After all, “verbal fillers that can make you sound, you know, nervous or not so smart.”

Well.

These kinds of pauses do give us time to think of what we’ll say next—but that’s not all they do. Compare the examples below with and without the discourse markers.

They allow us to soften disagreement or criticism by making it somewhat more polite.

  • The thing is, she worked really hard.
  • Um, it’s my not my favorite.

They emphasize whatever it is we’re going to say next.

  • My teacher is, like, a total nutjob.

They allow us to introduce delicate topics.

  • Sooooo, um, how are things at home?
  • Have you, ah, thought any more about counseling?

They communicate subtle nuances of emotional stance.

  • I’m feeling, you know, not too bad about that exam.

They allow us to indicate our degree of certainty.

  • I must have had, like, seven hundred pages of reading to do.
  • She was, I think, pretty pissed off.

As you can see, these discourse markers do an immense amount of important social and emotional work for us. They add nuance and richness to our speech. In fact, we can’t be socially appropriate human beings without them. Even if we got rid of particular markers—if we stopped saying um and so and like — we’d just end up using new ones in their place.

The problem with prescription

There’s another problem with telling people not to use discourse markers such as “um” and “like,” and it’s a question of who gets punished for it.

Think about marijuana laws for a moment. Black people and White people use marijuana at similar rates. If enforcement were fair, you’d expect Blacks and Whites to get arrested at similar rates too. But if you’re Black, you’re almost four times as likely to be arrested for it. Surely that means something’s off with how we’re enforcing these laws.

And that’s what we see with criticism of these speech patterns. The NYT article is purportedly addressed to everyone, but it’s largely women and young people who are judged negatively for talking this way.

The article does make this point, or at least a related one. Mele writes: “Speakers who are well known in their professions but overuse verbal pauses are still perceived as credible because they have built a reputation. Audience members will chalk up those habits to just the way they talk, Ms. Marshall said. …But newcomers who use as many interjections as seasoned professionals will be seen as less credible because they do not have the years of experience.”

Yet he stops short of the obvious conclusion: there’s nothing wrong with using these words. The only people who are critiqued for using them are already low-status, and this critique helps maintain the low status of certain people and groups.

Experts who aren’t

Both of these problems could have been avoided if the author had spoken to any linguists or looked at the empirical research on these questions.

The experts Mele chose to cite are those who reinforce the point he wants to make. At least one of them was unaware of the existing research: “Ms. Marshall said she had not seen any research attributing speech patterns to certain demographics but had noticed that ‘like’ is used heavily by the younger generation, ‘so’ by those in their 30s and ‘uptick’ or ‘upspeak’—ending a declarative sentence in such a way that it sounds like a question—by women in their 20s and 30s.”

In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research. And while it shows some gender differences, they’re much smaller than most people believe. I won’t bore you with an exhaustive literature review, but here are just a few examples.

  • Alexandra D’Arcy notes that men use like more than women in certain contexts, while women use it more in others. While these differences are statistically significant, they’re also fairly small. She also notes that older people use these forms quite regularly.
  • Thomas J. Linneman finds that — at least in some contexts — men and women use uptalk with similar frequency, although the functions and outcomes differ.
  • In a 2014 paper, Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvaniti note that women do seem to use uptalk more frequently than men, but that men use it more frequently than popular perception suggests. Like Linneman, they found differences in when, how, and why men and women use it.

And so on…

Rather than relying on folk wisdom, it’s best to consult experts who know the peer-reviewed literature before writing pieces like these. That way, writers can avoid drawing misleading conclusions.

(ETA: Emily Prud’hommeaux, one of the experts quoted in the original piece, wrote me to point out that “…the author *did* quote me saying that like and friends have the sort of important discourse functions you describe. He didn’t mention all of the functions I listed, though, and my use of correct terminology and my crazy diatribe about how like is unfairly maligned also got left out.” So it would be more accurate to say that Mele chose not just his experts but also his quotations based on the story he wanted to tell.)

Let’s stop demonizing um and like already

Despite what hand-wringers like Mele may argue, discourse markers—even the verbalized pauses—aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, we need them in order to be socially appropriate, and that means they’re not going away at all. (Even when you get rid of one, another takes its place. For instance, hey and yo have replaced some of the functions of why and say.)

Although it claims to help everyone, the truth is that arguments like Mele’s disproportionately hurt women and young people. And there’s nothing wrong with the way women and young people speak. Rather than encouraging women and young people to change the way they talk, let’s look at ourselves. Why do we judge ways of speaking associated with these groups so harshly?

This article and others like it get the cause-and-effect wrong. Women and young people don’t “sound stupid” because they say like too much. We associate like with “sounding stupid” because we think women and young people sound stupid in general. So let’s address the real problem—our systematic devaluation of women and young people—rather than blaming it on their behavior.

This post originally appeared on Jena’s blog. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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