Don’t ditch the ‘ums’. Listeners need them

U. ILLINOIS (US) — Speakers should think twice before eliminating the “ums,” “uhs,” and other speech fillers from their message if they want listeners to recall what was said.

As reported in the Journal of Memory and Language, speech fillers actually facilitate recall for listeners.

Researchers used a story recall task as part of an experiment that tested the mechanisms by which speech fillers affected memory for discourse. They used natural speech instead of “laboratory speech” and controlled for the extra processing time that fillers provide listeners.

“One finding that we had is that if you’re listening to a story or a speech, people remember the content better if the person says ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in it than if the story is completely fluent,” says Duane Watson, associate professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Illinois.


“This is counterintuitive, because if you go to a speech coach, they say don’t say ‘uh’ and ‘um’.”

The experiment required participants to listen to a story that was either completely fluent, or had “‘uhs” and “ums” digitally inserted in different places, or had coughs inserted to control for the timing, so it wasn’t just that listeners had more time to respond to a story that included disfluencies.

“The task was for them to listen to it and then tell the story back,” Watson says. “We found that they’re better at it if ‘uh’ and ‘um’ is actually there. So we think that maybe those disfluencies are increasing the person’s attention.

“This is speculation, but if the speaker doesn’t know what they’re saying very well, you pay attention more because you think you need to work harder to get it. One thing that disfluencies do is buy speakers more time. They are a signal to the person listening that I need more time,” Watson says.

Watson’s research involves language production and communication with a focus on prosody.  He is director of the Communications and Language Lab at the Beckman Institute.

“We’re figuring out where people pause in sentences, where they make disfluencies, say things like ‘uhh’ and ‘umm.’ We also try to figure out how these things help listeners better understand language.”

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