Is um an honored part of language?
In July a student of mine recommended an essay in Slate called An Uh, Er, Um Essay in Praise of Verbal Stumbles. He asked me if I’d heard the theory that um is a useful, time-honored part of language worthy of preservation. Perhaps the lawyer’s common goal of banishing it from oral advocacy, courtrooms, and other professional speech, he postulated, is misguided. We could chill out about um, in other words. Rather than being an impediment to fluent speech, it helps us think.
Author Michael Erard is a staunch defender of such dysfluencies, having written a 2007 book called Uh…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean. While some of the book’s history of spoonerisms and malapropisms was amusing, his defense of um as an important part of verbal communication was tiresome. In Slate, he returns to that theme:
“But “uh” and “um” don’t deserve eradication; there’s no good reason to uproot them. People have been pausing and filling their pauses with a neutral vowel (or sometimes with an actual word) for as long as we’ve had language, which is about 100,000 years. If listeners are so naturally repelled by “uhs” and “ums,” you’d think those sounds would have been eliminated long before now.”
We humans have had lots of bad habits for more than 100,000 years. We’re still working on stamping out murder, slavery, rape, typos, war, and spelling errors, among a lengthy list of sins great and small. The idea that something is valuable because it has been around for a really long time is silly.
Language, like the rest of culture, constantly changes, and often for the better, becoming clearer and more efficient. But Erard argues for halting progress. Positive reviews on his Amazon book page pre-emptively strike at stuffy self-appointed anti-ummers who bemoan the poor state of oral communication these days. My impossible uncoolness aside, count me in with the crowd agitating for improvement. Why settle for the rudimentary noises we were making 100,000 years ago? Why not attempt to make language more fluid, or—dare I suggest—more beautifully-rendered?
Erard and his band of pro-ummers have a strange mission. They argue for what they see as the people’s speech, lowbrow and proud of it. I have no problem with lowbrow. Among the Alabama hillbillies from whom I am descended, my Uncle Bobby Wayne enjoyed playing with language, which flowed effortlessly from his brain to his mouth, unimpeded by verbal stumbles. His hilarious analogies, surprising juxtapositions, and quick-witted character sketches had nothing to do with erudition or education. No, lowbrow doesn’t bother me, but willful mediocrity does. Erard’s position that um is worthy of preservation is lazy. His elation over his 20-month-old son’s recently-uttered his first um is mysterious (he considered sending out celebratory greeting cards).
But, to try being open-minded, let’s consider whether Erard might be correct. Where shall we look for evidence? Where is um in speech we admire, speech worthy of preservation? Let’s begin with literary artists who imitate life, playwrights.
Alas—um—alack! Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and Tom Stoppard (pardon the short list) have apparently failed to notice that inserting ums could make their characters come alive. Why not:
Um To be or um not um to um be, um that is um the um question. Um.
I’ve always um depended on the kindness like you know of um strangers.
If these writers are too highbrow, look for um in working-class conversations in plays by August Wilson or John Osborne. We don’t hear um in theater scripts because it rarely has any meaning whatsoever. Once in a great while, to signal confusion or hesitancy, a playwright may include it in a script. Um is a dull, annoying placeholder which neither advances a story nor reveals deep insight into character; it’s an uninteresting verbal habit, not worth including.
Contemplating the use of um in theater begs the question of why there are none in musicals or opera. Go ahead, try to imagine it. Sondheim: “Send in the um clowns.” Rogers and Hammerstein: “Um. Oh, what a um beautiful um morning.” Parker and Stone, The Book of Mormon: “I believe um the Lord, um God, created the um universe…” Lorenzo do Ponte by way of Mozart: “Un’ aura um amorosa um de nostro er tesoro….”
What about film? If Erard is correct that um is a fascinating aspect of language, surely film, a recent construct in human cultural and social evolution, and often intent on portraying down-to-earth reality, includes it. But screenwriters insert um into a character’s speech patterns only occasionally. Some actors—Hugh Grant, famously—insert blunders and stumbles into a script as a charming movie star mannerism that projects an amiable, common-man gawkishness.
Speechwriters, too, have missed important opportunities to spice up droning, drab prose:
Um Ask um not what, well, um your country um can um do for um you, um ask um what you can um do um for your um country. (John F. Kennedy)
Strange as it um may seem to er many, um, we now demand our right to vote according um to the um declaration of the um government under which we um er um live. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
If um is integral to speech, why do novelists leave it out? Why does Mark Twain ignore it, Virginia Woolf skip it, and writers from Pat Conroy to Joyce Carol Oates shun um as an illuminating part of character? Because it is more than meaningless—it wastes time. Readers would be exasperated by slogging through a thicket of ums. Serious writers, like serious speakers, do their best to put the right words into the mouths of interesting characters.
Finally, if dysfluencies are desirable in speech, why not insert them into all writing? Where are the meaningful typos and misspellings in Erard’s article? Perhaps a few strategically-placed ers could help us comprehend his meaning. It might be better to dispense with rules of good writing altogether, since humans have been writing poorly for thousands of years. Why bother with perfection in written language when our standards for speaking are lax?
People do speak without saying um, and we’ve all heard them: politicians, teachers, professors, lecturers of every stripe, talking heads, our friends, perhaps even you, esteemed reader. A fair percentage of speakers express themselves fluently and smoothly with no ums whatsoever. Using Erard’s logic, they are foolish. Inserting various noises and grunts would compensate for their eloquence.
Studies cited in Erard’s article are not supportive of his position. The Slate article refers to research that seems to prop up his point of view, but on closer examination, is not relevant. One refers to silence as an alternative placeholder in conversation (in my opinion, a better choice by far than um for thinking of what to say next). Another appears neutral as to whether there might be a better alternative to um. For example, when speaking to a toddler, um got attention, but were there other noises or words tested as well (such as calling the child by name)? The study merely states that a noise, in this case um, was effective as an attention-getting device.
A Practical Take on Um
Um is a thinking noise. We use it when we have the floor and are thinking of what to say next. In casual conversation, it usually doesn’t matter. We’ve all said um more times than we can count. When we want to be precise and persuasive, as when speaking professionally, it matters because thinking noises interrupt the flow of well-formed, intelligible sentences. Um robs us of that moment to think about our most important ideas and our passionately-held views. Um, er, like, you know, and other place holders are sloppy habits.
At our most eloquent, um disappears and speech is fluent. Think of Martin Luther King’s Dream speech. He spoke the most famous words just after he had laid aside his prepared remarks. King spoke in um-free sentences, which still ring in our collective memory. None of us recalls that he spoke from the deepest convictions of his soul like this:
Um. I um have an, a, um dream. um. That some—um—one um day um this nation will um rise um d….No um up and live out um the um true meaning of um her, no, um its creed um well, you know um that all um men are uuuuuuuh created um equal and um
Erard’s um theory disintegrates finally because he ignores two prime components of how we generate speech—gesture and prosody. Discussions of both are beyond the scope of this article, but keep in mind two crucial facts. First, the movement of our hands and arms which accompanies extemporaneous speech helps us find words, integrate concepts and ideas, and produce orderly sentences. Gesture must be part of a discussion of how we generate speech. Second, the music of our voices directly affects our word choice (see above: Uncle Bobby Wayne), and whether or not we stumble when we speak . Pedestrian delivery makes for drab choices, including um, er, like, you know, or placeholders in any language.
Playwrights, screenwriters, speechwriters, and the well-spoken among us refrain from using um because it is the linguistic equivalent of a dripping faucet: a persistent, annoying noise, always on the same pitch, the same decibel level, and usually of the same duration. Instead of making excuses for letting the lingual faucet drip on ad infinitum, fix it. Take a breath, let a moment of silence fall between thoughts, and, using gesture for expression and lung-power for melody, strive for fluency. May um become an evolutionary vestige of language, sooner rather than later. It shouldn’t take 100,000 years.
Andrew Sullivan’s post has nothing to add, unfortunately. He merely quotes Erard verbatim.
- Let The Ums Fly (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)