What are filler words and why can they become a problem?

I’ve just been listening to someone talking, but I got distracted. I started counting how many times she said the word “like” instead of actually listening to her. I got to 17 in the first 5 minutes. I don’t mean things such as
I like this
Or
It smells like coffee
Or
I don’t want to work with people like that.

No, I mean using “like” as a filler word:
It’s like amazing
And
I was like really surprised
And
He was like 20 minutes early.

For me, this was LIKE really distracting!

Why do we use filler words?

We all use filler words to some extent, and they can make our speech sound more conversational, spontaneous, and less like a script that we have rehearsed. We can use words such as “ok”, “like”, “well”, “you know”, or it can even be sounds like “erm” or “er”. Sometimes, when people are editing their podcasts, they take all of these out. I think this can sound a bit unnatural, so I don’t do that, but I do try to limit them.

We use these fillers for a number of reasons.

1. They give us time to think of what we want to say. This is particularly useful if you can’t decide or don’t know how to answer something.
2. We use them to fill silence – we don’t want the other person to start talking again, but we’re not quite ready to answer.
3. They can be used to soften something if you give a negative response. “Would you like to come to my party?” “No!” Sounds a bit harsh and direct. “Er, no, actually I can’t come to your party because I’m on holiday that weekend,” sounds a bit more friendly! It shows that you thought about it for a second before you said that you wouldn’t come.
4. Sometimes we use them when we need to process information. “Ok….so….that means that…” I’m working out in my own head what it means before I suggest what we do now.
5. We want to fit in. Sometimes you notice in groups that if everyone is using “like” all the time, other people might do it because their friends are and they want to blend in.

So, in normal speech, we all do it, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes because it’s become a bit of a habit while we think about what we are going to say next. However, particularly if you’re going to be speaking in front of other people, try to work out whether there are any words like this that you use excessively so that you can try to avoid them, or at least not use them as much. You don’t want people to focus on these filler words and not listen to what you’re saying. Also, if you’re giving a presentation, it can make you sound as if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that’s not good!

I say “right” and “so” too much at the beginning of sentences! I know this, because I edit my own podcast, so I have to listen to recordings of myself sometimes. Nobody likes to do this, but if you’re someone who needs to speak in front of others in meetings, or to give presentations, it’s sometimes good to record yourself so that you can pick up on any annoying habits or filler words, because you probably won’t be aware of them when you’re speaking.

This thing with “like” is something that a lot of native speakers do, but if you’re learning English, please don’t copy them!

Can you think of any filler words, sounds, or expressions that you use a lot? Let me know in the comments!

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Kirsty working with students


2 Comments on “What are filler words and why can they become a problem?”

  1. lesleyconnor says:

    Great post. I hate “like”. I believe these filler words become such an entrenched habit that people really don’t realise they are doing it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, and yes I agree – most people have no idea that they’re doing things like this, which can be annoying to others. That’s why I sometimes encourage my students to record themselves speaking. Even though most people don’t enjoy listening to their own voice, it can give you an idea of some of the things you do unintentionally!


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