Disfluencies: What do they mean by “I mean”?

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

Note that these columns are written for an audience that may not speak English as a first language. In them I often explain things that are obvious to a native speaker of English but may not be to an English-learner.

One of the hardest things to get a handle on when trying to understand the everyday speech of an average English-speaker is the way it is littered with apparently useless little words and phrases.

The most derided is like, but there are also um, err, you know, ah, well, and dozens more. Linguists call them disfluencies. A disfluency is a break in the steady flow of speech.

Some years ago at university, I heard a classmate use the disfluency I mean 35 times in less than two minutes. It was irritating to hear and it made me think she was stupid.

But I now know that those throwaway words aren’t quite so disposable as they seem. For one thing, they can contain information. For another, they can be guideposts to someone else’s way of acting.

Even the brightest people use them. Andrew Marr’s program Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 features some of the top minds of our era talking about their areas of expertise. Many of them write successful books and give well-received lectures. They’re intelligent, thoughtful people.

Yet, they almost compulsively tend to start their answers to questions with the word “well”.

A guest on the programme might say something like (I am inventing this so as to not cause anyone any embarrassment), “Well, I’m not sure when the buboes first began appearing, but we know for certain when the plague died out.”

(A bubo is a dark, incredibly swollen lymph node in the armpit or groin, historically known as a symptom of the Black Plague that swept through Europe and killed millions in the 1600s.)

What is the “well” doing there at the beginning of the sentence?

Well, as Neal Norrick writes in his book Conversational Narrative: Storytelling in Everyday Talk, anyone telling a story tends to pause at the beginning of the tale. Those pauses, Norrick writes, “encourage audience attention and participation”.

Using words like well, um, or you know at the beginning increases a listener’s anticipation. In just the little bit of time it takes to say them, listeners come to greater attention and grow ready for what the speaker really has to say.

Those little words also allow the speaker, just for the briefest moment, to collect his thoughts, order his words, and come up with the best opening line he can think of.

Even storytellers who have told a tale hundreds or thousands of times will find a way to hem and haw (to speak uncertainly or indecisively) in order to draw all eyes and minds to the next words in the story, which are the most important ones by far.

Um is a particularly interesting disfluency. It is often used unconsciously as a way of stalling for time when one does not know what to say. It and other disfluencies are also used when you do not want someone else to take over the conversation, so you say something like, “As I was saying, uh, um, er, there was an, uh, um, time I could speak off the cuff and didn’t need notes.”

(If you do something off the cuff, you do it in an impromptu way, without rehearsal or preparation.)

By filling the holes in your thoughts with those filler words, you keep the listener hanging on. When it is used consciously, however, the speaker uses um as a showy way of taking a pause. For example,

Speaker 1: What are you doing in my car?

Speaker 2: Ummm…

Speaker 1: Oh! Sorry! I have a Honda the same colour. I thought you were in my car.

The second speaker, instead of getting angry or defensive, uses a long drawn-out um to give the first speaker a chance to come to the correct conclusion. It saves them from having a disagreement and, perhaps more importantly, it lets the first speaker go away without feeling too stupid. It allows him to identify his mistake himself.

I mean is the disfluency I still notice the most and which I think most people don’t notice at all.

One of its main purposes is editing, that is, when you’re speaking and you need to go back and correct, explain, or amend something you said.

For example, “There is no way I’m getting in that car. I mean, it stinks like a dead animal and the seats are missing.” Or, “She’s too good for her job. I mean, she’s so good at it that she should be promoted.”

In the first sentence, I mean is a way of introducing why you won’t get into the car.

In the second sentence, I mean is followed by an explanation that you didn’t mean that she thought the work was beneath her or that she is a snob who has an unbelievably high opinion of herself. You just thought she was good at her work.

I mean, you know, like, um, more next time.

Posted July 9, 2008

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