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The Daily Tar Heel

A column about, um, you know…

In newspapers across the country, there are two words people say hundreds of times a day yet almost never make it to print.
I’m not talking about vulgarities here. I’m talking about the harmless sounds “um” and “uh.”

Reporters like to clean up quotes by removing these “pause fillers,” and speech coaches often consider them a bad habit. They are sometimes disparaged as crutch words, credibility killers and verbal viruses.

But research shows “um” and “uh” actually play a valuable role in our understanding of language, suggesting that these so-called verbal viruses could be vastly misunderstood.

A study from earlier this year revealed that the “ums” and “uhs” that creep into our everyday speech could actually help young children identify and learn new words.

In the experiment, University of Rochester scientists observed that 2-year-olds were more likely to pay attention to the name of an unfamiliar object if it was preceded by an “uh.”

They gave the example of a mother talking to her child, saying, “No, that wasn’t the telephone, honey. That was the, uh, timer.”

The “uh” before “timer” gave the mother time to retrieve the word while simultaneously signaling to the child that an unfamiliar word was coming up.

Other studies have shown that despite the conventional wisdom, there is no correlation between a speaker’s “um” usage and his or her confidence, anxiety or stress levels.

More importantly, perhaps, is that the majority of the “ums” we hear go unnoticed. As it turns out, people aren’t so averse to these words as they think they are.

A 1995 study by Nicholas Christenfeld showed that speakers who said “um” were rated just as eloquent as those whose pauses went unfilled. The subjects usually noticed the “ums” only when they were instructed to listen for them.

If people were so naturally repelled by “um” and “uh,” they probably would have disappeared by now, said writer Michael Erard, author of “Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”

Another hint to pause fillers’ importance can be found in their prevalence in world languages.

For every occurrence of “um” and “uh” in English, there’s an “eh” in Spanish, an “euh” in French, an “ooh” in Swedish and an “mmm” in Turkish. Naturally, learning the correct pause fillers is vital to becoming fluent.

Even sign language has pause fillers: Signers indicate pauses by breaking eye contact, freezing a sign or wiggling their fingers.
The fact is that “verbal blunders” of any kind — “um” and “uh,” repeated sounds or words, sentences that get restarted halfway through, slips of the tongue — account for 5 to 8 percent of everything we say.

And this phenomenon is nothing new. Thomas Edison’s earliest known phonograph recording starts with “Uh….” Shakespeare used the spellings “hum” and “ha.” The evidence points, as Erard writes, to blunders being as old as spoken language itself.

People don’t speak in essay form. We pause, blunder and restart our way through speech. There’s no reason to clean that up.

Mark Abadi is a senior linguistics major from Charlotte, NC. Contact him at

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