MAY 1998

Stuck for words?

A rough guide to Conversational Fillers

Spoken English differs from written English in many ways, such as in the use of slang or "semi-slang" expressions and the shortening of words and elision of two words ("do not" becomes "don't", "donÕt know" becomes "dunno", "going to" becomes "gonna", etc.).
However, perhaps the most obvious difference lies in the way in which words and phrases are commonly used as "fillers" in conversational English, to give the speaker time to think or to modify what he/she is saying.

People who have a good command of vocabulary and are eloquent and used to speaking in public naturally tend to use these words less, although even here they may have a favourite "filler" that they fall back on regularly. More often, though, it is people who have difficulty expressing themselves who pad out their conversations with such gems as "you know", "er", "basically", "or something", etc.

Meaningless fillers

These "padding" words and expressions can be divided into two groups. The first group is made up of "meaningless fillers". They do not add anything to the meaning, and people often use them to give themselves time to think or if they canÕt express themselves clearly. Although non-native English speakers do not need to use these expressions (in fact as a general rule, their use is to be discouraged), it is important to be able to recognise them. The most common are the following: well, um, er, I mean, sort of, really, actually, you know how it is, you know, or something, basically.

So a spoken sentence describing an accident might (though not necessarily) go something like this: "Well, um, I kind of fell over and sort of landed on this jagged rock which, er, was what basically caused the injury". A written account, on the other hand, would be: "I fell over and landed on a jagged rock which was what caused the injury".

Fillers showing the speaker's attitude

The second group of fillers are padding words and expressions that show the speaker's attitude, so these are words which we often throw in to reinforce and indicate our attitude to what we are saying (i.e. if we feel it strongly or we're not sure). Let's have a look at this example:
"Well, the fact is, I mean let's face it, the company isn't actually doing anything to improve working conditions. In fact, if you ask me all they're interested in doing is saving money. Well, that's how I see it anyway:
" Here there are two expressions showing that the speaker is asserting that what he is saying is definitely true ("the fact is", "let's face it"), and two expressions showing that he is expressing his own opinion ("if you ask me", "that's how I see it") in the second sentence.

We can build up a list of some of these fillers, preceded in each case by their meaning (i.e. in what context you would use this expression):
I'm trying to remember: "Let me see", "as far as I remember"
I'm not sure: "I think", "... or something like that"
I'm telling you the truth: "the fact is", "to be honest", "as a matter of fact"
I don't want to force it on you: "I was just thinking", "one possible idea might beÉ", "or
something like that
Do you agree? "What do you think?"

Should we use them?

Used carefully, there is nothing wrong with conversational fillers, in particular those in the second group above, which do actually serve some purpose and add a degree of meaning. However, the obvious rule is to avoid repetitive use of the same filler too often. It can be cringe-inducing to hear interviews on the TV or radio with people who do not know how to express themselves very clearly, and end up saying "you know" in every single sentence. The word "like" is another equally over-used example: "It was like, amazing, I mean they were just, like, so gorgeous, and like, I dunno, everyone was like, just really excited, and like, screaming and yelling..."

Keith Worby