Although filler words often don’t really convey much meaning, you should not underestimate the importance of filler words in influencing the tone of your language. Not only are filler words a handy way to pause and think as you speak, they can also help you to sound more natural, like a native speaker or to sound friendly. Far from mistakes or flaws in spoken language, filler words develop as unique and important facets of the language that can be cleverly used to pace a conversation.
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What are filler words and do I need to use them?
Filler words, sounds or phrases don’t add any further information to a sentence and can be omitted without fundamentally changing the meaning. However, this doesn’t mean they are not an integral part of language use. They often come into play when the speaker pauses to avoid an awkward silence as they consider what they’re going to say next. These words can be used to indicate that one is about to continue speaking and that the listener should continue to listen and not interrupt. They have the effect of moderating the pace of speech and making it sound more natural. They are often known as ‘discourse markers’ because of these functions.
You should not overuse filler words, of course. If you include them in every sentence you might sound hesitant, unsure of yourself or weaken the strength of an argument you are making. They require some subtlety in their use, so pay close attention to how native speakers use them and try to imitate this use.
These are vowel sounds that are perceived as quite neutral to a native speaker and are so often used that they scarcely register to the listener. Although these are the kind of filler sounds that parents and teachers often try to discourage children from using, they are nonetheless important and common features of communication in English, so long as they are not used excessively.
“I’ll take, um, a cappuccino, please.”
“Uh, maybe he got lost on the way?”
Well is often placed at the start of a sentence when someone stalls to think before answering.
“How do you use the printer?” – “Well, I’m not sure, actually.”
It is also used to stall mid-sentence when a new idea occurs to the speaker.
“I’m looking for a new hobby, well, just something relaxing I can do after work.”
A soft humming sound that implies that the speaker is thinking closely about something.
“Hmm, I don’t fully agree with his opinion on the matter.”
Like is a colloquial interjection used a lot by younger people. It can be used passively but may also communicate a desire to calm things down and defuse tension:
“I didn’t mean to be rude, like. Just be cool.”
“I don’t know, like, where would I even find a babysitter for tomorrow.”
Be careful not to overuse this one, as once you start saying ‘like’, it can be hard to stop. Some people use it several times in the same sentence, which can be annoying and cause the listener to roll their eyes to heaven.
Actually is often used as a discourse marker where the speaker is expressing a contrast in opinion or expects the listener will disagree with them.
“Actually, I like the Star Wars prequels.”
6. You see/you know
You know or you see are included where the speaker is delivering a nugget of information.
“You know, the Greek countryside is really beautiful at this time of year.”
Although they can often be used interchangeably, you see is more often used before conveying information you don’t believe the listener will know.
“You see, the Baron was the culprit all along.”
7. I mean
I mean is used to emphasize or make clear a point you are making.
“I think we had best go home. I mean, it’s a great party and all, but we have work in the morning.”
Okay is often used at the beginning of a sentence where you are taking the conversation in a new direction. It is often pronounced long and slow!
“Okay, and how will we get to Berlin?”
Right can be used for emphasis, but be careful as it can sound passive aggressive
“Just read the manual, right.”
“Right, let’s get going!”
Pause for effect
While excessively using filler words can make a speaker sound hesitant or indecisive, when used wisely they can also make a speaker sound genuine and authentic. They add emotion, linguistic flourish and emphasis to your language. Be sure to practice using them strategically so that they can elevate your conversational skills.
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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.