Posted by: Diane | October 31, 2013

The Aesthetic Of Umlessness

I know – it’s a strange title for a blog but it comes from a delightful book that I got my hands on recently entitled, Um…Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.  

Yesterday morning, I was sitting in the dentist office, trying to get my mind off those dreadful drills and prodding picks that were about to invade my mouth. I decided to watch the news on TV and our Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne, was making a speech.  Being the faithful Toastmaster that I am, I started counting the “ahs” and “ums” while she was talking and um….there were a lot.

um 2

In two minutes, this politician, whose job demands that she constantly address the public, said, “ah” six times and “um” eight times – her speech was peppered with what psychologist George Mahl calls, “filled pauses.”

Actually, I wasn’t surprised because according to linguistic studies, during spontaneous talk, the average person uses one speech disturbance * every 4.4 seconds and he/she isn’t aware that it’s even happening.

During Toastmasters meetings, we keep record of the “ahs” and “ums” that are said throughout the evening and they amount to about 40% of all speech disturbances. We are always aghast at the number of times these sounds come out of our mouths.

According to Michael Erard, the author of this book, “People around the world fill pauses in their own languages as naturally as watermelons have seeds.” Older people say these two words more than younger; men more than women and married people with each other as much as with strangers and what’s really interesting is that the use of these two specific pause fillers has nothing to do with anxiety.

Apparently, to get rid of the “um”, it’s necessary to understand that it means something, not that it means nothing. Erard believes that speakers can eliminate their “ahs” and “ums” if they understand why the pause fillers are significant to them.

Count the number of “ahs” and “ums” you hear in your conversations tomorrow and let me know what you hear.



* When psychologist George Mahl began counting the slips and blurps of patients at his clinic at Yale University, he counted eight types of interruptions. He called them,speech disturbances: filled pauses like “uh” and “um”, restarted sentences, repeated words, stutters, omission of a word or part of a word; incomplete sentences, slips of the tongue, and something he called an “intruding incoherent sound.”

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