And so…um…my fellow Americans…er…ask not what, like, your country can do for you…uh…you know…ask what you can…um…do for your country. Can you imagine if John F. Kennedy's inaugural address had sounded like that?
It probably wouldn't be one of the most famous speeches in American political history if it had contained all those other words, like um, er, uh, and you know. Fortunately, President Kennedy was a great speaker and his true words remain a stirring call to action even today.
If you listen to regular people speak, however, you'll hear such words spread throughout their ordinary speech. Linguists call these words filler words. Sometimes they're also called discourse markers, pause fillers, or hesitation forms. Common examples include uh, um, er, ah, okay, like, right, so, and you know.
A filler word is any meaningless sound, word, or phrase used during speech to fill silence. They're often used in lieu of pausing and are closely connected with hesitation in speech. They rarely appear in written works, but they plague the speech of many people every day.
Using filler words only occasionally is not a problem, as they can indicate that you're collecting your thoughts before proceeding. Unfortunately, all too often they are used repeatedly to the point that they interfere with effective communication.
When used too frequently, filler words are considered a speech disfluency (sometimes spelled dysfluency), which is a term that refers to speech that isn't delivered smoothly or well-formed grammatically.
Why do we use filler words so often? Are they really a big deal? They can be! We tend to use filler words more frequently when we rush to speak without thinking. When asked a question, we often want to respond quickly. We often start speaking before we really know what to say. As our brains are trying to formulate our thoughts into words, we tend to fill silences with filler words to avoid awkward pauses.
Unfortunately, all those filler words can actually get in the way of effectively communicating what we want to say. If you've ever listened to someone who uses filler words repeatedly, it can be difficult to tease out the real words with meaning from the barrage of sounds in between.
If you find yourself using filler words too frequently, don't worry. Everyone uses them from time to time. Realize, though, that they can prevent your listeners from really understanding what you're trying to say.
If you're using filler words too often, there are steps you can take to eliminate them. First, listen for them in your speech. Be purposeful about what you're trying to say. Make eye contact with your listeners and don't be afraid to pause to gather your thoughts. Don't feel pressured to respond to a question too quickly. If you're giving a presentation at school, practice it until you know it by heart. Be prepared. Think about what you want to say, and then say it!