Q. Why can’t I stop using like and um in conversation?
A. These language bugaboos are what linguists call verbal fillers, used when we feel nervous or need a moment to shape our thoughts. According to Michael Erard, the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean ($15, amazon.com), humans have probably been using them for about 100,000 years. Or at least the past 124: The first recordings by Thomas Edison are littered with examples: “We’ll get into Paris and make for the, uh, Grand Hotel…Uh, good-bye.”
In most instances, it’s fine to use um and uh. In fact, a report from the University of Rochester, in New York, showed that children paid more attention when Mom and Dad studded their speech with an occasional um or uh; it’s the equivalent of taking a pause for effect. But beware of using the word like specifically: In formal situations—say, during a job interview—it can weaken the impression that you make. In a Pennsylvania State University study, participants perceived job applicants as less desirable if they overused like, as opposed to using uh instead.
Researchers theorize that while um and uh have been in the vernacular for ages, like is a relatively recent addition that should eventually gain credibility. “Language innovation is often viewed as ignorance or airheaded-ness at first,” says Robert Underhill, a linguistics professor at San Diego State University. It takes a generation for a new phrase to enter the general lexicon. So for now, let like percolate—it could take some, um, time.
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