What’s Wrong With Filler Words, Exactly?

Oct 19, 2020

Are, like, filler or weasel words, you know, on the rise?

What do the following words have in common:  basically, really, actually, totally, exactly, very, highly, just, like, you know, uh, um, I mean, like I said, OK, so, well, right?, and stuff, literally?  They’re all filler or weasel words – words we interject into our speaking when we’re struggling to find the right word to say.

If we’re not pausing, we’re filling up scary silences, afraid to relinquish the floor or to let the pause linger.  Some people learn this habit as children, because if they stop talking they lose the floor at the dinner table, let’s say, and (wanting the attention) it’s good to hang onto the talking stick.

For other people, it’s the simple insecurity in letting the pause linger – having insufficient confidence in what you’ve said in order for you to be strong enough to let it sink in.

These sorts of pauses come at the end of thoughts and phrases, but some filler words are used to begin utterances.  One of the most common these days is “So, ….”  I hear that all the time.  You might think of that as a lazy way of connecting to what’s been said before.  If you say, “so,” you make it look like what you’re saying connects to the previous.  So that way you come across as a better conversationalist, perhaps.  But after the 6th or 7th “so,” the effect is less than delightful.  So, use “so” with care.

Talking – making things up on the spot – is a messy business.  Most of us have been guilty at one time or another using filler words while we stall and try to think of something to say.  We become very adept at actually changing the direction of our sentences from the beginning to the end when we finally figure out what we’re trying to say.

I think Zoom meetings make the abuse of filler words more likely because we are not as strongly connected with the other people in the meeting as we would be face to face, and so we are more likely to use filler words to fill the awkward pauses.

Are filler words all bad?  I saw an interesting study that found that ah’s and um’s actually increased comprehension of the word immediately following them, because listeners hearing them pay closer attention to the word that comes after the “um” or “ah,” believing that it is important since more time was taken in the choosing.

If ahs and ums can increase comprehension, they’re not all bad.  But no study has defended filler words in the same way.  I once worked with an executive who had lost the confidence of the board because she used too many filler words.  No one on the board was able to put a finger on what the problem was, but they knew the way the executive spoke didn’t inspire confidence.  I heard the problem immediately because I’m tuned in to these things.  So, it was a relatively easy fix, actually.  It was just a matter of telling the executive never to say “actually” again.  She was motivated enough to make it happen.

This kind of work isn’t very glamorous, but it is important at the higher reaches of an organization.  If you’re leading a large organization and you represent it in important ways, then you need to be able to talk confidently without the use of filler words.  It’s that simple.


Finally, if you’re not yet convinced, ask yourself which sentence is stronger: “I love you,” or, “I really love you.”  And if you don’t know the answer to that immediately, then I can’t help you.


By Nick Morgan