Verbal fillers, while distracting, have unique uses in class discussions

By Colleen Loggins

Verbal fillers. We all use them. Perhaps some more frequently than others. Have you ever sat in a class and noticed that one of your classmates couldn’t stop like saying “like?” Or “um…” or “uh” or perhaps even a mini-phrase, like “you know”?

Well, I personally notice it in every single one of my classrooms, and I must say it can become quite distracting when you start counting the number of times the person uses verbal fillers, and lose sight of what they are actually trying to say.

For instance, in one of my English classes, the majority of the students frequently abuse “like.”

“I get this like (pause) like very sexual image…like almost like the arrow is forceful, like it’s like piercing her” was the direct quote of one of the other students in class, who otherwise makes extremely insightful comments into the novels we read.

I realize that the excessive use of the word “like” here is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t include the entire quote, which would make the use of the word less obvious in a longer statement. However, it was still prevalent in all of this student’s statements, as well as the statements of almost every other person who spoke.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

And it’s not just students who use verbal fillers; teachers use them all the time too, which can be even more distracting because they are speaking for longer periods of time. I recently noticed how often one of my professors uses the word “um” and counted roughly 15 “ums” in one minute. Now imagine how many “ums” were uttered during the entire class.

The reason I started counting “ums” was that I knew I was going to write this column, but I remember one semester when an economics professor couldn’t stop saying “uh,” and as a result, two students in front of me tallied the number of times he used it as verbal filler. When you pick up on that as a listener, it becomes very hard to focus on anything else. I don’t believe they took any other notes that day.

One of my professors recently expressed an annoyance with students constantly using verbal fillers; however, my English professor, Iryce Baron, is perfectly fine with students using fillers because she knows they are either thinking or nervous. Fillers give them a chance to compose their thoughts. She believes it is important to have an informal environment in the classroom, so people can comfortably express themselves, and believes fillers contribute to that informality.

“When students use a verbal filler, they’re saying, ‘I’m thinking about stuff and I need a filler,'” she said. “It’s like those Twix commercials where the person needs to pause – it’s like a verbal Twix bar.”

Her husband, Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics, does not think we should even call them verbal fillers because he said that the name takes away from their important function in speech.

“If you don’t use them, it gives the other person you are talking to a chance to interrupt,” he said. “Using them lets others know you aren’t done yet.”

But what about the classroom setting? Aren’t students less likely to interrupt each other, knowing that they may have more to say? Baron believes that in terms of conversation in classrooms, there is less spontaneous interruption, but there is also an increase in tension. Fillers may signal that students are nervous rather than function as a pause so they can continue without interruption.

While I understand the importance of verbal fillers in casual conversation, I still think that in a more formal setting, there is time to compose and articulate your thoughts.

Though Professor Dennis Baron believes fillers have an important function, he does agree that when interviewing for a job, the frequent use of fillers could be a hindrance. They could indicate not that someone is incompetent, but that they are nervous and would not be able to handle a high pressure situation.

So maybe for that reason alone, it would be a good idea to think before you speak, and try to cut down on verbal fillers.

Colleen is a senior in Media who like totally, for sure, really needs a manicure. She can be reached at [email protected]