Facts about uh and um

…if a speaker marks a delay with “um,” that delay will be longer than if it had been marked by “uh.”  If “uh” is used, the delay that follows before resumption of fluent speech is roughly a quarter of a second; if “um” is used, the anticipated delay approaches three-quarters of a second.

In one case (um) the delay is inserted as “a deliberate signal”, in the other (uh) it is “an unavoidable effect of having processing problems.”

In male speech, either um or uh accounts for about one out of fifty words; for female speech it is only one out of seventy words.

One study found that over 40 percent of transitions — the switch in who is talking — have gaps of within a quarter-second of zero.  In another similar study, the two parties are talking at the same time only 3.8 percent of the time, and then usually not for very long.

So says N.J. Enfield, in his new book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation.


Anecdotally, those 1 in 50 and 1 in 70 ratios both feel like they should be much higher on average.

So, 'er' and 'ah' were left out of the study?

Mapping a conversation, replete with crutches and tells. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/the-secret-life-of-um/547961/

"Enfield: In any form of interaction, we don’t have access to each other’s minds. It’s the classic problem of human life in a way. Things like “ums” and “uhs” signal there’s some delay in processing. But as a speaker, what I can do is exploit those kinds of signals. I can use them dishonestly. I can use something like “um” to give the overt signal that I’m having some sort of trouble with processing, but in reality, all I’m doing is trying to claim more ground and get you to keep waiting for me to finish.

All words can be used to lie. Whether they’re nouns and verbs, or whether they’re traffic signals, we can exploit them in dishonest ways. If you want to game the system, and all you want to do is hold the floor, then words like “um” can be exploited in that way. Obviously, there are limits to it. People are sensitive to these things, and after a while if you’re trying to dominate the floor, people will either wise up and grab it back or they will just get sick of you"

Digital conversations are more complicated in some ways and less complex in other ways. One holds the floor by the intensity and frequency of response which has replaced the common "um". Others block the obnoxious to regain the floor. Very interesting.

"Digital conversations are more complicated in some ways and less complex in other ways. One holds the floor by the intensity and frequency of response which has replaced the common “um”. "

+1, an attempt to drown out anyone who doesn't agree with them and a failure to fairly address the other sides arguments is a hall mark of internet 'trolling'.

'Trolling' might be the wrong word. The term has been stretched to cover both the uncommon case of a person trying to disrupt debate entirely and the far more common case of someone who makes the appearance of engaging in debate.

Is this something that is mostly an English phenomenon, or do speakers in all languages have this tic? Of course, there isn't just one English language, there are many. Listen to N.T. (Tom) Wright, the English theologian, speak and then listen to Donald Trump. I picked these two because they speak their own peculiar form of English that's almost indecipherable to someone not the intended audience. In Wright's case, it's the English we associate with the past, perfect sentences, perfectly long sentences, which to me is so wordy that I have a difficult time following him. No ums and uhs from Wright. In Trump's case, it's sentence fragments, so many words omitted that I have a difficult time following him. No ums and ahs from Trump. But the audience to which Wright or Trump is speaking knows perfectly well what he is saying. When I listen to Wright or Trump, my reaction is: What did he say? Maybe if he would use a few ums and ahs I could understand him. On the other hand, their intended audience needs no ums and ahs.

So that is what America has become: a country where the people can not understand their own ruler...

" But the audience to which Wright or Trump is speaking knows perfectly well what he is saying." No, they do not understand what Trump is saying. Often much of Trump's speech is so near gibberish that it allows his acolytes to project their wishes onto him.

Then we have the speech impediments of, for instance, Camille Paglia and her incessant "OK"s and the pathological "you knows" of Caroline Kennedy.

Articulate speech is an acquired skill. (speech impediments are a medical/physical problem)

Those commonplace "verbal pauses" (umm, uhh, you know, etc) are an obvious sign of unskilled speakers ... and often a sign of people who have difficulty organizing their thoughts smoothly.
It's not a function of IQ or educational level -- many well educated, accomplished people can't speak (or write) well. And many people can write well when they have ample time to organize/edit their thoughts -- but stumble awkwardly when speaking their thoughts.
OTOH we see people who can speak well, at length, without saying anything -- typically politicians, media people, and some academics.

The other view of politicians, as opposed to say nothing elegantly well, at times they say a lot which is false, and not too well, with huge amounts of stuttering and incorrect grammar.

I remember listening to Peter deFazio on CSPAN some time in the middle of king Bush II's reign, and I was genuinely wondering why W's oratory skills were under attack.


Please analyze WF Buckley's quirky speech patterns.

If we discount Jeff Goldblum, does the ratios even out between men and women?

"How We Talk ....": who's "we"?

Never trust someone whose speech is too glib.


I speak much more fluently when talking to strangers compared to talking to family. When talking to family, I am much more concerned with the accuracy of the mind-to-word transition. Also, I am less afraid of embarrassing mistakes and misprononciation and thus I actually search my passive vocabulary and the rather low ratio of active to passive vocabulary becomes painfully present.

When talking to strangers, conversation is much more cliche- and phrase-ridden.

Totally makes sense to me. "Uh" or "ah" means "it's on the tip of my tongue", whereas "um" means "be right back, I know it's down here somewhere."

Sometimes a hopeful "uh" morphs into an "um" when the word or phrase turns out to be less accessible than anticipated.

Much discussion of these "filled pauses" at Language Log (at bottom of post are links to other relevant posts):


Filler words such as "uh" and "um" (and, similarly, stuttering) do not, in my opinion, reflect a handicap. They are simply attempts, in live conversations, to seize the turn to speak (AKA "the floor") without waiting one's proper turn. That is why I despise them and dislike the people who say them -- they are being bullies.

Obama and Trudeau are known for heavy use of ‘uh’ when speaking off script. The National Post had an interesting story on this last year, and compared the two at a press conference:


“Obama averaged seven and a half “uhs” per minute, and Trudeau clocked in at nine.”

They also noted that while Trump and Harper didn’t use “uhs” they instead resorted to repeating sentences or phrases while they pondered what to say next.

What does it all mean? Liberals hesitate with uh because they want to say something new while conservatives rely on what’s worked before.

I just made that up but it’s as good a guess as any.

Trump sees himself as a salesman. Verbal pauses would break the flow of his pitch and signal hesitancy or, worse, uncertainty. It is more importantly to him that he maintain his rhythm than that he sound clever.

Obama see himself as an intellectual. He wants each phrase to signal his superior understanding and grasp of the issues. He is willing, even pleased, to make people wait while he finds le mot juste.

Your explanation is much more Gibbonesque.

You are right about Trump and the salesmanship. Salesmen always repeat what they are trying to sell. 'Uh's are not the sign of an intellectual. A pregnant pause makes one sound smarter, not an 'uh'. Obama's prepared speeches do not contain them.

Is Trudeau's Uh rate the same in English and French?

I've never understood why some people are so proud of the fact that their speech is devoid of uh or um, or so enthusiastically put down people who do uh and um. Seems like a pretty harmless tic to get all worked up over.

A few minor "ums" and "uhs" are ok for a speaker, but too many filler words distract the listener from what the speaker is trying to say as well as discrediting the speaker. If you don't know what you want to say, take a pause, collect your thoughts and then talk.

Join Toastmasters to help improve public speaking skills.

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