Hone Your Skills

Filler Words: What Are They and Why Do We Use Them?

May 27, 2022

No matter your industry or position, concise communication is critical for your success. You and your team should aim to deliver information clearly in a way that is easy to understand. Otherwise, it can breed confusion and lead to unmet goals. In some cases, it can even result in the intended message going unreceived altogether. 

Most of us communicate best when we do so confidently and comfortably. And we tend to muddle up our message when distracted or nervous. If that sounds like you, don’t worry. This is a common problem among business leaders and professionals. Yet, it is one you must address if you want to become a more impactful communicator. 

Using filler words is one of the most common bad habits in communication. Let’s talk about what filler words are, why people use them, and how to avoid them in the future.

What Are Filler Words?

People use filler words to fill the silence when speaking. A filler word is a specific word or phrase that adds no real value to a sentence or expressed thought. You use them to keep you going as you try to develop the right words to finish your sentence or thought.

The technical term for filler words is "discourse markers," but the former is far more common. Chances are, you use more filler words in conversations, meetings, and presentations than you realize. For instance, you might say "umm" when you can't figure out what to say. Doing so gives you a brief break and saves you from an awkward, silent pause as you think of the right word.

As mentioned, filler words don't add significant meaning or value to a sentence, so you don't really have to think about using them. Therefore, your brain is free to think about important things (like the word you are trying to recall or the context of the message).

It’s also essential to note that many filler words have other meanings and can add value when used in the proper context. For example, “yeah” is a common filler word, but it can also serve as a clear response to a question or expression that you agree with something. 

Native English speakers aren’t the only ones who appreciate fillers. Filler words can also help English learners take a pause when searching for the right English pronunciation or word. 

What Are the Most Common Filler Words?     

Still not convinced you use fillers when communicating?

See if you recognize any of these common filler words used in the English language:

Umm

Perhaps the most common English filler word is “um,” which people typically say without realizing it. Um is used as a hesitation or pause between ideas or to express uncertainty. 

“I was looking for the, um, remote control the other night.”

Oh

“Oh” is another incredibly common filler word in the English language, and it’s prevalent in all ages and dialects. Most of the time, oh begins a sentence, and it often signals subtle disappointment or surprise.

"Oh… they gave me the wrong order."

So 

People who speak American English often use "so" as an intensifying adverb ("They're so good!"). “So” also serves as a coordinating conjunction at the beginning of sentences; when used in this context, it indicates consequence or summarizes an idea.

“So there you have it.”

Like

“Like” is perhaps the English filler word that is joked about the most. Some people find it irritating when communicators use like too often for a pause. But it can also be used to add emphasis or to quote a conversation. 

“Did you, like, even try to do it?”

“I, like, gave it my all.”

“They were like, it’s not enough.”

Yeah

Most people use "yeah" to express agreement. But it's also used to request clarification or confirm that we understand.

“You just turn it twice, yeah?”

“Yeah, that is the best restaurant in the city.”

Well

Well, we knew it would come to this! While “well” is an adverb in the English language, it also happens to be a popular filler word. In most cases, it shows up at the beginning of sentences to transition from one idea to another.

“Well, I just didn't know what to think about it.”

Right

“Right” is an English synonym for "correct." However, people use it for much more than an adjective. Right can be used to gauge agreement, change a topic, or start a sentence.

“It's just two blocks away, right?”

“Right, let's take care of that tomorrow.”

You Know

“You know” can begin, complete, or interrupt a sentence. Many English speakers use you know while we collect our thoughts, and we use it to check for agreement too. Many of us also say you know when we think the other person or group agrees with our opinion or shares our knowledge. 

“You know, it’s going to be a great day.”

“How lousy can a movie get, you know?”

“It was, you know, their best album to date.”

Or Something

“Or something” is a filler phrase that often expresses hesitancy or doubt when you are finished speaking. Many English speakers tag this phrase to the end of an idea they are unsure about. Sometimes, or something can make you come across as an ineffective communicator. But it can also soften a sentence if you don't want to come across as too direct.

“The show was about computer technology or something.”

“He wants you to help out more or something.”

The Problems With Filler Words

Frequently using filler words can make you come across as a lousy communicator, especially in a professional environment. Most importantly, filler words can hinder your audience from following your ideas. Avoiding long pauses in your presentation will leave less room for you to use fillers (which is a good thing). 

Besides reflecting poorly on your communication skills, using too many filler words can indicate to team members and clients that you did not adequately prepare for your presentation or meeting. If you’re about to give a major presentation at work, be sure to diligently research and prepare so that you can deliver your message confidently.

Breaking the Habit of Using Filler Words     

Remember that everyone uses filler words to some degree; it’s not always a big deal. Actually, a conversation or public speaking presentation without any fillers can be awkward. But if your usage crosses the line and becomes a crutch, it's essential to reduce it.

First, start paying attention to which filler words you use most often and when. Then, look for patterns of usage. When you recognize a pattern during a meeting or presentation, you’ll know how to pause and readjust.

You’ll also want to pinpoint what triggers your usage of filler words. For example, if you use them when you're anxious, you might find relaxation activities to help you mentally prepare before speaking. If you use more filler words when you get distracted, you might take steps to minimize distractions while speaking.

One way to analyze your usage of fillers is to record yourself. Recording yourself practicing your presentation will allow you to take note of every filler and give you a bird’s-eye view of your patterns. Using a communication coach software like Poised can also help you analyze your fillers and even give you real-time suggestions on how to reduce them.

3 Reasons We Use Filler Words

So, why do people use filler words?

While there are many reasons, here are the three most common ones:

1. We Use Filler Words When Nervous  

Nervousness is a major trigger for the use of filler words. We tend to get anxious when we’re trying to think and speak at the same time. That's why umms, likes, and other fillers emerge at the beginning of sentences or as we transition to new ideas. In other words, we are thinking out loud, and it can irritate listeners when we do it too frequently.

2. We Use Filler Words When Distracted

Another common reason people use filler words is that they become distracted. Sometimes, another person can distract you by interjecting, making a motion, or simply looking at you intently.

Other times, the instigator could be something in the room, such as the air conditioning turning on or a light flickering. Then, speakers might use filler phrases as a placeholder until they focus again. 

You can even be distracted by your own thoughts. Try to go into each meeting and presentation expecting distractions so that you won’t be rattled when they emerge. 

3. We Use Filler Words When Put on the Spot

Remember that we often use filler words when we’re trying to collect our thoughts. Diligently preparing for your presentations and meetings will help you reduce the frequency with which you need to think critically, in turn minimizing your use of fillers. 

However, when you are put on the spot, preparation is out of play. In those instances, remember to pause before speaking instead of filling the space with meaningless words.

Eliminate Filler Words With Help From Poised

At the end of the day, you want to be a clear and impactful communicator, and using too many filler words will keep that from happening. Poised will evaluate your speech during presentations and meetings to give you an in-depth view of your performance. 

Our communication coach software will also notify you in real-time when you need to reduce your filler usage and teach you tactics for communicating more effectively in the future. If you are ready to express your ideas and information more concisely and confidently, start using Poised today.

Sources: 

Why Do We Say “Um?” | The Daily Free Press 

Your, Um, Filler Words Are, Like, Killing Your Credibility. Here's How to, Uh, Fix This in 4 Weeks | Inc 

Coordinating Conjunctions | Cuyamaca College

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