Um, like, y’know, sort of, if you catch my drift
By Ralph Keyes
July 6, 2017
Listen to a narrator version of this essay:
While visiting the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens was struck by how many interjections Americans used: not just uh and um, but yes, sir, which, Dickens noted, “fills up every pause in the conversation.”
What would Dickens make of the way Americans today pepper their speech with like, so, y’ know, hey, and er (or eh north of the border)?
These are the verbal equivalent of a facial tic. We all use them. I once listened to a recording of a radio interview I’d done and was appalled by how often I had repeated you know. And it’s not just me. According to one calculation, Caroline Kennedy used you know 138 times in one interview, and 200 times in another.
You know has been sticking in craws for quite some time. In his 1835 fable The Pacha of Many Tales, Dickens’s friend Captain Frederick Marryat—a British naval officer and author—depicts a storyteller named Ali relating a tale to a high Turkish official:
“Well, your highness,” Ali begins, “it was about thirty years ago, you know, that I was a little boy, you know.”
“I don’t know, Ali,” interrupts the pacha. “How can I know until you tell me?”
When Ali continues to lard his story with you knows, his listener sends him off to have his feet caned.
A storyteller named Hussan then resumes Ali’s tale, fully aware that an executioner is standing by, sword in hand, ready to chop off his head if he uses too many interjections. “I shall never be able to go on, your highness,” pleads Hussan. “Consider one moment how harmless my says I’s are to the detestable you knows of Ali. That’s what I always told him: ‘Ali, says I, ‘if you only knew, says I, ‘how annoying you are!’ ‘Why there,’ says I—’”
“At this moment,” writes Marryat, “the blow of the scymitar fell, and the head of Hussan rolled upon the floor; the lips, from the force of habit, still quivering in their convulsions with the motioning which would have produced says I, if the channel of sound had not been so effectually interrupted.”
“That story’s ended!” observes the pacha in a rage. “Of all the nuisances I ever encountered, these two men have beat them all. Allah forbid that I should again meet with a says I, or you know!”
Writer Michael Erard calls such words pause fillers. That name and others like it reflect their ephemeral nature: verbal pauses, vocalized pauses, placeholders, verbal fillers, or simply fillers. And Americans (or Middle Eastern storytellers) aren’t the only ones to use them. As Erard observes in his book Um …, “People around the world fill pauses in their own languages as naturally as watermelons have seeds.” According to a Dutch linguist he cites, uh is the only word that can be heard in every language.
Psychologist Robert Ecklund estimates that as many as six percent of the words we use are meant more for verbal punctuation than to convey meaning. What they lack is content: filler words are to real ones as Tic Tacs are to tofu. They have no nutritional value. Paralanguage, some linguists call them. Such language experts distinguish between like as a filler, and like as an introduction for someone’s speech. They refer to this usage—“So I’m like,” “And he was like,” etc.—as the quotative like.
Why do we use pause fillers? Nervousness, for one. To catch our breath, for another. To hold our place in a conversation. Or simply to collect our thoughts, especially when a word like “so” is dragged out (“S-o-o-o-o-o …”).
Filler terms such as frankly, truly, and honestly are particularly troublesome since they raise the question, “What were you being otherwise?” Some interjections can be almost confrontational. One reason Barack Obama could come across as condescending and professorial was his penchant for responding to questions with the preface, “Look …,” as if his listener had trouble seeing. This is a bipartisan problem. In debates and interviews during the 2016 Republican primary, Ohio governor John Kasich did the same thing. So does NPR commentator Cokie Roberts. Just as bad as look at the beginning of a sentence is okay at the end, as when Donald Trump says, “I’m not stupid, okay?”
When still a candidate, Trump once said (about soliciting applause lines during campaign appearances), “If I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”
Sort of isn’t just a verbal tic of semi-articulate speakers like Trump. During a radio program on contemporary discourse, I heard a group of erudite panelists discuss with great disdain the over-use of pause fillers such as like and you know by those they considered poorly educated. Yet they themselves used sort of repeatedly to fill pauses in their speech.
Sort of is the educated person’s counterpart to the layman’s like. In an interview on NPR, British historian Charles Spencer said, “Oliver Cromwell had a sort of hysterical fit. He was so overexcited. And we have eyewitness accounts of him like a schoolboy sort of flicking ink at Henry Martin—with their quills, just flicking ink at each other in a sort of moment of such euphoria that they couldn’t contain themselves.”
Kind of is a close cousin to sort of, as when Elena Kagan observed of a new Supreme Court Justice, “You think you’re kind of hot stuff” until given tasks like fetching coffee, which is “a way to kind of humble people.”
Kind of added nothing to Kagan’s meaning, of course. But did of course add anything to mine?
Ralph Keyes is the author of 16 books, including The Quote Verifier, Euphemania, and “Nice Guys Finish Seventh.”