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Filler words, such as “um,” “ah,” and “you know” are sometimes called crutch words, since people tend to lean on them to fill a pause when speaking. This blog will explore why people use them so much and how to avoid them in your speech.

What are filler words?

Putting a thought together and saying it out loud is anything but simple! Multiple cognitive and communication systems are working rapidly together to efficiently process ideas and coordinate the muscles required for voicing and speech in order to deliver verbal messages successfully.

Humans ability to communicate simple and sophisticated ideas verbally and efficiently is unparalleled in nature thanks to a number of intricate neural networks that coordinate these various systems involved in communication.

Given the complexity involved in speaking, it’s no wonder that every once in a while, one part of this system is moving a little faster than the others. Connecting ideas or finding the right word can be difficult – especially when we are speaking quickly!

At these times, many of us experience pauses or hesitations in our flow of speech and bridge those gaps with sounds or phrases like, “um” or “uh” or “like.” In short, filler words allow you to gather your thoughts. Sometimes we use them so much that they can become a habitual marker in our speech. When they are used frequently, it can negatively impact the clarity of our messages by interrupting the rhythm of speech causing it to sound effortful and choppy. It can also dilute the clarity of our ideas.

There are many different types of filler words. Here are some examples:

  • Um
  • Like
  • Uh
  • Er
  • You know
  • Really
  • I mean
  • So uh
  • Well
  • Ah
  • Alright
  • Oh

Why do people say words like “um”?

Filler words are more common when people respond too quickly and speak without knowing what they actually want to say. The filler words are intended to help us eliminate a stop or pause in speech.

There are three main causes of filler words: divided attention, infrequent words, and nervousness.

Divided attention: It is easy to become distracted, especially in public forums. People who focus on more than one thing at a time are more likely to use filler words. For example, a public speaker who is interrupted may lose their train of thought and use filler words to avoid silence.

Infrequent words: When speaking, you may try to locate a word you are unfamiliar with and have trouble processing it. While searching for the word, a filler word is used as a placeholder.

Nervousness: Being nervous can cause a cyclical effect and result in even more filler words – nervousness may make it difficult to locate words and it can also make you speak too quickly.

How to Eliminate Filler Words in Speech

In informal settings, it is normal to use a filler word here or there. However, using too many can be distracting to listeners. Plus, many attribute fluent speech to competency, superior knowledge on a given topic, and overall confidence.

When our flow of speech is riddled with hesitations and filler words, many worry that they may be perceived as unprepared, unprofessional, or lacking expertise. While competency and knowledge are not linked to fluency, the social stigma associated with “ums” and “uhs” can spike anxiety levels when they occur, often leading to a snowball of anxiety symptoms.

The good news is there are many techniques that can help to reduce the number and frequency of filler words present in our speech ranging from strategies to manage stress and anxiety to motor-speech optimization and cognitive habits.

Most of us can relate to the experience of having difficulty retrieving the right words and connecting ideas efficiently to produce a cohesive and concise message when under pressure.

A cascade of concomitant symptoms usually accompany such incidents including rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, running out of air, a hoarse voice, sweaty palms, and negative self-talk!

Recognizing personal response patterns to stress allows us to interrupt reactionary habits. Taking actions like shifting to a diaphragmatic breath pattern can quickly activate the parasympathetic system and regulate respiratory-voice systems to optimize speech quality, reduce heart rate, and give us space to notice and reframe self-talk.

Using optimal projection and resonance strategies that promote a forward focused voice can additionally help establish appropriate speech rates and rhythms that sensorily regulate our body allowing us to better access cognitive and linguistic resources.

A skilled speech-language therapist can also guide you through exercises and drills that will strengthen the speed of word-retrieval and language organization strategies to help link and sequence ideas efficiently for a commanding delivery.

Can Filler Words be a Sign of a Fluency Disorder?

Differential diagnosis requires a comprehensive evaluation by a licensed professional speech-language pathologist who will guide you through a number of tests and exercises to better understand the scope of your experience and determine the nature of your speech difficulties.

In general, while individuals living with a fluency disorder may use filler words in their speech, their speech is additionally characterized by repetitions of a sound, syllable or word, hesitations, prolongation of sounds, or a stoppage of air or voice in the middle of speaking. These often affect the rate, rhythm, and overall clarity of speech.

Improving Your Speech at Open Lines®

Reducing your use and reliance on filler words can help you speak with more confidence and command your audience. The speech-language pathologists at Open Lines® have experience with helping others enhance their communication, including public speaking and professional speaking skills.

If you’re struggling with communication difficulties, it’s time to turn to Open Lines®. Contact us via phone (212-430-6800), email [email protected], or by filling out our convenient contact form. Improve your communication skills and unlock your potential with Open Lines® Speech and Communication in New York today!

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