Skip to main content

From pause to word: uh, um and er in written American English 1


This article describes and discusses the appearance and increasing frequency of uh, um and er in American English journalistic prose from the 1960s to the early 2000s as part of the colloquialization of the language. The three variants uh, um and er are shown to have different uses in writing than in speech; in writing they can be shown to qualify as words, while their status in speech appears to be on a cline of wordhood. In writing, they belong to the class of stance adverbs, serving metalinguistic purposes. Two types are distinguished, depending on sentence placement: in initial position, uh, um and er are attitude adverbs and in medial position, they are style adverbs. Although er is dispreferred in initial position and preferred for correction of previously used words, every variant can be used for all discourse-pragmatic functions, which supports classifying them as one lexeme.

Hide All

I thank two anonymous reviewers and editor Bernd Kortmann for constructive criticism and advice. I am also deeply grateful to Laurie Bauer, Sebastian Hoffmann, Christine Johansson and Antoinette Renouf, for reading and commenting on earlier versions, and to members of the English seminars of the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm for helpful discussions. I thank Mark Davies for patiently answering questions about corpora, Hans-Martin Lehmann for technical help, Nils-Lennart Johannesson for discussion of statistics, and Christoph Rühlemann and Nathalie Dion for assistance with figures. My special thanks go to Philip Shaw, who not only read an earlier version and provided examples from the web but who helped shape my thinking about the word-formation process. Remaining inadvertencies are my own responsibility.

Hide All
Aitchison, J. 2012. Words in the mind, 4th edn. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
Aijmer, Karin & Rühlemann, Christoph (eds.). 2015. Corpus pragmatics: A handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ameka, Felix. 1992. Interjections: The universal yet neglected part of speech. Journal of Pragmatics 18, 101–18.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , 5th edn. 2016. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan, Edward. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Brinton, Laurel & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2005. Lexicalization and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carter, Ronald & McCarthy, Michael. 2006. The Cambridge grammar of English: A comprehensive guide to spoken and written English grammar and usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Christenfeld, Nicholas. 1995. Does it hurt to say UM? Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 19, 171–86.
Clark, Herbert H. & Tree, Jean E. Fox. 2002. Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking. Cognition 84, 73111.
Davies, Mark. 2007–. TIME Magazine Corpus: 100 million words: 1920s-2000s. (accessed December 2015).
Davies, Mark. 2008–. The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 450 million words, 1990-present (accessed September 2016).
Davies, Mark. 2010–. The Corpus of Historical American English.
Edmondson, Willis. 1981. Spoken discourse: A model for analysis. London: Longman.
Erard, Michael. 2007. Um . . . slips, stumbles, and verbal blunders, and what they mean. New York: Pantheon Books.
Finegan, Edward. 1995. Subjectivity and subjectivization: An introduction. In Stein, Dieter & Wright, Susan (eds.), Subjectivity and subjectivisation, 115. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fischer, Kerstin. 2006. Frames, constructions, and invariant meanings: The functional polysemy of discourse particles. In Fischer, Kerstin (ed.), Approaches to discourse particles, 427–47. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Götz, Sandra. 2013. Fluency in native and nonnative English speech. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Grieve, Jack, Nini, Andrea & Guo, Diansheng. 2016. Analyzing lexical emergence in Modern American English online. English Language and Linguistics 16, 129.
Howell, Richard W. & Vetter, Harold J.. 1969. Hesitation in the production of speech. Journal of General Psychology 4, 261–76.
Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey K.. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hundt, Marianne & Mair, Christian. 1999. ‘Agile’ and ‘uptight’ genres: The corpus-based approach to language change in progress. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 4, 221–42.
Jucker, Andreas. 2015a. Uh and um as planners in the Corpus of Historical American English. In Taavitsainen, Irma, Kytö, Merja, Claridge, Claudia & Smith, Jeremy (eds.), Developments in English: Expanding electronic evidence, 162–77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jucker, Andreas. 2015b. Pragmatics of fiction: Literary uses of uh and um . Journal of Pragmatics 86, 6367.
Leech, Geoffrey & Fallon, Roger. 1992. Computer corpora – what do they tell us about culture? ICAME Journal 16, 2950.
Leech, Geoffrey, Hundt, Marianne, Mair, Christian & Smith, Nick. 2009. Change in contemporary English: A grammatical study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, Stephen. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Maclay, Howard & Osgood, Charles E.. 1959. Hesitation phenomena in spontaneous English speech. Word 15, 1944.
McArthur, Tom. 1992. The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Mey, Jacob. 2001. Pragmatics, 2nd edn. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Norrick, Neal R. 2015. Interjections. In Aijmer & Rühlemann (eds.), 291–325.
O'Connell, Daniel C. & Kowal, Sabine. 2005. Uh and Um revisited: Are they interjections for signaling delay? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 34, 555–76.
Oxford English Dictionary. OED online . March 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed 1 April 2017).
Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey & Svartvik, Jan. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
Roget's international thesaurus , 6th edn. 2001. Ed. Kipfer, Barbara Ann. New York: HarperResource.
Rose, Ralph. 2011. Filled pauses in writing: What can they teach us about speech? Poster presented at the ‘Production and Comprehension of Conversational Speech’ workshop, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Rühlemann, Christoph & Hilpert, Martin. To appear. Colloquialization in journalistic writing: The case of inserts with a focus on well. Journal of Historical Pragmatics.
Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel & Jefferson, Gail. 1974. A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language 50, 696735.
The Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English . (accessed July 2016).
Shillcock, Richard, Kirby, Simon, McDonald, Scott & Brew, Chris. 2001. Filled pauses and their status in the mental lexicon. Paper presented at DiSS 01 (Disfluencies in Spontaneous Speech), 29–31 August 2001, Edinburgh.
Tottie, Gunnel. 2011. Uh and um as sociolinguistic markers in British English. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 16, 173–96.
Tottie, Gunnel. 2014. On the use of uh and um in American English. Functions of Language 21, 629.
Tottie, Gunnel. 2015a. Turn management and ‘filled pauses’, uh and um. In Aijmer & Rühlemann (eds.), 448–93.
Tottie, Gunnel. 2015b. Uh and um in British and American English: Are they words? Evidence from co-occurrence with pauses. In Dion, Nathalie, Lapierre, André & Cacoullos, Rena Torres (eds.), Linguistic variation: Confronting fact and theory, 3854. New York: Routledge.
Tottie, Gunnel. 2016. Planning what to say: Uh and um among the pragmatic markers. In Kaltenböck, Günther, Lohmann, Arne & Keizer, Evelien (eds.), Outside the clause, 97102. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Tottie, Gunnel. Forthcoming. Uh and um in word-search in spoken language.
Tottie, Gunnel & Hoffmann, Sebastian. 2009. Tag questions as markers of stance in written English. In Bowen, Rhonwen, Mobärg, Mats & Ohlander, Sölve (eds.), Corpora and discourse – and stuff: Papers in honour of Karin Aijmer (Gothenburg Studies in English 96), 305–15. Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.
Wilkins, David P. 1992. Interjections as deictics. Journal of Pragmatics 18, 119–58.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
  • URL: /core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 31
Total number of PDF views: 114 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 279 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 4th September 2017 - 20th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.