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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.

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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.

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English Language & Linguistics
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