Do You Use, Like, Too Many Filler Words? – Education News

Do You Use, Like, Too Many Filler Words? – 24 Global News | Education News

Do you use words like “like,” “um” and “you know” often? Do your friends?

Do you think these filler words get in the way of communication? Or, do they help?

In “Where Did Our Strange Use of ‘Like’ Come From?” John McWhorter writes about the history and evolution of the popular four-letter filler word:

Some months ago, one of my readers sent me an invaluable cache of recordings of family members during therapy sessions in the 1960s. They are ordinary, seemingly educated, white Northeasterners ranging from their late 20s to late middle age speaking casually. And what stands out today, 60 years later, is how often they pause briefly when they talk. Their speech sounds almost herky-jerky to the modern ear.

The reason their speech sounds somewhat odd in that way is that today people like those on the recording would fill many of those pauses with “like.”

It’s not, as sometimes assumed, that people used to talk formally or like books any more than they do now. Casual speech, always and everywhere in any language, is all about short sentences, often unfinished, often with occasional hesitations. But only in the late 1970s did “like” take its confident perch in American English.

The question is why. The answer is not the Frank Zappa’s cute 1982 ditty “Valley Girl,” featuring his teenage daughter, Moon. For one thing, a single song doesn’t change the way people talk every day. For another, that song only leads to the question of why Moon was using “like” that way, given that it wasn’t just her quirk; she was part of what we now call a thing.

Some people think this usage of “like” reflects some kind of epidemic of uncertainty among young people. But the casual “like” has now been entrenched long enough that many of its users are graying at the temples and then some. How unconfident are these near-sexagenarians?

Mr. McWhorter continues:

English is also oddly explicit about, of all things, restraint. We speak with a tacit impulse to keep the drama level moderate, to avoid stridency. One way of doing this is to use the hesitations I referred to in that 1960s recording: You pause before saying something that raises the temperature a bit, reflects an opinion that might arouse, pushes the envelope. But one might also spell out the hesitation more overtly, and this is where the casual “like” comes in. It quietly implies that what’s coming up is like itself rather than just itself, which lowers the temperature, keeps the burner on medium rather than high.

“Like”— as well as “sort of,” which has become a “like” for more formal settings, with “kind of” often filling in as a variant of both — is a subtle thing. To learn to use it idiomatically as a foreigner is as tricky as learning how those variations of the English future tense really work. There is even a masterly academic book on the subject. But most of the ways the casual “like” is used are ultimately variations on that quest for lowering the temperature. Here, for example, is a word-for-word transcription of an American undergraduate speaking casually in the 2020s, recorded for nonlinguistic purposes. In writing, it looks shaggy, but in real life, the person sounded perfectly fluent and even intelligent:

In terms of, like, figuring out how to do that exactly, like, what to, like, um, look for specifically, especially because, like, they’re, you know, like, in the workplace setting, like, your job is to follow the guidelines so, like, you know, kind of figuring out how to learn, like, what, how the conflicts are playing out.

The “likes” in that quote occur not just anywhere but before something new, something with a bit of impact: the task of figuring something out, the issue that this is a workplace setting rather than your house, the challenge of following new rules, the drama of conflicts. One could certainly express all of this without the use of “like” and “you know” and “kind of,” but the result would be a little crisp for casual conversation, perhaps a tad Boy Scout or Leslie Knope-ish.

Students, read the entire essay and then tell us:

  • Do you use filler words when speaking? If so, tell us which words, phrases or sounds — and how and when you employ them? Do you think you could ever cut them out?

  • What purpose do fillers serve? Do you think they help to improve communication or do they get in the way of it?

  • What’s your reaction to Mr. McWhorter’s essay? Are you surprised by the history and evolution of the word “like”? Mr. McWhorter rejects the idea that the prevalence of the word “like” reflects “some kind of epidemic of uncertainty among young people,” and instead argues that it’s “actually a symptom of something more general about how languages change over time.” How persuasive is his argument?

  • Does reading the essay make you more curious about the history and development of language? What words, or aspects of human communication in general, would you like to learn more about?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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