Table of contents
Here is an example of a typical dialogue found in a school book for learning English:
Amelia: Hi, George. How are you?
George: I’m fine, Amelia. And you?
Amelia: I’m fine, too. Would you like to visit me tomorrow for lunch?
George: Sure. I would like that very much. What time should I come?
Amelia: Twelve o’clock.
George: Great. I will see you tomorrow.
Look carefully at the dialogue. Can you see anything which is not natural?
In fact, there is much in the conversation which is not natural. Even in a short, simple conversation like this, people do not really speak smoothly and perfectly, word for word.
Here is a more realistic conversation:
Amelia: Hey, George.
George: Hey, Amelia. What’s up?
Amelia: Well… I don’t know. Actually, I was just thinking… how about if you come over for lunch tomorrow?
George: Uh… yeah, sure. That’d be cool, I guess. Um…like what time?
Amelia: I’m not sure. I guess… twelve o’clock?
George: Twelve…uh…let me think…Sure, that works for me. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.
Can you see how the second conversation is different from the first? It’s a bit longer and it’s full of extra words and phrases. Sometimes, these phrases seem to have no linguistic purpose.
These words are called filler words.
Let’s see a list of filler words (and phrases) used in our short example:
- I don’t know
- I was just thinking
- Yeah, sure.
- That’d be cool
- I guess
- I’m not sure
- Let me think…
We call them filler words because they fill in the natural spaces in our conversation. Like Sentence Starters, they are how natives actually speak in English
Why do people use filler words?
There are several reasons that people use filler words. Let’s examine some of them.
1 We use filler words to make a conversation friendlier
Filler words are a part of informal speech. Informal speech is seen as friendlier than formal speech.
Let’s see an example:
Alexander: Fred, do you like hockey?
Formal Fred: No, I do not like hockey.
Alexander: Charlie, do you like hockey?
Chill Charlie: Um, well…not really, y’know?
Charlie’s answer, using filler words, sounds friendlier. On the other hand, this way of speaking would not be suitable in a formal situation, such as a job interview.
2 We use filler words to make a statement gentler
As a general rule in English, to be more indirect is to be more polite. Hence, we may wish to use filler words to make a harsh statement sound gentle.
George: Veronica, would you like to go out to dinner with me sometime?
Clarissa: Uh, well, I don’t know, George. I’m kinda busy at the moment. Sorry.
George: I understand.
Did you notice that Clarissa used filler words to say ‘no’ to George without actually using the word ‘no’?
3 We use filler words to “buy time”
This is the most important reason that we use filler words. Studies show that we speak at around 120 words per minute, but we can think at 800 words per minute or more.
What does this mean for our speech? It means that if we can pause or hesitate even for a few seconds, it gives us the ‘bandwidth’ to think about what we are going to say next.
Just saying ‘uh…’ or ‘um…’ gives us time to carefully construct our next sentence. As such, it is a very important communication skill.
Is it good to use filler words?
First of all, everyone uses filler words in their native language. Whether good or bad, it is a natural part of communication.
Some people use ‘uh’ and ‘um’ too much, and it can certainly be annoying. Because of this, there are videos encouraging people to stop using filler words.
Filler words can also be considered lazy and even rude:
Dad: What did you learn at school today? Did you do history?
Teen: Uh, yeah, something like that.
Dad: [angry] Don’t answer me like that. Did you or did you not do history?
But remember, the main purpose of filler words is to give us time to think. This is an excellent skill for an English learner to have.
If we can avoid ‘lazy’ filler words, like ‘uh’ and ‘um’, and use more precise filler words, it will improve the way we speak and so filler words are certainly a good thing!
What are some filler words that can help you when you speak?
Let’s have a look at ten filler words and phrases that you can use right away:
‘So’ is a filler word that we can use to begin a conversation. When we approach a person and open with ‘so’, it shows that we are friendly and want to have a chat.
Example: So, Sandra, how was your weekend?
That’s a good question
Have you ever heard someone on TV say, “That’s a good question”?
Usually, what they mean is that they have been asked a difficult question and they need a filler sentence to “buy time” and think of an answer!
Perhaps you could use this phrase too:
Teacher: Billy, why haven’t you done your homework?
Billy: That’s a good question! Okay, it’s like this…
What I want to talk about next is…
This is an example of a filler phrase that we use in a presentation. After all, giving a presentation is hard - we have to talk and think at the same time!
Using filler words and phrases can help us to think about the next point we wish to make:
What I want to talk about next is…
My next major point is…
Now, I’m going to move on to my next topic…
Here is a filler word that we can use when giving explanations or instructions:
Joe: So, how do I connect to the printer from here?
Brad: Okay, basically, you just need to click on FILE…
This is a great word to use when we wish to clarify something or disagree with a person. We can use it to avoid saying “you’re wrong”, which is too direct.
Frank: Everyone says that Jake is a real jerk. (a jerk = a horrible person)
Harold: Actually, I think you’ll find that Jake is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet.
‘Well’ is a simple and straightforward way of showing that you are thinking about what to say next. It is a way of ‘buying time’ without using lazy-sounding words like ‘uh’ or ‘um’.
Paula: George texted to ask me out. Should I say yes?
Jane: Well… it depends. I mean, do you really like him?
Note the three-in-a-row combo of filler phrases here: (1) well (2) it depends (3) I mean.
‘Okay’ is perhaps the world’s most popular word.
Just like ‘well’, we can use it to show that we are considering a response. One advantage is that you probably use this word in your own language, so it may feel more natural.
Paula: George texted me again. Look, he sent a heart emoji!
Jane: Okay, so… just because he sent a cute message doesn’t mean you should go out with him.
We can use the word ‘right’ when another person is speaking at length. It shows that we are following the conversation even if we are not taking part.
Pete: You know how I got home late last night?
Pete: My wife was terribly angry with me. You know how women are.
Pete: Anyway, so, she picked up a frying pan…
‘Sure’ is another word that we can use to keep a conversation going without interrupting the speaker. Just like ‘right’, it has the advantage that it sounds positive.
Stan: So, Pete went home late and got into trouble with his wife. You know how he is.
Stan: Anyway, it turns out that she hit him with a frying pan…
I guess so
It’s easy to agree and it’s easy to disagree. But what if you only partly agree?
The filler phrases ‘I guess’ and ‘I guess so’ are useful for when we want to agree…reluctantly.
Boss: I’m afraid I have to cut your pay by 10%. But you won’t quit, right? You’ll still work here?
George: I guess so.
Use good filler words. Don’t use bad filler words.
Well, so…, I guess that’s the end of our list of filler words.
My parting advice is simple: don’t use filler words that make you sound lazy or confused (uh, um, something like that). Instead use filler words that have a precise meaning and help you to communicate.
And now that we have learned a list of ‘good’ filler words, listen out for them when you hear people speaking English and try to use some of them yourself!