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Volume 13, Issue 21;   May 22, 2013: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II

Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II

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Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
A black kite, a species of hawk

A black kite (Milvus migrans), a species of hawk. It has recently been discovered that high-status mated pairs of black kites "decorate" their nests using bits of plastic. (See Brandon Keim's article, "Hidden Messages Found in Bird Nest Decorations," at wired.com.) A few bird species had been known to use decoration as a mate attraction tactic, but this recently discovered behavior is different. Although the decorations don't contribute much to nest structure, they do seem to be used to communicate pair fitness.

Analogously, although some embolalia do serve purposes related to the content of the speech — such as giving the addressor time to formulate content and delivery — many seem also to be "decorative." That is, they communicate power or status rather than content-related information. For example, a phrase such as "Many people do subscribe to that thesis, but there is little hard data to support it. Let me explain" is probably longer than needed if collecting one's thoughts is the purpose. Decorative embolalia could be serving a more useful purpose, such as status assertion or differentiation. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In last week's issue, we began an exploration of embolalia — the filler we use in everyday speech, to help us gain time to gather our thoughts, or to soften our tone. We focused on the simplest forms — "uh," "um," "er," and so on, and short phrases such as "kind of" and "stuff like that." This time we turn our attention to forms of embolalia so complex that we don't recognize them as filler, even though they contribute nothing to the speaker's message.

The simplest of these are introductory embolalia, which tend to appear at the beginning of the address. They include "actually," "basically," "anyway," "honestly," "seriously," and "well." President Reagan was known for his use of "well." Some of these also have a softening effect, but they convey other messages, too. For instance, "actually," can be condescending, "seriously" can close a humorous interlude, and "anyway" can be a means of rejecting contradiction.

The real experts in using embolalia can make them sound formal, powerful, and valuable, even when they're nothing more than high-falutin' "ums." In this category, President Nixon was known for "Let me say this about that." Examples:

  • You have to understand
  • That's a great question; Excellent question
  • Ah, but there's a hitch
  • You might think so, but…
  • It's not The real experts in using embolalia
    can make them sound formal,
    powerful, and valuable, even
    when they're nothing more
    than high-falutin' "ums"
    that simple
  • On the one hand; On the other hand
  • Needless to say; It goes without saying
  • Let me be (perfectly) clear
  • Let me say this (about that)
  • I just want to say (this)
  • All I'm saying is (this)
  • I would say this
  • I would (will) tell you that (something)
  • I have to say; I must say
  • Let me just make a couple of points
  • Could I just mention one other thing
  • That's a fascinating point
  • The bottom line is
  • At the end of the day
  • One of the problems was (is)
  • My own view is
  • The fact (truth) is that

The most complex embolalia are rarely noticed, even though they're common in everyday conversation. About 30 minutes of news programming on U.S. television yielded these examples:

  • The general problem we seem to be having is
  • There are three reasons (or two or whatever)
  • You might think so at first, but if you give it a little thought you realize that something much more complicated is going on
  • I believed that myself when I first looked into this matter
  • We can rule out that possibility easily, for three reasons
  • Nothing could be further from the truth
  • Many people do subscribe to that thesis, but there is little hard data to support it. Let me explain.

Are any of these examples familiar to you from your own speech? If they are, shorter alternatives will increase the impact of your words. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Hindsight Bias Risk  Next Issue

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