Since the emergence of modern English, its speakers have struggled to use it in order to get to their points. (Just see Shakespeare’s Polonius for proof.) But these days, one of the biggest obstacles to forthright communication are pause words–filler expressions that weigh down sentences and water down meaning. And typically we don’t even know when we’re using them. Here are six of the most common filler words to start cutting out of your conversations.
“The sky is actually blue.” Well, is it blue or is it not blue? It’s blue—contrails, chemtrails, and natural clouds aside. “Actually” is mere filler, a pause word that a user plugs into a sentence while he or she is thinking of what to say next, or to reinforce the obvious. But the obvious needs no reinforcing.
This one has been lampooned since at least the ’80s, as a defining feature of “valley girl” slang, but it’s now a part of the way virtually all of us communicate. “Like” may now have the dubious honor of being the most often uttered, useless term in our lexicon.
So it’s worth remembering that “like” really means that something is similar to something else. At least a trillion times a day, we hear “like” spill from the lips of almost anyone under 40. But just because it’s so common doesn’t mean it isn’t a liability, weakening your argument by suggesting that the thing you said is “like” something else isn’t the thing itself–even when it is.
After all, if everything is like everything else, is there nothing that’s different?
No, we don’t know this or that, but when someone punctuates an expression with “you know,” you realize just how much you don’t really know. Just think about the fact that when you plug “actually,” “like,” and “you know” into a standard sentence, and use each word more than once, your sentences can get long and breathless fast. And there’s no surer way to make sure your listener doesn’t know what you mean than by using lots of words that mean nothing at all, quickly and repeatedly.
Despite being little more than an unadorned vowel sound, this tiny pause word is the king of all pause words. It’s the stepping stone we tend to use to help us skip from one thought to the next. But just because it’s so unassuming doesn’t mean it can’t do real damage. Listening to someone saying “ah” or “uh” repeatedly makes them sound unsure of themselves. And it’s tough to be confident of someone else’s message if they don’t sound confident of it in the first place.
In recent remarks commending three men for routing a gunman on a train in France, President Obama leaned heavily on “ah” and “you know.” He was speaking without notes or the aid of a teleprompter, but those pause words made him sound rather indirect and plodding.
It’s hard to blame him. Speaking off the cuff isn’t easy, and we sometimes need time to find our next thought. But using filler syllables and phrases isn’t always the best way to bridge the gap.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with “the,” the English language’s definite article. We’d be hard-pressed to get very specific without it. But in speech, it can quickly wreak havoc. Instead of denoting the particular noun that it precedes, “the” can sometimes produce the opposite effect, as though the speaker is searching for that very thing and can’t seem to call it up.
A close cousin of actually, “really” is often more than a just pause word. It can be misconstrued as casting doubt on what someone’s just said. We tend to use it when what we really need is a good, descriptive adjective but the right one doesn’t come to mind: “You really played a really good game today.” Worse still, we’ll often repeat “really” in the same sentence or phrase, as if to make sure the listener is aware of the reality of the assertion. But it often has the reverse effect.
These six pause words are hardly the only verbal tics we need to cut from our lexicon, but they’re the major offenders. Each of them casts doubt on our intended meaning, drags things out, and erodes listeners’ trust. You know?
Mike Harris has been a writer, editor, and publisher in Silicon Valley since the days of the IBM Selectric II. He has created and shaped copy for print and the web, working for companies such as IBM, Reputation.com, Yahoo!, UNISYS, Avant! Corporation, Magellan GPS, and Oracle, among others.