You’re talking to someone and suddenly, your mind goes blank – you cannot remember that one particular word. Or maybe you simply need to recall something: a name, a date, a place. You need to buy a moment to think. When you hesitate, what sound will you make? That’s a filler!
Fillers are parts of speech that don’t carry any meaning of their own. Their role is to simply notify others that you’re not done talking, to give you a moment to think what to say next, or to express some emotions and add emphasis. They can be:
- a short meaningless sound, such as ‘uhm’ or ‘eh’
- a word, such as ‘like’ or ‘literally’
- a whole phrase, such as ‘you know’ or ‘sort of’
When you start your language journey, it’s natural to use filler words a lot because you don’t know much. Stuttering and making pauses is part and parcel of learning a language. But should you be worried when you still use ‘uhms’ and ‘ehs’ after years of studying? Absolutely not! ‘Pausing, ‘thinking out loud’ and general disfluency (‘messy’ speech) are natural features of communicating through speech, and there is nothing wrong with them at all’, as Dr Robbie Love put it.
And evidence supports it! One piece of research explored the correlation between the way telephone interviewers speak and the reaction of surveyees. It turned out that the ‘interviewers are most successful when they are neither perfectly fluent nor highly disfluent.’ According to another study, phrases such as I mean or you know, are used more by conscientious speakers who want to make sure they’re on the same page with their conversation partners. Filler words simply make our speech more natural and understandable. Scott Fraundorf and Duane Watson concluded in their article that using fillers can improve the comprehension of your listeners.
Pausing, ‘thinking out loud’ and general disfluency (‘messy’ speech) are natural features of communicating through speech, and there is nothing wrong with them at all – dr Robbie Love
Formal speech is a different kettle of fish. Official situations often require a higher degree of politeness and precision. Sloppiness is not welcome there. Deborah Riegel, a communication skills coach and instructor with over 30 years of experience, states that ‘using filler words in a professional environment reduces your credibility as a speaker’. It can undermine your meticulously designed presentation. It can waste time spent on preparing for the meeting. In a formal setting just try to avoid them altogether. As Noah Zadan rightfully put it, they can make you seem more nervous and distracted. To collect your thoughts, make pauses instead!
While using filler words is frowned upon in formal settings, you can freely use them in casual conversations. Just make sure to pick the right ones. People use different filler words depending on language (or even accent). You can master all the intricacies of grammar, become a walking dictionary, and speak with a perfect accent – but using the wrong fillers will give you away!
Used in BrE, often at the end of a sentence. It’s a short version of isn’t it (Lovely weather today, innit?) but it can also replace other tag questions, such as wouldn’t you, doesn’t he, aren’t they (they’re gonna be late, innit?).
A long vowel which doesn’t have a meaning on its own, frequently used in BrE.
A long vowel which doesn’t have a meaning on its own, frequently used in AmE.
A very common way of agreeing with someone or confirming something. Apart from that, it can be used as a pause to give us some time to think what we want to say next: Thank you, Mr Jones. Your room number is... okay, that’ll be room 205 at the end of the corridor.
- Might be used as if to confirm that the listener is following our speech: I called her yesterday, right? I called a few times and she didn’t pick up the phone, right? So, I messaged her best friend and asked...
- When used at the beginning of a sentence, it gives us some time to think about what to say next: Right, I don’t think we can do it on time. Let’s see what other options we have.
- It can be used to agree with someone: Alright, I didn’t think how they might react to the news, that's my fault.
- It can also express some hesitation or doubt: Right… Maybe let him handle the situation instead.
you know/you see
- Might be used as if to confirm that the listener is following our speech: I’m not surprised she’s got that job. She’s graduated from Harvard, you know, with honors.
- It can express hesitation: You know, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. Let’s consult the boss first.
- It can be used for clarification: This is not what I had in mind. You see, when I asked for help, I wanted you to...
- Actually, we can use actually to introduce a new topic of conversation, give more information on the topic or to make a contrast.
- When used at the beginning of a sentence, it gives us some time to think about what to say next: Actually, I was about to suggest that.
- It can be used for emphasis or clarification: He was actually quite tall.
Generally speaking, ‘really’ can be used for emphasis or to express some disbelief or surprise (You really did all of that on your own?). However, it can be easily overused. Here’s a good example showing how too many fillers and intensifiers can make you sound silly: You really played a really good game today.
Considered a pet peeve by many, colloquially used in figurative sense for emphasis.
I was literally starving by the time the meeting ended.
The prices of apartments have literally gone through the roof these days.
- It can give us some time to think about what to say next: Yeah, let me check quickly whether my boss is still around.
- It can be used to agree with someone: I think that’s a good idea, yeah, let’s do it!
- Similarly to right, it can be used to confirm that the listener is following our speech
Heard very often in AmE, especially around California, which is famous for its Valley speak. As a general word, ‘like’ can be used to:
- express approval (I like your new dress!)
- draw comparisons (He’s stubborn just like his mother).
When used as a filler word, ‘like’ doesn’t mean anything, it just gives you time to think (I was, like, totally surprised. It was just, like, so rude of him to do that!) or to give some rough estimates (There were, like, a thousand people listening to my presentation).
And if you really want to blend in, there’s also something called ‘quotative like,’ used exclusively in informal conversations by younger generations. Quotative like is quite versatile, it can introduce: a direct quotation (what was exactly said), a paraphrase, or even some thoughts and feelings (which means you can 'quote' something that wasn’t really said!). Here’s an example: He was like, ‘I demand to see the manager, now’ (exact words), and I was like, ‘Who do you think you are?' (thoughts).
- It can be used for clarification: We’re going there by train. I mean, we have to catch a bus to the train station first but the stop it's not that far.
- It can correct mistakes: That’ll be 130, I mean, 140 euro.
- It can be used as a pause to give us some time to think: You’re an excellent, diligent worker with great sales results. I mean… it’s great having you on our team but we think you’ll be a much better fit in the other department.
I guess/I suppose
Can be used to express hesitation or to agree with someone reluctantly: If you want to send something from our trip to your parents, I guess, we can get a postcard and a fridge magnet.
- It can give us some time to think about what to say next: We can fix it for you. Well, it’s gonna take some time. We’re gonna call you when the car’s ready for pick up.
- It can slightly change the topic of the conversation or provide unexpected information: The acting was great and the story was really intriguing. Yeah, I really enjoyed the movie. Well, until the last 10 minutes, that is. I really didn’t like the ending.
- It can express hesitation or doubt: Well, I’m working overtime – I don’t think I can drive you to the party. Ask your father, sweetie.
- Generally used as an intensifier, a synonym of very: This tastes so good!
- Used at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a new topic: So… what have you been up to lately?
- It can summarise the previous sentence: We have over $5000 in savings and we still have that flight voucher. So, we have enough money to go for a little trip. So what do you think?
- Used at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a new topic: Anyway, I’m going shopping - do you want anything?
- Can be used to go back to a previous topic of conversation: In the morning, we can grab a coffee, a bagel and walk around the city centre. I saw a really nice cafe not that far away. Anyhow, in the afternoon we will visit the National Museum and stay there for the rest of the day.
You can hear anyhow more frequently in varieties of AmE and in casual speech only, so it’s best not to use it in more formal settings!
Can be used to refer to or to point to something unspecified: If you don’t wanna talk, we can just watch a movie together or something.
In the end, remember that fluent speaking is not about getting rid of filler words completely but about using the right ones in the right situation.
If you enjoyed this blog post, stay tuned for more! This is the first entry in the series 7 tried tips on how to sound like a true native.
- to carry meaning – to have a meaning
- part and parcel – something essential, something that cannot be avoided
- conscientious – careful, diligent
- to be a different kettle of fish – to be different from something, to be a complete opposite of something
- to be frowned upon – to be disliked and discouraged by someone
- intricacies – very small details
- a pet peeve – something you strongly dislike, such as a behaviour, personality traits, language use
- to go through the roof – to become very high (about prices)
And one more thing! Practice makes perfect. Find your online English teacher on the Langu platform and watch your speaking skills improve exponentially!