Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

um like.jpg

Not always these people. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

The Functions of ‘Um,’ ‘Like,’ ‘You Know’

• May 15, 2014 • 4:14 PM

Not always these people. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

It isn’t just valley girl babble.

Interestingly enough, that filler language you might associate with, you know, dumb teenagers in, like, Southern California, is totally more meaningful than we thought.

Filler words like “uh,” “um,” “you know,” “I mean,” and “like” aren’t always just dimwitted lapses in someone’s linguistic canon, and they’re certainly not always indicative of careless oratory, according to a new study in the June issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

Psycholinguists have actually categorized words usually thought of as superfluous blips in speech into separate groups based on their function. “Um” and “uh” are known as “filled pauses.” “You know,” “I mean,” and “like” are termed “discourse markers.”

Previous research has suggested that filled pauses “may inform listeners that the speaker needs a pause to collect his or her thoughts or block the listener from taking the speaker’s turn away.” Scientists believe its a reflection of “the processing of complex thoughts.” Though representations in pop culture might have us think otherwise, previous research suggests people in authoritative roles often make use of them.

Though broadly categorized as transitional speech, discourse markers are more reliant on context.

For example, the phrase I mean serves as an indication that a speaker is planning to modify what is said, and you know is used when the speaker is asking a listener to make inferences about the conversation.

Other research suggests that another purpose of you know is to confirm the understanding of a listener. The purpose of the discourse marker like is more ambiguous, but some studies suggest that speakers use it as a hedge when they do not want to fully commit to what they say. However, Liu and Fox Tree have countered the suggestion that like acts as a hedge by showing that this discourse marker exhibits different patterns from other hedges and likely has its own unique function.

According to one previous study, which analyzed speech in college lectures and seminars, female students were more likely to say “like” than their male counterparts and professors.

In the latest study, the scientists analyzed 263 transcriptions from five previous language studies. The speech was gathered from Electronically Activated Recorders, which recorded “truly spontaneous conversation” from subjects ranging in age from 17 to 69. Then they attempted to see whether there were any correlations between the age, gender, and personality traits of the subjects and the rates of filled pauses and discourse markers in their speech.

Younger college females loved discourse markers, but filled pauses occurred at similar rates across gender and age groups. Oddly enough, the personality trait of conscientiousness correlated with discourse markers.

The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings. When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.

So next time you’re accused of sounding like a bumbling teenager, you can say: “You know, I’m just being conscientious, dude.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.