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Filler Words in Everyday Speech - IELTS/TOEFL

Introduction to Discourse Markers and Fillers

In the past, Discourse Markers and Fillers (those little words we use to...um...fill silences) were considered a sign of stupidity or lower intelligence. Nowadays, however, we know that this is not the case. Studies in linguistics have shown that filler words and phrases, and discourse markers - such as like, eh and wow - serve a very important function in everyday communication. In an interview with the UK Independent, Professor Michael Handford, a Professor of Applied Linguistics and English language at Cardiff University, suggests two reasons people use these kinds of words, sounds and phrases when communicating:

  1. For interactional reasons

  2. For cognitive reasons



When interacting with others, we use filler words when we have an awareness of who we are talking to. They are often used to help us sound more polite. If we are declining an invitation, for example, it sounds much more polite to answer, “Um, I'm sorry, I…uh…can't go, I'm afraid”, than giving a direct, “No, I can't”. So one function of fillers and discourse markers relates to politeness. 

A similar thing happens when you are having a conversation with someone, and you might appear disinterested and socially awkward if you don't respond to what the other person is saying. Discourse markers are a great way to show you are listening and interested; and to show how you feel about what the other person is saying, without interrupting.



Cognition means anything related to how your brain processes information. When we are trying to process information that is more complex or difficult to understand, we tend to use more filler words. This is important for both the speaker and the person who is listening. For the speaker, using filler words allows the listener to have more time to process what the speaker is saying. On the speaker's behalf, it demonstrates an understanding of the listener's ability to process advanced information.

Fillers can also indicate that you intend to speak. If someone wants to ask a question and you are put on the spot - to ask for directions, for example - you might make a sound such as 'Hmm', 'Okay' or 'right', to let the other person know that you are thinking about the answer. This can work well in large discussions also, coming in with a filler word in a discussion is a good indication to everyone that you intend to speak or you have something to contribute to the conversation. 

There is a belief, however, that using too many fillers when giving a presentation or in a job interview, for example, can sometimes have a negative effect: overusing fillers can sometimes make it seem as if you are weak, nervous or unprepared. Unfortunately, we don't have any research that tells us how many fillers are too much. In a situation like a presentation or a job interview, it is the listener who decides. So, in these situations, we advise you to practice and to be familiar with your material, narrowing the time needed to think between what you are saying.

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