"A filler word is an apparently meaningless word, phrase, or sound that marks a pause or hesitation in speech. Also known as a pause filler or hesitation form.
Some of the common filler words in English are um, uh, er, ah, like, okay, right, and you know.
Although filler words "may have fairly minimal lexical content," notes linguist Barbara A. Fox, "they can play a strategic syntactic role in an unfolding utterance" (in Fillers, Pauses and Placeholders, 2010).
Examples and Observations
"Hey, hey, shh, shh, shh. Come on. Be sensitive to the fact that other people are not comfortable talking about emotional disturbances. Um, you know, I am, I'm fine with that, but… other people." (Owen Wilson as Dignan in Bottle Rocket, 1996)
Shirley's Use of Filler Words in Community
Pierce: About those filler words of yours. I mean, nobody wants to buy brownies from somebody who says "um" and "like." I have a method for fixing that. Start from the top.
Shirley: Okay. These brownies are, uh-
Shirley: They, um-
Shirley: These brownies are delicious. They taste like-
Shirley: That's not a filler word.
Pierce: Whatever, valley girl.
(Chevy Chase and Yvette Nicole Brown in "Environmental Science." Community, Nov. 19, 2009)
Safire on Hesitation Forms
"Modern linguists led by Leonard Bloomfield in 1933 call these 'hesitation forms'-the sounds of stammering (uh), stuttering (um, um), throat-clearing (ahem!), stalling (well, um, that is), interjected when the speaker is groping for words or at a loss for the next thought.
"You know that y'know is among the most common of these hesitation forms. Its meaning is not the imperious 'you understand' or even the old interrogatory 'do you get it?' It is given as, and taken to be, merely a filler phrase, intended to fill a beat in the flow of sound, not unlike like, in its new sense of, like, a filler word…
These staples of modern filler communication-I mean, y'know, like-can also be used as 'tee-up words.' In olden times, pointer phrases or tee-up words were get this, would you believe? and are you ready? The function of these rib-nudging phrases was-are you ready?-to make the point, to focus the listener's attention on what was to follow…
If the purpose is to tee up a point, we should accept y'know and its friends as a mildly annoying spoken punctuation, the articulated colon that signals 'focus on this.'… If the purpose is to grab a moment to think, we should allow ourselves to wonder: Why are filler phrases needed at all? What motivates the speaker to fill the moment of silence with any sound at all?" (William Safire, Watching My Language: Adventures in the Word Trade. Random House, 1997)
Filler Words Across Disciplines
"Why do some people fill the air with non-words and sounds? For some, it is a sign of nervousness; they fear silence and experience speaker anxiety. Recent research at Columbia University suggests another reason. Columbia psychologists speculated that speakers fill pauses when searching for the next word. To investigate this idea, they counted the use of filler words used by lecturers in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, where the subject matter uses scientific definitions that limit the variety of word choices available to the speaker. They then compared the number of filler words used by teachers in English, art history, and philosophy, where the subject matter is less well-defined and more open to word choices…
Twenty science lecturers used an average of 1.39 uh's a minute, compared with 4.85 uh's a minute by 13 humanities teachers. Their conclusion: subject matter and breadth of vocabulary may determine the use of filler words more than habit or anxiety…
Whatever the reason, the cure for filler words is preparation. You reduce nervousness and pre-select the right ways to say ideas through preparation and practice." (Paul R. Timm and Sherron Bienvenu, Straight Talk: Oral Communication for Career Success. Routledge, 2011)
"Perhaps no profession has uttered more 'ums' or 'uhs' than the legal profession. Such words are a clear indication that the speaker's style is halting and uncertain. Eliminate these filler words. The lack of 'ums' and 'uhs' alone can make you sound more confident."
"And it's not hard to do. Just pause. Every time you feel that you're about to use a filler word, pause instead." (Joey Asher, Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers. ALM Publishing, 2005)
Syntax, Morphology, and Fillers
"Perhaps because English and other western European languages tend to use fillers lacking morphology and syntax (preferring instead pause vowels), linguists have tended to ignore the significance of these forms for syntax. However,… we can see that some fillers, especially those known as placeholders, may carry a range of morphological marking, including prototypical nominal marking (gender, case, number) and prototypical verbal marking (person, number, TAM tense-aspect-mood). They may also take the morphology appropriate for adjectives and adverbs. In addition, they may occupy precisely the syntactic slot normally occupied by a regular noun or verb… " (Barbara A. Fox, Introduction. Fillers, Pauses and Placeholders, ed. by Nino Amiridze, Boyd H. Davis, and Margaret Maclagan, John Benjamins, 2010