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You say 'um,' I say 'uh': Which one rules?

by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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When it comes to filling those awkward pauses while speaking, “uh” has had a good run, but it turns out “um” rules.

Most everyone uses one or the other when they talk— some painfully frequently— a seemingly trivial quirk of speech that's attracting the attention of experts.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, began taking a closer look at “uh” and “um” usage a decade ago and believes we’re in the midst of a shift.

“It looks like this might be a change in progress. The frequency of ‘um’ relative to ‘uh’ is actually increasing,” Liberman told TODAY, noting this is not a big area of research for linguists but still piques their curiosity.

“What role do they play in speaking? Are they really words or are they some kind of symptom of a breakdown in the speech production apparatus?”

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Men tend to use "uh" more, while women like to use "um."Shutterstock

Liberman has analyzed thousands of transcribed telephone conversations between native English speakers to see who favors each expression.

He discovered that:

  • Younger people say “um” much more than older Americans, and at every age, women use it more than men.
  • It was exactly the opposite for “uh:” It was the expression of choice for older people and at every age, men employed it more than women. (President Obama is a good example, with one observer counting 236 instances of him saying “uh” during a 2012 presidential debate.)
  • "Um” appears to be taking over as the expression of choice because the younger generation dictates how people will speak in the future and because most linguistic changes are led by women, noted Liberman, who is preparing to submit a paper about the subject.

Why do we say “um” and “uh” in the first place? Linguists call them filled pauses or hesitation sounds and they make up about 2 percent of all spoken words. Men tend to use them more than women.

When we talk, it’s an imperfect process that includes backtracking, corrections, beginnings that are abandoned and other mistakes referred to as disfluency.

Hesitation sounds help us avoid any uncomfortable silence during speaking.

“People don’t like to have the dead air and they can fill it with some more or less meaningless words like, ‘well’ or ‘I know’ or ‘I mean’ – or they can fill it with ‘uh’ or ‘um,’” Liberman said.

“Some people have more reasons to put in these hesitations than others because they think more carefully about what they say or they have more trouble finding the (right) words.”

It’s not clear whether “um” and “uh” serve the same purpose. It could be that saying one vs. the other indicates the difference between deciding what to say and how to say it or perhaps even whether to say it at all, Liberman said.

"Uh" may be used to indicate what is expected to be a minor delay in speaking; "um" comes before what is expected to be a major delay, a study published in the journal Cognition found. That means, we might say "um" as we gather our thoughts, but don't want to be interrupted or "cede the floor."

At the moment, most evidence points to it being purely a matter of style, said Liberman.

Liberman brought up his findings during a workshop in the Netherlands last year, where fellow linguists became interested in what they’d find in other parts of the world. To everyone’s surprise, the same patterns emerged across several different languages and language varieties, including British English, Scottish English, Dutch, Norwegian and German.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Google+ and Twitter.

This article was originally published Feb. 13, 2015 at 9:45 a.m. ET.

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