Finally, a Book about Filled Pauses!

[This post was written for a blog I started in 2007 but discontinued soon after. Since that blog no longer exists and the content is relevant here, I've uploaded it here with its original time stamp.]

Um… Book CoverThere's a new book out by Michael Erard called Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean... (website, Amazon). I am excited to read it since it has been recommended by Ben Zimmer and Arnold Zwicky is one of the featured (non-fictional) characters in the book. Both of these guys post regularly at Language Log, one of my most frequented blog sites. Furthermore, the author has a Master's in Linguistics and a Ph.D. in English. It's darn near always good when a linguist gets around to writing a book for the broader public. That's not necessarily 'cause the books themselves are always good, but rather because more linguists should try to engage larger audiences than our own narrow in-group. In this case, though, it looks like we have the added bonus that the book is actually good.

In Um..., Erard examines the various sorts of mistakes that we use when we are speaking. This includes such things as spoonerisms like saying "our queer old dean" instead of "our dear old queen" and malapropisms as in "Lorraine, my density has brought me to you!". Here's some promo text from the front page of the book's web site.

You make thousands of verbal blunders every day. They mean more than you think.

Um... is the first book to tell you how.

I have not yet read the book (it'll take me a little while to get a copy here in Japan), but I look forward to reading it because contrary to many books on how people speak which tend to preach about how people ought to speak, Um... takes the approach that these are facts about language production and can therefore tell us something about how people approach communication and relationships with those they communicate with. I've read a couple of other pieces by Erard which are available on-line as well as listened to the first chapter of the book (on the web site) and listened to an interview with him on WBUR in Boston and he sure seems to be the type of researcher who approaches the data with questions (rather than pre-conceived expectations) and draws conclusions from the data itself.

In the WBUR interview, I particularly liked the way he responded to the question as to how to reduce the number of ums and uhs in our speech. Here's my transcription/paraphrase of his reply:

I've gotten a lot of questions about how can I reduce the number of uhs and ums. While this is not a how-to book there are some how-to things that can be pulled from it. I think one message is certainly to be more interesting. People natively, without being cued, will listen to content—about half the people will listen to content of a presentation about half the people will listen to delivery or style but where the content starts to get a little boring more people start to listen to the style and the delivery and those are the people who are going to note your uhs and your ums and your disfluencies. So I say keep those people listening to the content. Keep being interesting. [RealPlayer, Windows Media: quote starts at 16:30]

This is an excellent response and well-grounded, too. It is consistent with research performed by Nicholas Christenfeld (1995) at University of California-San Diego (though I'm not quite sure where Erard gets the half-and-half numbers). I won't go into the gory details of Christenfeld's study, but briefly, he found that when listeners attended to the content of a speech, they essentially did not perceive any disfluencies. So Christenfeld's advice to speakers was precisely what Erard said: Keep the listeners focused on the content by being interesting.

Now, all of that said, I have one concern about this book. Although I believe that Erard is hardly prejudiced against those who utter uh and um in speech (he confesses to being a user himself), I fear that his characterization of uh and um as slips, stumbles, and verbal blunders is misleading, if not just plain wrong. Filled pauses (as many researchers call these) are known to be quite different from many other sorts of disluencies. It turns out they are not correlated with such things as anxiety and task difficulty as other disfluencies are.

Furthermore, they aren't really blunders—at least not in the same way that "our queer old dean" is. In fact, if you buy into Clark and Foxtree's (2002) characterization of filled pauses as interjections, then these filled pauses are inserted into the speech stream in the same way that other words are. In this sense, they are not blunders, but rather they prevent a blunder from occurring. Furthermore, there is a rather large sub-class of filled pauses which are most definitely not blunders. Consider the filled pause in the rather emphatic denial, Uh... no! Or as one caller on the WBUR radio show notes, some filled pauses are used to manage the change of conversational turns. In addition, there are filled pauses used as attention-getting devices: Um, excuse me... And then there are filled pauses used when turning down an invitation: Um, I'm afraid I can't. I already have other plans.

My fear then is that the book will inadvertantly contribute to the continued stigmatization of filled pauses in spontaneous speech. Of course, I think those who read the book in full with an open mind will understand that Erard does not intend that, but I wonder if many casual readers will use the title and slip-cover text to reinforce their existing prejudices about the use of filled pauses in everyday speech. In fact, it seems that those in the popular press are already doing so. Benjamin Zimmer notes that Allure Magazine draws on Erard's book in order to advise readers about "Bad Words" including uh and um.

Well, perhaps misunderstandings among readers are unavoidable when it comes to language. People have strong prejudices where language is concerned and the best we can hope to do as linguists is to keep chipping away at these prejudices where we can. So I commend Erard for writing a book that addresses this subject in an objective way and in an entertaining way (or so I think—I still have to read it remember—though I doubt I'll be disappointed).