The indications of the fillers "uh", and "um" in small talk

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2015

21 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1) Introduction

2) Background
2.1 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Delay
2.2 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Uncertainty
2.3 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Hesitation
2.4 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Recall
2.5 Uhs and Ums Rate of Use

3) Methodology

4) Data Presentation and Analysis

5) Interpretation

6) Conclusion

7) References

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

1) Introduction

This paper will address the issue of uh and um. The idea for this paper came around while listening to a Teacher’s Assistant give a lecture; she had used uh twenty-six times and used um nineteen times (needless to say I do not recall what the lecture was about, nor which class it was for). Then the following questions popped into mind: why do we use uh and um ? And why are they so marked? After some research and surveying, I found that uh and um are useful to the speaker as well as the audience. Uh and um are used to let an audience know that there will either be a brief (uh) or a long (um) pause, a hesitation, or a pause for recall which I will show in my data presentation and interpretation.

2) Background

2.1 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Delay

In many studies of uh and um, the conclusions were similar to my findings. Clark and Fox Tree (2002) stated “that speakers use uh and um to announce that they are initiating what they expect to be a minor (uh), or major (um), delay in speaking. Speakers can use these announcements in turn to implicate, for example, that they are searching for a word, are deciding what to say next, want to keep the floor, or want to cede the floor” (p. 73). Which I found to be consistent with my findings; a subject tended to continue with their speech almost immediately after using an uh and delayed a few seconds after they had used an um. Clark and Fox Tree found that uh and um had use and are in fact words, “By words, we mean linguistic units that have conventional phonological shapes and meanings and are governed by the rules of syntax and prosody” (p. 75). The use of uh and um can be used to alert the audience “(1) that they wouldn’t normally expect a delay at this moment; (2) that they anticipated the delay; and (3) that they were aware, at some level, of the reason for their delay” (Clark & Fox Tree, 2002, 92). Clark and Fox Tree were able to prove uh and um have meaning and therefore are indeed words.

2.2 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Uncertainty

O’Connell and Kowal revisited Clark and Fox Tree’s study of uh and um and found that there could be many other uses for uh and um, not just to signal a minor or major delay. O’Connell and Kowal (2005) stated that “the filled pause signals the continuing of the speaker still has merit” (p. 572) and added that the use of uh and um “also stems from a lack of commitment and certainty other than a general monitoring of on-going cognitive processes” (p. 573). O’Connell and Kowal, however, disagreed with Clark and Fox Tree in that uh and um had set meanings, and believed the study of uh and um usage should continue further before any conclusion about their meanings can be made.

2.3 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Hesitation

Another pair of researchers, Corley and Stewart, also disagreed with Clark and Fox Tree and argued uh and um are not intentionally used and should not be considered words. Corley and Stewart (2008) claimed “fillers are most likely to occur at the beginning of an utterance or phrase, presumably as a consequence of the greater demand on planning processes at these junctures” (as cited from Maclay and Osgood 1959; Beattie 1979; Barr 2001, p. 590). Because my data was collected using a random survey and uhs and ums were produced in the answers, my findings also suggest that they were forms of hesitation, like Corley and Stewart suggest. Corley and Stewart also argued “a consequence of the view that fillers such as um and uh are words…is that they should be treated by the listener as a part of the message, just like any other word. And just like any other word, they should contribute to the meaning of the message, in the sense that the message would not be identical if the filler were not present” (p. 593). Corley and Stewart are arguing against Clark’s and Fox Tree’s theory that uh and um are words, saying they cannot be words because there is no meaning in them and they have no definition. Instead, Corley and Stewart argued uh and um “demonstrate that in some circumstance, fillers such as uh can help the listener perform a particular task, such as responding to a predetermined target word…the fillers are simply affecting the process of comprehension” (p. 594). In this argument, the use of uh and um is not to let the listener know there will be a delay, but it is used to help the speaker think and find the right word(s) to say. Similar to what Anna Deavere Smith found when she was interviewing her students in Anna Deavere Smith’s Young Arts Masterclass (2014). During an interview with a student, Julian, Smith noticed that Julian had used uh and um quite a few times and asked him why he thought that was. “I just want to make sure I don’t hurt anyone. I want to make sure I say the right thing” (Goodman & Simon, 2014). They concluded that Julian was never sure what he should say next; in other words, he hesitated. After considering Clark’s and Fox Tree’s studies as well as their own, Corley and Stewart concluded “like a facial gesture or tone of voice, hesitation disfluencies like uh and um provide information to the listener. The information is something like ‘pay attention, the speaker’s in trouble and the next part of the message might not be what you predicted’” (p. 600).

2.4 Uhs and Ums as Indicators of Recall

Fraundorf and Watson (2011) researched the effects of uh and um on memory: “we investigated the mechanisms by which fillers, such as uh and um, affect memory for discourse” (p. 161). Fraundorf and Watson put together two experiments where they tested to see if uh and um facilitated any memory during discourse. “This effect was observed whether or not the location of the fillers was consistent with their distribution in production…These results are most consistent with an attentional orienting account in which fillers direct attention to the speech stream but do not always result in specific predictions about the nature or upcoming material” (p. 172). Fraundorf and Watson were then able to conclude that because uh and um directed the speaker’s attention to what they were saying, uh and um did in fact help facilitate recall (p. 172).

2.5 Uhs and Ums Rate of Use

In addition to delay indication, hesitation, and recall during discourse, Tottie (2014) suggested “that uh and um have pragmatic functions…such as signposting speaker turns, attracting attention, highlighting or correction” (p. 8). Tottie also claimed that the rate of which uh and um were used increased in intimate casual small-talk and decreased in well prepared speeches or lectures (p. 17). This could explain why there were many uhs and ums in the survey I performed. It was intimate small-talk and not well prepared, which is where one would expect, according to Tottie’s hypothesis, an increased rate of uh and um use. Tottie even proposed the origins of uh and um: “It is likely that uh and um originated in situations of cognitive load, where speakers needed time to pause to think and plan, but that they…have now also acquired pragmatic meanings” (p. 25). Now, when uh and um were once regarded as systemic noises, uh and um have pragmatic meanings and intentional use and are even considered, by some, to be words.

3) Methodology

For this research, I conducted several interviews with a convenience sample of five people who live near me; all of which are native English speakers and have lived in the U.S. for three or more years, and this study does not consider race, gender, or age as factors to the use of uh and um. The interviews were recorded using a standard iTouch (mp3 player) and consisted of questions about family members, the last time they visited a movie theater, their favorite author, the job they wanted when they were younger and the one they want now, and their favorite food. The interviews were designed to create an answer that required more than a simple yes or no answer and instead a longer more thoughtful answer. This was to provide a greater chance of uh and um taking place in the answer. And to maintain a small-talk feel in order to increase the rate of uh and um, each interview took place in a casual setting (i.e. bed room, back yard, kitchen…). And to prevent an observer’s paradox, I informed each interviewee that the interviews are for a linguistic study and will be recorded, but I did not tell them which aspect of their speech I would be studying (if they asked, I answered “I’m just looking for patterns that will come up when I interview several people” and that seemed to satisfy their concern). Other researches have shown that uhs and ums are used to indicate a delay or hesitation, and to recall during discourse. This particular research was to answer the following questions: What do uh and um indicate in a conversation? Why do we use them? And why is it marked? And also to see if the uses of uh and um are similar to what others have found.

In my data collection, I noticed that uh and um were not the only ways that pauses were filled. For example, one subject used like and so as pauses as well as uh and um (but I will save that data for another time as I wish to only focus on the uses of uh and um). I chose the following transcriptions to illustrate how uh and um are used in the context of each theory of indication of delay, indication of hesitation, and recall (I will not be able to compare the rate of uhs and ums in small-talk versus formal speech because all data was collected during small-talk). Due to the limited data I have collected, the findings I will present do not represent a large population and show only a sample. However, based on the transcriptions I have collected, these theories mentioned earlier hold true.

4) Data Presentation and Analysis

In this section of this paper, I will provide examples that follow the theories that uh and um are used as cues to indicate delay or hesitation and uncertainty, and used for recall. First I will show how uh and um were used to indicate delay. The first example, lines 10-12:

Example 1

(10) HQ: Now what do you want to be (when you grow up)

(11) EB: still like to be a soccer player really but umm it’s not happening so

(12) Uh..anything…couldn’t give a shit ummm do you want me to pick something random?

Line 11 is where an um is introduced. And though the speaker continues talking after he uses um, there is a major delay in content—EB does not give a definitive answer to this question for another thirteen seconds. This follows what Clark and Fox Tree showed where major delays follow ums. Another example of this is in lines 46-47:

Example 2

(46) HQ: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up

(47) SC: umm…I still want to be something when I grow up yeah

Like EB before, SC didn’t give a definitive answer right away. This is another example that shows how major delays follow ums, as shown by Clark and Fox Tree.

Clark and Fox Tree also showed that uhs were followed by minor delays, as you can see here in lines 121-123:

Example 3

(121) HQ: Do you know how it’s made? (‘it’ referring to pizza)

(122) MPH: Yes.. you make the dough then you uh you let it rise for a few

(123) hours and then you uh you like you knead the dough and then you can like roll it out In this example, uh is used throughout the answer indicating that there will be short pauses throughout, but will not last long. MPH was able to continue explaining how to make pizza shortly after she used an uh showing that it was a minor delay instead of a major delay like the earlier examples show.

Example 4

(87) uh her name is Chloe she works at a sushi restaurant and she wants to be a

(88)professional chef when she grows older she doesn’t want to own a restaurant though uh she

(89) just wants to be the head chef at a restaurant.. uh she wants to be in the kitchen and nowhere

(90) else


Excerpt out of 21 pages


The indications of the fillers "uh", and "um" in small talk
San Francisco State University
ENG 425
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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609 KB
linguistics, research, uh, um, utterances, filler words
Quote paper
Chelsea Criez (Author), 2015, The indications of the fillers "uh", and "um" in small talk, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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