Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Um, What Do, Uh, Verbal Blunders Tell Us

Slips of the tongue? Mixed up consonants? Verbal blunders are more than simple mistakes to linguist and journalist Michael Erard. The author of Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, Michael explores what gaffes in speech tell us about language, and ourselves. We called him to learn, um, more about this subject:

VT: How did you become fascinated by verbal slips and blunders?

Michael: I wanted to tell stories about language, and one important story of my life has been how language feels different when I write it and when I speak it. In 1999 and 2000, when George W. Bush was running for president, I was attracted to the story of how he used language, not only for what he said but for how we heard it. The way he used language was getting a lot of attention.

VT: In what way?

Michael: Not so much for the way that he put his sentences together but for the way that he made mistakes. They were real mistakes, real malapropisms, like saying "Grecian" instead of "Greek" or the one that everyone loves, "misunderestimate." These slips became evidence for some people in the media that Bush was not a normal speaker -- and maybe because he wasn't a normal speaker he wasn't intelligent, and maybe we had to question his character.

At the time I knew that I wasn't going to vote for Bush but I thought, well, I make slips of the tongue, too, and I say "uh" and "um" a certain amount. I wanted to know, is that normal? What does it mean to be a normal speaker? So I started looking into it and found a lot of scientific research. And I also started to encounter people in different professions who treated these verbal slips differently than most people, who commonly think that "uh's" and "um's" are meaningless and slips are just funny. If you talk to interrogators and detectives, for example, they'll tell you that they use interruptions and pauses in speaking as indications of whether someone is telling the truth or whether someone's feeling anxious.

VT: Because if you're lying you use more of them?

Michael: There's some disagreement about whether you can tell whether someone is lying by how self-interrupting they are when they speak. There's some evidence that shows that it's not the lying that causes these slips, but the fact that people are in an unfamiliar situation. If they're in an interrogation room, for instance, they might be nervous - but maybe that's because they are actually innocent and afraid of getting pegged as guilty.

When you make stereotypical assumptions about interrupted, spontaneous speaking you can actually miss some things. People who are very skilled liars sometimes speak very smoothly. So how can you catch them if you are only paying attention to the way someone speaks?

VT: Interesting.

Michael: Slips of the tongue, though, are particularly useful for linguists and psychologists, who have used them as evidence of how language operates in the brain. This study has been going on for about 40 years and has been incredibly fruitful.

VT: Let's step back for a moment. How do you and other experts in the field define a "blunder"?

Michael: In my book I talk about blunders in two ways. First, it's slips of the tongue -- accidents of speaking. For example, last weekend I tried to say "beef jerky" and it almost came out as "jeef berky." I stopped myself before I said the full phrase. I had planned to say "beef jerky" but instead my brain swapped the consonants. And my wife was recently putting away groceries, and I casually asked what we were having for dinner. "Turkey bars," she told me. "Turkey bars?" I asked. Turns out that as she was answering, she was putting a box of fudge bars into the freezer.

The other category is what is called "disfluencies," that is, people saying "uh" and "um," restarting their sentence, repeating words, saying a fragment of a word, things like that. Slips of the tongue happen on average about once or twice every thousand words; however, we typically notice one about once a week. Hopefully my book will make people notice them more frequently.

VT: Once every thousand words?

Michael: Which is much less often than the disfluencies, which occur about once every 4.4 seconds. When we're speaking spontaneously, about 5% to 8% of the words that we say are somehow disfluent or include disfluencies.

VT: That's quite a bit!

Michael: There are more disfluencies than there are slips of the tongue. Of all disfluencies, "uh" and "um" occur in the greatest number.

VT: From your research, what do all these speaking errors tell us about how we humans think about and process language?

Michael: It tells a lot. For one thing, we don't communicate in whole sentences. We communicate in phrases or in clauses. In spontaneous, conversational language we put phrases together and those phrases are typically pretty short.

It also tells us that there's a lot of variation in what each of us does individually. Each of us has an individual style, a sort of verbal finger print. Adults will be more likely to make a slip like "cuff of coffee" than "cup of coppee" because they have more practice with the sounds of the language. Some people say "uh" or "um" more. Other folks restart their sentences more. It depends whether you're a careful, planning sort of person or whether you just hurtle forward and have full confidence that you can always go back and change what you say if it doesn't come out right. Me, I'm an "ummer."

VT: What about "Freudian slips" -- are they real?

Michael: We think of "Freudian slips" now as a slip of the tongue that has an obvious innuendo or some sort of obvious sexual or obscene connection. But to Freud, all the slips that we make -- off color or not -- have the same cause, which is an emotional cause. It's an unconscious desire that I'm repressing that automatically comes out. So Freud would say that when I made my "jeef berky" slip, there was some emotional meaning to that.

VT: Do you agree with him?

Michael: Freud couldn't explain those sorts of mundane slips. But he did give us a really great way of listening to people very closely and using clues -- very minor and otherwise insignificant clues -- to reach conclusions about who people are and what they want. At the same time he probably also set back the scientific study of slips of the tongue for quite a while because he connected slips more to an individual speaker, not the act of speaking in general.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 19th 2007, 10:03 PM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
I thought this a very thought provoking article. I am a Lancashire lass living in Australia and I find now that I mix Australianisms with my old dialect and don't always know for sure which is which. My Husband is Yorkshire and when we first married I had to consciously resist the temptation to correct his speech because he would (naturally) become offended. My mother used to 'correct' mine all the time and so I was aware of the differences. Now I find I use a lot of his dialect too! Quite a mixed-up kid! My pet hate is the word "Fillum" for film. But in the end I know what he means so does it matter?
Thursday September 20th 2007, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Max C.
Now that I understand, learned, that I can identify or the identity and label my verbal blunders or bungles as disfluencies, I see that I must buy or read Mr. Erard's book to find out why I do it since the article didn't state or say and hopefully, I can see or dispel the thoughts that I may have an organic malwiring, miswiring, in my brain that causes these irritating and frustrating foul-up, verbal flubs when speaking to someone. As you can see I don't do it when I write. I never knew these areas of speech was researched either. I intend to get Mr. Erard's book to learn more now that he has peaked my interest with this article.
Thursday September 20th 2007, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Aristede K.
interesting
Friday September 21st 2007, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Kenny E.
Sweet...umm...I think I am going to buy your jeef berky...I mean your book. :P
Sunday September 23rd 2007, 10:59 PM
Comment by: Robert D.
Good article. It'd be nice to have a follow-up on whether there IS any correlation between the "uh's" and "um's" and intelligence. I've noticed sometimes in watching documentaries featuring really smart people, like top scientists, that many of them rarely utter an "um." They speak with a slight pause instead of any thought-gathering utterance. (Who knew that I'd be writing the phrase "thought-gathering utterance" today? :)
Tuesday September 25th 2007, 12:04 AM
Comment by: Suzanne L.
I think all folks feel a bit awkward when leaving big gaping holes in the middle of their conversation. They fill the gaps with "ums" so that no one else will jump in. In speaking classes, they teach people to notice these habits. With practice, it is fairly easy to give a speech without saying them. However, regular conversation is still a bit harder.
Thursday September 27th 2007, 6:34 AM
Comment by: Naresh K.
Great insight into daily gaffes of native speakers. I use English as a second language in my daily life. In India, the slips of the tongue happen due to interference of local Indian languages and the results are often amazing. School becomes eskool for North Indian Hindi speakers. Wonderful becomes bhondurful for Bengalis, pathetic becomes paaatheic for Tamilians and zip becomes a hardened zip with a nasal ja for z.
Thought-provoking article!
Friday September 28th 2007, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Christine H.
Great speakers are a joy to listen to. I am particularly interested in authors who can address an audience, sometimes without ever glancing at a note, flowing effortlessly from one idea to the next without ever uttering an "umm" or an "uh." Maybe it's just a matter of thorough preparation and practice, but it's still magical to me. I wonder if people who express themselves with great fluency and insight are just clearer thinkers and if they have a special gift of visualizing their ideas before they open their mouths. I would love to hear a discussion on this topic.
Saturday September 29th 2007, 10:10 PM
Comment by: Mary K.
I have noticed, as I get older, I make more of these speech blunders. I find them embarrassing and I have even wondered if they are the beginnings of Alzheimers. The doctors usually say it is the result of having too much to think about. This is a good topic for research.
Tuesday October 2nd 2007, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Laura Lee R.
Very interesting. I'm ever intrigued by these thought provoking ideas about language, particularly the English language, which is full-bodied, and has covered just about anything that we might want to express, um.
Tuesday October 16th 2007, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Cynthia R.
My dad speaks in Spoonerisms on purpose and my mom like to rearrange syllables in a word (e.g. Afstanagan vs. Afganastan). With this linquistic legacy, I simply must to get a copy of the book to learn more!
Monday November 19th 2007, 7:37 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Fascinating! I would be interested in how keyboaring "speech" relates to all of this; are typos affected by emotions, etc., in the same way that "verbos" (verbal errors) are? In the third paragraph from the end of the article (not including V.T questions as paragraphs), Michael refers to some people "hurdling" forward; do you suppose he meant to say "hurtling" forward? Typo or emotional error or just a fun, delightful misuse of a word?
Friday December 7th 2007, 7:27 PM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Sorry, but "peaked my interest", Max Carpenter? Mixing two completely different words up which happen to be homophones really gets up my nose, not that I expect you to be distressed by that. But one reason to care is that it really shows a lack of education on the part of a person who does that, and would tend to make people take what you say less seriously than they would otherwise. It's a reason to be more careful when you write, don't you think?

By the way, you may have gathered that I am an English teacher!
Wednesday December 26th 2007, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Matthew John Z.
Regarding disfluency and "smart people" (comment: bd 2007.09.23) --

As an unrepentant "news geek," I listen to my share (and then some) of inteview on NPR and other radio programs. Something I'd noticed there made me pay attention to other forms of documentary as well, and I've found one consistency that I'd love explained.

While "educated" or academic people -might- not express as many "uh/er/um" disfluencies as the rest of us, they seem to all have been trained into this: the answer to every question starts with "So,..." or "Well,..." and
often "Well, so, what you have here is..."

This happens so often and across such a broad spectrum of speakers that it practically glows (aurally speaking, of course!) each time I hear it.

My own thought: it is not a conscious affectation, as I suspected early on, but rather a cultural expression.

Thoughts?
Thursday December 27th 2007, 4:08 AM
Comment by: Elena Y.
Matthew John Zwierzyna:
I completely agree with you. My teachers have always been fighting "parasite words" frantically, saying that every blunder word we use in our speech occludes comprehension for the listeners and undermines our authority in their eyes. Educated people should be able to control their speech and present their thoughts clearly.
Friday December 28th 2007, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Liliana H.
Mastering oral communication in English as a second language has been a life long pursuit, particularly in the education field where others are counting on my effective communication skills. In the last couple of years I have made a concerted effort to speak faster and avoid 'verbal crutches' such as 'ums, and uhs'. I used to think I needed them to buy myself time to string thoughts together in my head; however, I am convinced now that it became a habits to use such disfluencies. Now I can still try to find just the precise word to express a concept without needing to 'auditorily' hurt the listener with unnecessry grunts. I can simply think outloud and describe what I mean and let my mind find the exact word, if there is one, to express my ideas as I am describing them, without disfluencies, all of which has helped the rate at which I speak.
Sunday December 30th 2007, 7:59 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
1. Speaking without disfluencies (not in the spell-check dictionary by the way) is almost always a matter of training and practice--there are many kinds of PR speaker training that develop these skills. The use of audio or video recording and listening to playback is a particularly effective tool in learning to eliminate the ums, ers, etc. As usual with performance, much practice and hard work sounds like magic to the uninitiated! And the more performances (speech-making, interviews, etc.), the more polished the performer.

2. Professors and other professional lecturers/speakers (e.g. debaters) substitute Well or So because they are more effective thought-gathering utterances than Er or Um, especially at the beginning of a sentence. I think we learned this trick as TAs from senior lecturers.

3. I've noticed the peeked/peaked/piqued confusion is very common in online discourse--I think it's because that's a word more people speak than write or read and so use the homonym in the casual and fast notes of comments. The spell-check won't help you either!
Friday February 1st 2008, 9:29 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
A revealing Bush quote: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." --Greece, N.Y., May 24, 2005
Here he seems to not only reveal his feelings about what the truth is--or whether it is true--but also to combine this in a most unusual way with the word "catapult."

While language gaffes can underscore a lack of education, they can also result from forms of dyslexia. Bush may have both, in the true sense, despite his Yale attendance. He said "I'm occasionally reading, I want you to know, in the second term." --Washington, D.C., March 16, 2005

My husband's dyslexia ensures that I'm the resident secretary when it comes to writing but he is by far the more imaginative punner and creates wonderful plays on words. I suspect this is because he is not constrained to think about them with the rigor of correct spelling as I do; his world of words is completely auditory and free of that.
Monday September 22nd 2008, 8:34 AM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
I wonder if the author has any thoughts about whether stuttering should be included among the various forms of gaffes in speech?
Saturday November 29th 2008, 3:06 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Is "you know" also considered a disfluency? It is annoying insert, that makes the speaker sound unsure of
their topic.
Sunday November 30th 2008, 1:02 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
A couple decades ago, a friend became concerned with how often we used the disfluency "um". We discussed how we might reduce the use. I jokingly suggested it would be funny if we could be hypnotized and made to involuntarily shout UUMMM at the top of our voices every time we uttered it. Then we began doing so voluntarily and we'd have a good laugh. It was surprisingly effective in reducing the frequency of use.
Saturday August 7th 2010, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Andrew L. B.
Very interesting topic. I notice, as I grow older, my hearing diminishes. As a result of this, I am so appreciate when I hear speakers articulate their words. As I listen more carefully, I realize that most people do not articulate their words. The spoken language is beautiful. When articulation enunciation, intonation pronunciation and gesticulation is included in the spoken language, it sounds like a beautiful song.

Another question I would like to have clarified is this: Why do speakers use "Reason and Why" together. It seems to me that "Reason" is the Why and "Why" is the Reason. "The Reason Why"-- sounds redundant to me
Tuesday October 18th 2011, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I had Michael's jeef berky, but as steef broganof. Sigh! Now I avoid water with lemon in it.
Tuesday December 27th 2011, 7:00 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Interesting article. I always wondered about "um" and "uh". My fifth grade teacher-a true original-once told our class while we were studying grammar that we had to go for an hour without saying "um" or "uh". You wouldn't believe how quiet that classroom was!
Boy, did I miss her when I got to all that advanced grammar in secondary!
Friday May 11th 2012, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Maggie C.
Um... this, uh, joke, is, um... overused... uh...
Thursday September 20th 2012, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
I found the article very interesting, well-written and insightful. But I noticed that in the third to the last paragraph, Michael used the word "hurdle" instead of "hurtle." Since his article was about slips in writing, I thought I'd point it out, unless someone else already had done so. I read the comments and, sure enough, someone had caught the mistake; the comment was made by me, about five years ago! Deja WHO?! It was fun but a little bit disorienting, like when you see a familiar looking person across a room and then discover you're looking in a mirror.

In my comment in 2007, I had made a mistake myself, that I caught this time around: I had left out the letter D when I tried to write "keyboarding." Hey, past self, pay attention! And proof-read your writing before you hit "POST COMMENT"!

Maybe I'll re-discover both of these comments in 2017 ...

The Happy Quibbler

["Hurdle" has belatedly been fixed! —Ed.]
Saturday December 29th 2012, 7:21 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Like Uh, I mean, not much vocabulary? :-)
Monday January 7th 2013, 7:59 AM
Comment by: yasha S. (United Kingdom)
A very interesting and a Nice article :)
Monday June 24th 2013, 12:20 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Kristine--I noticed your typo about typos the first time around but decided not to quibble about it. Strangely enough, I, too, started to comment on the article and noticed that I already had back in 2008! "Deja who" as well for me. Apparently what I've read and commented on 5 years back isn't as sticky as I thought it would be.

To Mary, who worries that such slips mean the onset of Alzheimer's: it's true that some dementia manifests itself with aphasia. I found that simply removing gluten from my diet eliminated some fogginess and verbal gaps that had me worried, along with other problems. The gut and the brain are directly connected via the vagus nerve; perhaps our verbal tics are related to that jeef berky after all.
Monday June 24th 2013, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Susan C. - Removing gluten? You're not the first person who has suggested that as a possible way to diminish "some fogginess and verbal gaps" ... I might just have to break down and do it, as "they have me worried, along with other problems." Coincidentally, I'm going to take some cognitive tests in a couple of days, which should either ease or multiply my concerns.

I just went back and read your 2008 comment, and enjoyed it all over again, especially your comments about the complementary cognitive styles that you and your husband provide, like Jack Sprat and his wife!

The Happy Quibbler

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