Sunday, October 10, 2010


In my experience as a speaker, I have, uh, occasionally peppered my speech with, um, useless little words that would be better left, hmm, out. It is easier to edit in written form because you can go back over and delete anything you find superfluous. I don’t think I’ve ever put “um” in a written work unless I really meant it. Like earlier in this paragraph.

Not so when speaking. Um, uh, and other little timewasters slip out easily. When hearing the same from others it is painfully obvious how distracting it can be for the audience. Someone once told me just to pause when considering what to say next. There is no need to fill every space with some sound or another.


When I have been better prepared I think the verbal tics diminish, but they don’t ever go away entirely. Habit? Laziness? I dunno. It is, uh, what it is.

You know what else is what it is? The verbal tics of the younger generation that grate on all of our nerves. Sure, they often sound foolish when they talk, but hey, they’re kids. Very little that comes out of their mouths is interesting, even the fully formed sentences. Why worry about what might sound lazy or ignorant? Why constantly correct them? It’s not as though they make any sudden corrections. If they eventually speak like we want them to, it will be through maturity and experience, not due to a constant haranguing at home.

Perhaps we are not in the midst of language deconstruction, but rather are witnessing the further advancement of our language. What I like to mock in the speech of my children and their peers might be the very thing that eventually lifted American English out of the Elizabethan Age. Else I’d be yelling this at home: “Foul spoken coward, that thund'rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform.”

I don’t even know what that means.

Third grade teachers are always harping on their students to use other words than “said” when adding dialogue to their boring stories. (If you are a teacher please replace “harping on” with “providing quality education to,” and if you are a student please replace “boring” with “thrilling and clever.” No need to insult the easily insulted.)

He uttered, she exclaimed, he yelled, she whispered. Like that. Sure, students are supposed to use such words to make their writing more interesting, but in my years of raising my own children and teaching many others, I have never heard any kid say, “He yelled, ‘Clean your room!’”

Now certainly the same kid would say, “My dad yelled at me,” but that’s entirely different. That’s a verb, not an indication of speech. Maybe what kids are using for “said” isn’t the crime against humanity that old people like me make it out to be.

For example: “So he went, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I’m all, ‘Oh, yes you will!’ And he goes, ‘[expletive removed]!’”

Conjugations of the verb “to go” are the modern favorites to indicate what someone might have said. Wherever this came from, it doesn’t seem to be going away, and if youngsters carry the habit into adulthood it will eventually be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary (“the definitive record of the English language”) and Shakespeare will discontinue rolling over in his grave.

People were uncomfortable when I have said “uh” to distraction, and the younger citizens are saying “like” as though it were going out of style. You’ve heard it yourself, and I’ve made fun of it here.

“I’m, like, at the mall, and I can’t decide what color nail polish to buy. Can you, like, come down here right now? It’s, like, an emergency!”

So “like” is the new “uh” or “um.” To those of us who don’t use it, it sounds horrible. We think the barbarians are at the gate. And yet I hear it occasionally even from people who decry its use.

Is it really, like, so bad?

This all may be the evolution of language. We may bristle, but we don’t really know how this will all turn out in fifty or one hundred years. After all, Shakespeare wrote, “Thou didst drink the stale of horses and the guilded puddle which beasts would cough at.”

I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that the great master apparently ended at least one sentence with a preposition. And where I come from, that’s, like, a real no-no.

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