Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Conversational Fillers

Bill asked about conversational fillers, citing if you will as an example. Every language seems to have them. In English, um, er, well, sort of, actually, basically, you know, and like are among the most common.

When they are overused, they can be well, you know, like, annoying as hell. I remember a teacher who overused surely, which he pronounced as shirley. Before his class, we would form a pool to predict the number of shirleys that would show up that day. [Leslie Nielson clip]

Sometimes fillers can be a sign of unfamiliarity with the subject, nervousness, or a challenged vocabulary, but they can also serve a useful purpose. For instance, a conversation involves two inescapable elements: give and take, send and receive, speak and listen. When we have finished a statement, our ensuing silence is a signal to the other party to respond. If we are thinking ahead and are not ready to relinquish our turn, we may use a filler to indicate that we are not finished.

Other useful roles for fillers include

  • memory searches
  • softening or strengthening a statement
  • restating for emphasis
  • expanding a thought
  • switching ideas midstream
  • bringing in peripheral, but connected, thoughts

So, while overuse of conversational fillers can be distracting and counterproductive, a measured use can help manage a conversation and direct the listener’s attention.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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