Podcast: Clara Moskowitz explains the meaning of "uh," "um" and "like":

Last night on the phone to my mom, I recorded myself and counted: I said like 66 times. I can't even talk to the barista at Starbucks without slipping in a few. Witness my recent order: "Hi, um, I'll have one of those, like, mocha latté frappés, in small, I mean tall." Outside of my control, even outside of my awareness, this halting and verbal stumbling infiltrates my speech. And I am not alone. Listen to conversations in the grocery store or at work—I defy you to find many people whose speech is free of you know, um, I mean, and their brethren.

We often dismiss these phrases as empty fillers. However, psychologist Jean E. Fox Tree of the University of California, Santa Cruz, says they are full of meaning.

Fox Tree examines these verbal villains, using experiments to test her suspicion that they help, rather than hinder, our speech. Sometimes we use these words to imply that what's being said is not exactly what we mean, to give forewarning when a mood change is impending, or to invite the listener to infer information, according to Fox Tree's research. "We're taught to hate these words," she says. "But I think it can actually be harder to follow conversations that don't have those elements."

Not everyone is convinced, though. A whole industry exists to dissuade verbal stumblers from um-ing and uh-ing. Many people regard these words as interchangeable, devoid of specific meaning. "They interrupt the fluency of speech and cause unneeded attention to the speaker," says Mindy Hudon, a speech-language pathologist in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Let's face it: Filler words have a bad reputation. Fox Tree's research must fight the perception that there's no place for them in civilized language.

There were these four, like, skinny guys

Likemay be the most common of all filler words, Fox Tree says. In a 2006 study her subjects spoke it more often than oh, you know, um, uh, well, I don't know, and I mean combined.

For that study, Fox Tree brought UCSC students into a speech lab. She asked the students to tell a personal story—for example, about a concert they saw or a time their car broke down—to another participant. Then, without warning, she had the students tell the same story again to a different listener. Fox Tree counted and compared their use of like in the two retellings. Finally, she had the listeners tell the story they heard to a research assistant, and noted when they said like.

"My prediction was that likes were not going to be used in a similar location at all because people don't really have a good sense of what they mean," Fox Tree says, "and they seem to be just randomly sprinkled in there." To her amazement, people used like systematically. One-fifth of the time, the students said it in exactly the same place in their two versions of the story. For instance, in describing a concert, one student said, "There were these four like skinny guys up on stage." When she retold the story, she said again, "There were these four like skinny guys." Furthermore, when the listeners told the speakers' stories to an assistant, they also used likes in the same place one-fifth of the time.

This told Fox Tree that like couldn't always be just a meaningless pause-filler. If the participants recycled the word such a significant portion of the time, it must have been part of the story, communicating something important.

Fox Tree is still unsure about the exact meaning of like, but she believes it signifies a loose use of language. A speaker might say like when what he is saying isn't exactly what is on his mind, or he means to imply more than what he is explicitly saying.

Fox Tree gives an example: "If you say, 'He was like 40,' are you saying he was approximately 40? You could be. But you could also be saying, he was 40 and all that entails of what you and I think about 40-year-olds. It would be like, too old for me to date. That might be the implication." In the case of the skinny guys, Fox Tree believes the speaker didn't mean the performers were sort of skinny, but rather meant to invite the listener to infer other things about them, such as their style or personality, from the descriptor skinny.

To Fox Tree, this is uncharted territory, brimming with potential discoveries. This experiment was the first of its kind. "The same story, spontaneously retold," she says. "That's what it required to detect this. If it weren't the same story it would still look like random likes."

But, I mean, why are you wasting your time?

While many consider Fox Tree's subjects the dregs of language, she sees them as fascinating windows onto how we really communicate. She became interested in ums, uhs, and their ilk in the mid-1980s as a Harvard University undergraduate studying linguistics.

"At that time people didn't study these words," she says. "They studied the idealized way people talk without ums and uhs. I started becoming more and more fascinated by the things that were excluded by linguistics."

Fox Tree went on to complete a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford University under psycholinguist Herb Clark, who shared her fascination with linguistics' unwanted. In the 1980s Clark was one of the few scientists studying conversational, rather than formal, speech. He investigated filler words (um, uh), false starts ("There was this, there were these two trees"), repetitions ("If, if I could do it"), and other things we say spontaneously. "The people who teach public speaking, like Toastmasters, don't like these words," Clark says. "But Jeannie and I took a unique position on this, that these are real words of English, deliberate words. You choose them."

Clark and Fox Tree's conviction ran against what most experts thought at the time. Noam Chomsky, the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist, held these elements of language were mistakes and not part of proper language. As such, he felt they were beneath studying. He advocated leaving them out of linguistic theory.

In the same vein, Fox Tree still faces mixed reactions to her work from other psychologists. "Some people think it's totally obvious, so why am I wasting my time," she says. "And at the same time, other people think it's totally stupid and untrue, so why am I wasting my time?"

Undeterred, Fox Tree, Clark, and others continue to study real language and its foibles to shed light on the subtler aspects of how we communicate. Slowly, the field has gained wider support. "This is not a very popular research topic," Fox Tree says. "But I think it's going to be. I think one day tons of people are going to be studying it."

Sociolinguist Janet Fuller of Southern Illinois University agrees that research interest in conversational speech is increasing. "Most of our language behavior is not done in formal speech," says Fuller, who has studied filler words used in social situations by native and non-native English speakers. "I, and other sociolinguists, are interested in [this] language use."

They're everywhere, you know?

So far, research in this field has already revealed meaning hidden behind what many consider to be verbal garbage.

You knowand I mean pepper informal speech. These ubiquitous little phrases are more complicated than they seem. In a 2002 study, Fox Tree found that a speaker can use you know to invite a listener to infer things left unsaid—as in, "She came over and we were having fun and we, you know. . . ." Sometimes, she says, it's used to check whether the speaker and the listener share the same view: "He's such a jerk, you know?"

On the other hand, I mean often warns that the speaker is about to adjust or clarify what she's saying. For example, "How do you deal with her? I mean she's nice, but. . . ."

A speaker's use of these words can affect the way his listeners see him, Fox Tree says. Habitually uttering you know might annoy a listener who feels put upon too often to fill in missing information. And some researchers have found that saying I mean frequently can make a speaker seem impolite and too self-focused.

Ohis a renaissance word; linguists have ascribed many different uses to it. Oh often marks a change to what the speaker says, or the addition of new information that the speaker forgot to include before, as in, "I bought apples and oranges and then went home—oh, and I bought grapes, too." Other times, an addressee will say oh to encourage the speaker to continue: "I met someone." "Oh?"

Then there are the real baddies: um and uh. The public-speaking set seems to hate these words more than all others. Mindy Hudon, the speech-language pathologist, says, "[They] are trash words. If you don't use them when you write, then you don't need them when you talk. Throw them in the trash."

But in 2002 Fox Tree and Clark, her advisor, published a paper claiming that um and uh are part of the English language and serve a function. They argued that speakers plan for them and use them for specific communication purposes, just like any other words.

Clark and Fox Tree analyzed recordings of 50 face-to-face conversations. They noted every use of uh or um and measured if a pause followed it, and for how long. Um was trailed by a delay 61 percent of the time, and uh 29 percent of the time. What's more, the average delay after um was almost three times longer than the delay after uh. Clark and Fox Tree concluded uh is used to signal an upcoming minor delay, while um is used to signal a major upcoming delay. By giving forewarning, a speaker tells her listener to adjust his comprehension process.

This is actually useful to the listener, Fox Tree found in another 2002 study. Subjects listened to recorded speech and monitored for a certain word, like attic. Fox Tree told the subjects to press a button when they heard attic, and measured how fast they did it. When the subjects heard an uh before attic, they pressed the button faster than when Fox Tree digitally erased the uh or replaced it with a pause. She argued that uhs increased the speed at which listeners understood the speech that followed them.

Some colleagues were intrigued but still dubious. "I am skeptical about attaching too much significance to the use of these features," says Ronald Macaulay, a linguist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. "Fox Tree is suitably cautious in her claims and that pleases me. [The paper] made some good points." Macaulay adds that he's steered clear of studying ums and uhs because "that's too hard."

But enough studies exist to show that we aren't the only ones who litter our speech with filler words and hedges; it's a global phenomenon. In place of uh, the French say euh, Germans say ah, and Hebrew speakers say eh. These words arise with about the same frequency in each culture, research shows. Japanese sprinkle ano (well) and eto (roughly, let me see) throughout their talk. Chinese insert neige (that) and zhege (this) all over the place. Spanish speakers punctuate their speech with eh (huh) and pues (well, or then).

Um, here's to you

Most of the human race may unconsciously value filler words, but I decide to see what the enemy camp has to say. Enter Toastmasters. This international public-speaking club was founded in 1924 to help people improve their communication skills. Toastmasters members meet once a week to practice giving speeches and conversing casually. I pay a visit to find out how the experts eradicate ums.

José Mendoza, president of the Santa Cruz chapter, says that to be taken seriously, he needed to ditch filler words. "When I joined Toastmasters I was an introverted geek and needed to learn how to be an effective communicator." Now his speech is polished, and he helps those of us who still struggle.

"This is a safe environment to be able to work out those kinks," he says, outlining the plan of attack for reducing ums and uhs. Toastmasters monitor each other for filler words and other verbal stumbles and give lots of constructive criticism. At every meeting members give prepared speeches. They also must speak spontaneously on topics of the day.

For my first meeting I walk into the grayish conference room of the Santa Cruz Goodwill. Thinking I will hide behind my reporter's mantle, I sit in the corner and prepare to take notes. Pen in hand, I survey the crowd. Eight people have gathered, mixed in age, gender, and race.

Mendoza calls this meeting to order by banging a wooden gavel. Quickly, my illusions about remaining an inactive observer disappear. "Tell us a little bit about yourself," he says, inviting me to the podium.

Trying to remain professional, I explain that I am a reporter, here to research an article about why people use filler words. My audience is skeptical. I seem like an outsider at an AA meeting—I don't have a problem myself, but I'm here to study those who do. Quickly I add that not only am I an investigator of the issue, I am a sufferer as well. By the time I wrap up, this is abundantly clear. "I mean, the reason I wanted to write this article, um, is 'cause I say these words myself, like all the time," I stammer, escaping from the podium. At least I've won over the crowd: I am one of them.

Henry, a seasoned Toastmaster, wows us all with a speech utterly free of um, you know, or I mean. Then, to my horror, I am called again to the podium. I, and three others, must speak for one to two minutes on the word of the day, "resilience." With no time to think I blabber freely, "Well, resilience has been, um, very, you know, important for me to learn. . . ." It gets ugly. To top off the humiliation, the appointed Ah Counter/Grammarian, Becky, reports that during our speeches, collectively we've uttered 16 ums and 6 uhs (just one of each was mine—I was really trying).

After the meeting winds down I hang back with Lisa Napier, who came to Toastmasters because her coworkers told her she wasn't communicating effectively. When she realized she was missing opportunities because of her speaking style, she decided to take action. "In my speeches I say uh and um and stumble a lot," Napier says. "But Toastmasters has helped tremendously." She credits the Ah Counter/Grammarian with making the biggest dent, because it helped her realize just how often ums creep in when she talks. Napier believes her ums and uhs are part of the reason she wasn't taken seriously at work. "You come off as unprepared, unsure of yourself, unprofessional," she says.

By the time we leave the conference room three people have told me I seem like a great candidate for Toastmasters—I could really learn a lot.

Well, you know, there's a time and a place

After that day, I am torn between embracing my ums as useful words and banishing them as disgraceful intruders. Fox Tree's evidence that filler words serve a purpose is convincing. And they're such a big part of conversational language that to deny their importance seems strange.

On the other hand, whether or not they deserve such a bad rep, they sure have one. We do judge each other for cluttering our speech with fillers, and we often perceive people as less poised and polished because of them.

As I grapple with this, Fox Tree hits me with a new revelation: She tells her eight-year-old daughter to stop saying like so much.

"They're not totally wrong," she says of the naysayers. "There's a certain time and place for it, because of the impression that it makes on other people. That's why I tell my kid that. You should learn how to speak without them for public speaking. But they do have a place in natural dialogue."

Based on last night's phone call, I just hope my mother understands.


ABOUT THE WRITER

Clara Moskowitz
B.A., astronomy and physics, Wesleyan University
Internship: American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Clara Moskowitz Science journalism showed me how cool science can be. I would read in the newspaper about quarks and quasars and think, "I've got to find out about this stuff!" So, I studied astrophysics for four years, but the long hours of computer coding and the steadfast focus on one narrow topic left me frustrated. I turned back to journalism because itís the smorgasbord option. I get to taste a little bit of oceanography and a smidgen of neurobiology without the sickening feeling of eating too much astrophysics. Science is wacky and wonderful; I want to make people stop and think, "How wild! I canít believe thatís going on in our universe!"

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

Jessica Decker
B.F.A., interdisciplinary, San Francisco Art Institute

Jessica Decker I come from a line of botanists, wanderlusts, and others interested in our ever-changing relationship with the natural world. From a young age I've held a deep respect and curiosity for medicinal plants, weather forecasting, creation myths, and other aspects that collectively reflect our dialogue with the environment. With pollution, global warming, and other ecological crises on the rise, some of this dialogue has come to take alarming forms; my art practice is directed toward environmental awareness through exhibit design, educational illustration, and other creative solutions. I have worked freelance for some time, love to travel, and am always excited for a challenging project, but at the end of the day it's pen on paper that keeps me happy. Striving to join this simple joy with a greater good has been the most wonderful and rewarding challenge.