The Fulfilling Role of Filler Words in English
There’s the inevitable moment in almost every conversation when the person saying something stops or breaks their current sentence apart with a word or two that have absolutely nothing to do with what they’re talking about. We understand what they’re trying to say and ignore those silly little words in between.
These words are known as “filler words”, but for most learners, they’re:
“um”, “uh”, “er”, “ah”, “like”, “totally”, “you know”, etc.
In English, we also refer to them as “discourse markers”, “pause fillers” or “hesitation forms”. In general speech, the role of filler words is limited to human nature and nothing more than that. This means that we only say these words because we’re thinking about what to say next, they “fill the silence”.
They’re meaningless, in a sense. Even more so, they’re barely noticeable. Let’s take a look:
So, uh… I found this new bag online and it’s like… awesome in every way, you know. But, um… I don’t think I’m going to buy it because it’s like waaay to expensive.
If you were listening to this sentence in a conversation, you probably wouldn’t even notice the filler words involved. It’s almost like they’re not even there, as they don’t really seem to have a purpose or meaning in the given context. However, if we dig a bit deeper, we’ll find examples of filler words being much more important to speech and language than one can see on the surface.
So, why are filler words in English so important?
Uh… for one, native speakers use them – like, a lot! If used correctly and not all too frequently, they can become an English learner’s best friend.
Truth be told, I didn’t noticed this myself until maybe my first year of college when I met new people from the U.S. and U.K. So, when I started to use filler words in my day-to-day conversations with them more frequently, I started to notice that I sounded just like them.
Many linguists argue that the use of filler words has a psychological effect that helps speakers say what they want a lot easier, even when they need some time to think about. Moreover, different scenarios cause us to use different filler words, so they’re not all exactly the same.
In a nutshell, each filler word in English has its own purpose and a specific time when it can be used “smoothly”, which begs the question:
Which filler words should you use and when to sound more like a native?
As previously mentioned, filler words can be used for a number of reasons. In this part, we’ll take a look at some of the most frequently used filler words in English, their purpose, and when English learners should use them to sound less like robots and more like native speakers. Without further ado, let’s dive right into the list.
Well, Uh, Um, Er (used to gather one’s thoughts and gain some time)
Well, we can get a new pet if you’d like.
I don’t know. Um, maybe we can try that.
Note: During longer conversations or presentations, English speakers also tend to use “basically” for the same purposes.
Okay (to express agreement or suggest action)
Okay, we can do that.
Okay, let’s try that.
So (to start a new topic or summarize something)
So, when are we going to acknowledge that dinosaurs exist?
So, what we need is two more cars and one more driver to make this trip fun.
Tell me something (to introduce a direct question)
Guys, tell me something, which one of you scratched the principal’s car?
Jasmin, tell us something, can filler words be used all the time?
You see (to add conversational flare in longer texts or conversations)
You see, filler words can be used for a variety of reasons.
You see, this is exactly how learning a language is supposed to be.
P.S. I’m guilty of using “you see” a lot in both my writing and speech. I don’t know, I guess it’s a genuine filler phrase that just makes my readers or listeners feel like I’m truly talking to them.
I guess, I suppose (to express hesitation or uncertainty)
I know I planned to go to the gym later on, but I guess I can go grab a quick meal at McDonald’s.
We lost the game but I suppose we can still celebrate our participating in the competition for three years in a row now.
Note: In English, “suppose” is often used in more formal settings.
Certainly, Yes (to express agreement or make a statement)
Certainly, we could have done some things differently, but here we are.
You can do it, yes.
Note: Many filler words “can” have literal meanings in sentences. It’s when they’re used as actual words instead of just filling the silence. Here’s an example with the word “like”:
Molly is exactly like Jenna! Neither of them listens to me! (not a filler word)
Molly is like so annoying right now! She doesn’t listen to like anything I say. (filler word)
I really like Jenna right now. (not a filler word)
I’m pretty like into Jenna right now. (filler word)
Now, let’s sum it all up…
Filler words in English are words that don’t really add any value to a sentence they’re used in. They’re just there to “fill the silence”. However, they also play a very important psychological role in speech, which helps speakers have some time to think about what to say next while also “filling” that time with words that won’t get in the way of others understanding them.
Nonetheless, filler words shouldn’t be used all the time, as they might get in the way of a conversation running smoothly. So, basically, uh… what I’m trying to say is that um… you don’t want to like make the other person that um… well, you don’t want the person talking to you feel so… well, uncomfortable. Let’s try to keep all of this in mind during our next conversation in English.
If you wish to learn even more new words to strengthen you English mastery, check out the English lessons on LingQ. Words and phrases are translated as you read and listen to a lesson.
You can then learn this new English vocabulary through repeated exposure in further lessons and the LingQ vocabulary activities.
Until next time, happy learning!
Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.