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Rhetorical “um”

“Uh” and “um” don’t get much respect. What even are they? Toastmasters International calls them “crutch words.” Speech teachers and verbal hygienists deride them as mere disfluencies to be stamped out. And while people can certainly overuse them, ”uh” and “um” fill the pause while speakers organize their thoughts, search their vocabularies for the right word, or compose a complex bit of phrasing. 

But there is a lot of linguistic research on the function of “uh” and “um,” some of which suggests that listeners pay extra attention to the language that follows a filled pause, understanding the pause to signal a word or phrase carefully chosen. If you are interested, the research on “uh” and “um” is presented in readable form in two excellent books: Michael Erard’s: Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, published in 2007,and Valerie Fridland’s Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English, published in 2023. 

Reading Fridland’s book, I came across another use of um that I had not previously thought about: “Um” shows up in writing as a word meaning “wait a minute.” Fridland gives a couple of examples mined from Gunnel Tottie’s corpus study of journalistic “um”: “Obama is, Um, More Seasoned” and “Um, Senator…” What’s going on?” 

In the Washington Post headline “Obama is More, Um, Seasoned” the “um” serves as a set of scare quotes, suggesting that seasoned is not the only way to expressed the former President’s gray hair and implying that the writer intends a bit of genteel euphemism.

And in the quote from economist Paul Krugman, “Um, senator,” is a way of disputing an immediately preceding quote from then-Senator Richard Shelby. The “um” says “wait a minute, here’s what really going on.” In these examples, “um” does not signal hesitation. Rather it is a rhetorical device to indicate a certain attitude toward one’s own words or someone else’s. 

Rhetorical “um” has been around for a while: looking back at New York Times headlines, I found examples from as early as 1957: “As to Christmas Presents They Want, Women Are Found, Um, Inconsistent.” Like Obama’s being “seasoned,” the “um” suggests euphemism. The same goes for the 1969 headline about the decline of a New Left magazine “The Ramparts Story: . . . Um, Very Interesting.” The “um” suggests that “very interesting” does not quite capture the full situation. And a 1999 Boston Globe story noting that actor Ben Affleck had fallen asleep while attending a performance of Shakespeare said, “The Oscar winning screenwriter and actor seemed to be, um—how can we put this delicately?—meditating during most of the first act.”

Gunnel Tottie of the University of Zurich searched databases and found hundreds of examples of written “um” or “uh” in journalistic texts from 1990 to 2011. What’s more, there is a difference depending on whether “um” comes at the beginning of a sentence or later, before a particular word or phrase. At the beginning of a sentence “um” tends to challenge a preceding idea, while before a word it challenges that usage. Check out these examples, from Tottie’s article:

And if you’re building a kit cabin … it’s tempting to believe it will be easy. Um … reality check time. (Outdoor Life 1994)

… former boxing champ … Holyfield agreed to show his dancing, um, skills. (USA Today 2000)

In the first, the “um” tells you that cabin-building is not so simple. In the second, it suggests that Holyfield is a bad dancer.  

The much-maligned “um” is not just a verbal stumble or filler. It’s also written word as well, with an evolving, complex usage.

Featured image by Hümâ H. Yardım via Unsplash.

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