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Pause for Thought

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 4/14/08


I always find it disconcerting to hear a tape of myself having a conversation or giving a talk -- do I really say um that much? Of course we tune out all our own tics and twitches when we're speaking, but nothing makes you seem quite as scattered as those um's do. Pause silently in mid-utterance and you sound deliberate and thoughtful. Drop an um into the pause and you sound hesitant, indecisive, or simply dim. As the author of an early 20th-century book on public speaking expressed his condemnation of the word: "Grunting is no part of thinking."

Letter for letter, um probably  comes in for more disdain than any other item in the English vocabulary. I say "item" because most people won't even do um the dignity of calling it a word -- some actually get offended when they find out it's listed in the dictionary. It seems more like a meaningless noise we use to fill out our hesitations, like the hum your hard drive makes while it's trying to retrieve a long file.

But like it or not, um is clearly a word of English. Speakers of other languages signal their hesitation very differently. In Mandarin you say neige, in Japanese you say eeto or ano, and in American Sign Language you circle your forearm with your palm up and your fingers spread. In fact English-speakers have to learn to use um and uh, just like they have to learn ball or drink or please. The only difference is that when you say um and uh you're not referring to anything in the world, but commenting on your own utterance. That's what makes the words fascinating to psychologists and linguists who are trying to figure out how we turn our thoughts into language.

For a very readable account of all this research you can turn to a recent book by the science writer Michael Erard with the easy-to-remember title Um. The book actually covers a range of speech slips and blunders from Spoonerisms to Bushisms, but it's particularly interesting on what you could think of as the umological paradox. On the one hand, um and uh seem to play a useful communicative role. According to the psychologists Herb Clark and Jean Fox Tree, speakers use the words to signal upcoming delays in speech -- uh for a minor delay and um for a major one. Depending on the context, those signals might mean that the speaker wants to hold the floor, needs time to search for a word, or has to stop and go back to repair a mispronunciation or mistake.

But as useful as it may be, people have been putting the knock on um for centuries. It was the 16th-century versions of um and uh that gave rise to the expression "hem and haw" for dithering. And the criticism of um has become more insistent over the modern period, as we've turned the word into what Erard calls the emblem of a disorganized mind.

Maybe the problem with um is that it draws attention to our disfluencies and hesitations. That's especially noticeable when it’s used in a context that ordinarily calls for a certain amount of deliberation. Fillers and false starts tend to pass right by us in casual conversation, but they can become maddeningly distracting when we hear somebody using them in a radio interview or political debate. And it may be that modern broadcast media have made us more alert to the overuse of um than ever before.

But as much as we condemn um as an unconscious mark of hesitation, we find it useful to have around when want to consciously fake that effect. People have always used um to introduce a euphemism or circumlocution, as if they were halted by a sudden twinge of delicacy -- "I'll spare you a recap of last night's, um, unpleasantness." And over the past few years we've started to see a new use of the word, as a mock apology before you correct somebody who says something particularly stupid or does something inappropriate. As in "Um, actually, Ringo was the band's drummer." Or "Um, we don't use that word around here."

You run into that pseudo-deferential um all over the place these days, not just in speech but in email, blogs, and news features. It has become a hallmark of a hip style of writing that affects the spontaneity of real-time communication, hesitations and all. And the new um suggests a certain shift in attitude, too. You could think of it as a replacement for the snippy hello that first caught on in the 1980's. That too was used to emphasize someone's utter cluelessness: "HelLO? Ringo was the band's drummer!" But the tone is completely different. HelLO oozes condescending ridicule -- "Is anybody home?" Whereas um involves a more subtle maneuver. You profess a polite hesitation to embarrass or confront the person you're correcting, but the hesitation itself makes it pointedly clear that the person has good reason to be chagrined.

I don't expect a lot of people will miss that sarcastic hello when it's finally put out to pasture. And I suppose you could see the apologetic um as the harbinger of a new age of ostensible civility. But that isn't exactly the sign of a kindler, gentler English language. All that the new um really shows is just how snarky civility can be.

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.