Filler words are words such as "um," "ah," "hmm," "like," "you know," and "alright" that are used to give the speaker time to think, express uncertainty or make something awkward feel less awkward, or as a verbal tick. Filler words are also known as vocal disfluencies or hesitations.
The most common filler words in speech are like "um", "ah," "like", and "you know."
The most common filler phrases in writing are "Needless to say," "in my humble opinion," "for what it's worth," "basically," and "simply."
Filler words are a global phenomenon, and most languages have their own form of the word "um" or "ah."
What you’ll learn in this blog:
There are several different reasons (both good and bad) that people use filler words.
Out of Habit: We're all heavily influenced by the world surrounding us. Americans are particularly used to hearing "um", "uh," and "like" at home, at school, and work, and in the media (TV, YouTube, podcasts, etc). These words are so common that it's easy to start using them and build a habit of dependency on the words in our everyday life. In other words, we use them because we"re not thinking about it.
To Show That We’re Still Thinking: "Ums" and "ahs" are not all useless. A well-placed "um" can tell your listener that you are gathering your thoughts and that they should wait for you to finish speaking before they interject.
To Ease the Tension in a Conversation: Whenever we have to confront our friend, speak about a delicate subject, or say something awkward it’s natural to lean on filler words or verbal ticks to ease the tension. For example, you might say, “So, have you heard, um, about what they said about you in that Tweet?”
"Um, "uh," and "ah," are grouped as one example because these words can be used interchangeably. In essence, these words mean either “I’m still thinking or “Please give me more time.” But they can also be used to help tell people that you are still talking and want to finish your thought (if used between 2 sentences).
“Hey, um, have you heard about the new story, uh, they’re pitching to Sarah?”
“To err is human,” and so is saying "er." "Er" is a word that indicates hesitation, doubt, concern, or potentially even alarm. It’s very similar to um/uh/ah, but it indicates a stronger concern or negative energy.
“Have you seen the movie? Err, I don’t think I want to go see it, it looks too scary for me.”
Like is one of the more confusing filler words. It technically means “such as” or “similar to” (ex: “This movie is like Star Wars”) but it is often used as a filler word that can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning (ex: “Like, I don’t know if I want to go to that school”).
“Like, the podcast is great but I don’t know, like, if I should be a guest for them or not.”
You know can be used as a rhetorical question, in order to fill space in a sentence, or just because simply out of habit as a verbal tick.
“I think politics are confusing, you know?”
“She's very inspiring to me, you know, because she spent 40 weeks just researching the book.”
Right is a very common verbal tick that people use to start or end their sentences. It might be used to ease the tension in a conversation, to ask a rhetorical question, to seek the agreement of your listener, or to even (ironically enough) politely disagree with your listener.
“Right, so then I went to the store and bought everything on my list.”
“It's not easy being an adult, right?”
“Right, but it's not such a simple issue and I’ve had a different experience myself.”
Alright is originally derived from the words “all right” and is most commonly used as a transitional word in a sentence. Similarly to "right," it is often used as a rhetorical question at the end of a sentence.
“Alright, now that we got that over with, we can get on to the good stuff”
“We've worked hard today, but we’re not done yet, alright?”
Hmm is a sound used to express that you are thinking, or that you are hesitant about something. It can be used in a helpful way to show your listener that you need a moment to gather your thoughts, but it can also be distracting if used in the wrong context or if you develop a verbal tick where you say it too often.
“Hmmm, I think your idea is interesting, but i’m concerned that it doesn’t align with our main business KPIs.”
“Hmmm, are you sure that's the best offer you can give me on the car?”
Oh is a filler word often used at the beginning of a sentence, or as a standalone word, to show a reaction of surprise, whether that’s positive (feeling thrilled) or negative (feeling alarmed or disappointed).
Thrill: “Oh, no way! We just broke 100,000 subs on the channel!”
Terror: “Oh no, the ship is sinking.”
Disappointment: “Oh, I guess I failed the test again, I guess it's just not meant to be.”
So is another incredibly common verbal tick. It’s often used to start or end the sentence, as a way to bridge the gap between two sentences or thoughts, or to break the awkward silence in a conversation. So is often used to imply a certain meaning or help finish a thought. By saying “so” you can lead your listener to make an assumption or fill in a gap of your thought. “My friend is very intelligent, beautiful and single, so…” (you should ask her out).
“So, I think, therefore I am.”
“Then she told me that she wanted him to leave, so.”
According to one study by J Mem Lang from 2012, filler words can 1) help listeners predict what you’ll say next, bring attention to the stream of speech, and give listeners time to process what has been said. In other words, there’s clear evidence that not all filler words are bad. But when should you use filler words?
In Casual Conversations: Filler words are fine when you’re chopping it up with some friends in a casual conversation.
When the Word Conveys Valuable Meaning: Filler words aren’t all bad. Don"t be afraid to keep using filler words when they convey valuable meaning. “Oh” is a valuable way to express excitement. “Hmm” is a great way to tell someone “I'm thinking, give me a second.” And
To Make Awkward Conversations Easier: Sometimes dropping an intentional “so” or “um” into a sentence can ease the tension when you're bringing up an awkward topic or asking a hard question. Sometimes the most considerate thing for you to do is drop a simple filler word into your conversation to break the ice.
As we’ve seen, there are times when using filler words is helpful, and times when they’re harmful. Here’s when you should not use filler words, or when you should try to remove filler words.
In Public Speaking: It’s natural to drop a few “ums” when you’re presenting that deck to investors, speaking in front of a captive collegiate audience, or in your all team huddle on Zoom. But if you’re too casual, and fill every silent space with an “um,” “so,” or “alright” then you’ll start to lose people’s attention, appear frazzled and anxious, and may lose some of your credibility.
Try to be mindful of your filler words when you’re speaking publicly, and don’t be afraid to pause between sentences to take a breath. This will give your listeners time to think on what you’ve already said.
In Podcasting: You don’t want your podcast to be littered with dozens of “ums” and “ahs”. It sounds less professional, distracts your audience, and may diminish your credibility.
In the Media (YouTube, TV, etc): Similarly to podcasting, you don’t want to use these verbal crutches when you’re appearing on TV, speaking as a guest on someone’s YouTube channel, or making video content online. A lot of YouTube channels are very casual, so you’ll definitely get away with it, but reducing the number of filler words in your speech will help clarify your message and streamline things.
In Formal Writing: Whenever you’re writing something formal, whether it’s a white paper, blog, college essay, or update for shareholders you don’t want to use casual fillers or phrases. Write directly and cut the fluff from your sentences.
If you’ve ever tried editing a podcast, audiobook, or any other piece of dialogue then you know the struggle is real. Editing all the “ums” out of your 30-minute podcast takes on average 1.5 hrs for a professional Audio Engineer, and even longer if you’re just getting started.
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