A few months ago, I joined Toastmasters, in my continuing effort to improve my public speaking skills and better myself overall. It’s been one of the best decisions, and I’m already seeing the payoff after just a short time. One of the skills we work on is ridding ourselves of “filler words,” such as uh, ah, so, and others in our speeches. Once we master that, those words will naturally evaporate from our normal speaking pattern away from the podium.
Harry Deitz, editor of the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., (I bet you pronounced the first “Reading” wrong, didn’t you? I did.) wrote an excellent and humorous post about this very topic back in March. Here’s what he had to say:
OK, it’s a good thing, you know, that we aren’t, like, charged for words, ah, when we, you know, speak. Many of us, um, might like go broke. You know what I mean?
So, like, what’s basically happened to our language?
After I wrote a column about the use of poor grammar and another about the incorrect use of punctuation, I received an email from Samuel Watts of Reading.
“Your columns would pertain to the written word, and that surely is being corrupted today,” he wrote. “But I am more concerned with what is happening to the spoken word. I cringe when I hear the words ‘you know,’ ‘like,’ ‘whatever,’ and ‘basically,’ just to name a few. I often listen to ‘Feedback’ on WEEU and note that a lot of callers can’t go more than four or five words without a ‘you know.’ Sports figures are especially guilty of this.
“Recently on ‘Judge Judy’ someone said that the rent had been ‘tooken’ care of. A lot of times she will correct someone who uses such a word, but this time she didn’t. Maybe she’s starting to think it is a lost cause. Could you consider doing a column about this subject?”
Yes, Samuel, there are others among us who are frustrated and annoyed by the breakdown of our language.
During one of the early presidential campaign debates, I was distracted by how often President Barack Obama paused with an “ah” as he formed his thoughts. By the next debate, his delivery was far more polished, which led me to assume his earlier performance had been severely criticized by his campaign staff.
The truth is, those pauses are, like, everywhere.
They often are called filler words. Some studies and linguistic experts have labeled them discourse markers or vocal hiccups. Regardless what we call them, they are annoying. Wouldn’t it make much more sense if we simply paused and said nothing at all?
Oddly, we seldom realize when we are using them. But those listening to us notice.
Many times I have been so distracted by speakers inserting “you know” that I lose focus on what they are saying. Many times, I start to count the “you know’s.” You know what I mean?
It’s not just “you know” that distracts me. It’s “ah,” “um,” “like,” “er” and “OK.”
Then there are people who start statements with “basically,” “actually,” “well,” “truthfully” and “to be honest.” Does that mean that other times they aren’t truthful or honest?
Now stay with me, because there are more of these unnecessary words and phrases.
Some people who want to tell you what they did or said apparently believe it’s more effective to say, “what I did was” or “what I said was” instead of “I did” or “I said.”
While I’m at it, here’s another of the recent breakdowns of our language: When and why did people start to replace “said” with “like” and “goes”? As in “I was like.” or “He goes.”
Some people will say this doesn’t really matter.
Whatever. Which is another of those filler words. And, yes, it does matter. If people are going to take us seriously, if they are going to believe that we know what we are talking about, we need to say what we mean, clearly, instead of fumbling for words and cluttering our sentences.
You know what I’m saying?
At our Toastmasters meetings, a person called the WAG Master (WAG stands for Word of the Day, Ah Counter, and Grammarian) dings a small bell each time we use a filler word. At first it’s annoying, but pretty soon you realize it’s not nearly as annoying as listening to someone use all those little words that detract in such large ways from what they are trying to say. Before you know it, you’re paying attention to everybody’s filler words in casual conversations around the office, or worse, on television — especially the news. It’s amazing how many trained communicators don’t speak well!
Don’t be like the newscasters. Instead concentrate on removing filler words from everyday use. You’ll be amazed at how much better you communicate — and how much more seriously people take you.