Stuck for words? A rough guide to Conversational Fillers
Spoken English differs from written English in many ways, such as in the use of slang or "semi-slang" expressions and the shortening of words and elision of two words ("do not" becomes "don't", "donOt know" becomes "dunno", "going to" becomes "gonna", etc.). However, perhaps the most obvious difference lies in the way in which words and phrases are commonly used as "fillers" in conversational English, to give the speaker time to think or to modify what he/she is saying.
People who have a good command of vocabulary and are eloquent and used to speaking in public naturally tend to use these words less, although even here they may have a favourite "filler" that they fall back on regularly. More often, though, it is people who have difficulty expressing themselves who pad out their conversations with such gems as "you know", "er", "basically", "or something", etc.
These "padding" words and expressions can be divided into two groups. The first group is made up of "meaningless fillers". They do not add anything to the meaning, and people often use them to give themselves time to think or if they canOt express themselves clearly. Although non-native English speakers do not need to use these expressions (in fact as a general rule, their use is to be discouraged), it is important to be able to recognise them. The most common are the following: well, um, er, I mean, sort of, really, actually, you know how it is, you know, or something, basically.
So a spoken sentence describing an accident might (though not necessarily) go something like this: "Well, um, I kind of fell over and sort of landed on this jagged rock which, er, was what basically caused the injury". A written account, on the other hand, would be: "I fell over and landed on a jagged rock which was what caused the injury".
Fillers showing the speaker's attitude
The second group of fillers are padding words
and expressions that show the speaker's attitude,
so these are words which we often throw in to
reinforce and indicate our attitude to what
we are saying (i.e. if we feel it strongly or
we're not sure). Let's have a look at this example:
We can build up a list of some of these fillers,
preceded in each case by their meaning (i.e.
in what context you would use this expression):
Should we use them?
Used carefully, there is nothing wrong with conversational fillers, in particular those in the second group above, which do actually serve some purpose and add a degree of meaning. However, the obvious rule is to avoid repetitive use of the same filler too often. It can be cringe-inducing to hear interviews on the TV or radio with people who do not know how to express themselves very clearly, and end up saying "you know" in every single sentence. The word "like" is another equally over-used example: "It was like, amazing, I mean they were just, like, so gorgeous, and like, I dunno, everyone was like, just really excited, and like, screaming and yelling..."
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