Girl Language: Um, uh, er

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News Column

Have you ever tried counting how many times you say “um,” “uh,” or “er,” in a sentence? They’re words you, under no circumstance, can say in an interview. They’re words you try to stamp out of your vocabulary because they seem unsure and unprofessional. Supposedly they give the idea that you aren’t confident in your ideas, but the sheer amount of times I’ve use a filled pause is innumerable. If they’re so common in the English lexicon, there has to be a reason, right?

Filled pauses are very common in English, with “um,” “uh,” and “er,” as just a few examples.  When someone speaks and they say “um” or “uh” it tends to be in the middle of their thought or when they’re about to say something. Frequently when explaining yourself you need moments to think; most conversations are not entirely planned out beforehand. Saying “um” or “uh” gives you the space to consider while continuing what you’re saying. It allows you room to breathe in the conversation while keeping your place.

When learning new languages at the start you will be hesitant when speaking. Filled pauses create the opportunity to look for a correct word or phrase. They’re a great tool when speaking because it acknowledges that you would like to continue and without interruption. When learning new languages one of my favorite parts is getting to know their specific filled pauses. For example, in Greek, one example is “Εεε” which means something similar to “eh” and is usually used prior to your sentence to show that you are about to speak, but need a minute to think. Filled pauses do not disappear with fluency; like I said earlier, just try and count how many you use one in a conversation. Although, fluency does come with smoothly adapting to new filled pauses.  

Saying one of the aforementioned filled pauses can cushion what will come after. Lots of communities use filled pauses, but they’re used in different ways. In predominantly female and non-male spaces it tends to be used to create something less harsh. For example, saying, “I really love your book,” can be seen as coming on too strong, but saying, “I uh really love your book,” is seen as a nice compliment. Both are complimentary, but one seems softer. The addition of “uh” draws less attention to the comment and yourself entirely. 

Filled pauses are sometimes considered stunted, making conversation feel more rigid, but if you really look at their uses you’ll realize that it’s actually the opposite. Adding in these filled pauses is a way of creating more fluidity in your language as you speak. When someone says “um” it’s because they’re letting another person know that they’re going to continue speaking, but need a second. By saying “um” you are signaling to the other person to wait and not speak so you can finish your thought. At the end of the day, a filled pause can be a useful tool when engaging in dialogue. It can help you explain yourself, smooth your words out, shift topics, and assist you while you look for a different word.