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A Chat With Michael Erard

Date:Mar 17, 2008
Time:6pm Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:Verbal Blunders and What They Mean
Duration:One hour

Michael Erard is an author and journalist who writes frequently about language and linguistics. He is the author of Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. He keeps an archive of his publications at michaelerard.com.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the twenty-ninth Wordsmith Chat! Today we are pleased to have with us Michael Erard. He is a journalist and the author of "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean". He is joining us from Portland, Maine. Welcome, Michael Erard!

Michael Erard
Hi, Anu. Hi, everybody.

Anu Garg
Some people are bird watchers -- they watch birds. Richard Lederer says you watch word botchers.

Michael Erard
Or, listen, yeah!

Anu Garg
I'm a member of a Toastmasters club and at each meeting we have a club member assigned the role of Ah-Counter. The role of Ah-Counter is to count your ahs and umhs and report them to you so you can try to get rid of them from your speech. But it seems like there's more to these ahs and ums.

Michael Erard
The Toastmasters approach to total (or near) umlessness is pretty interesting, since it doesn't seem to acknowledge that there is more going on with them. I was never able to figure out where that idea came from specifically; if it had been there from the start, or if it showed up later; when it was and

Michael Erard
wh

why

(wow, never thought I'd be disfluent typing, but there you go)

So there's the matter of disfluencies as a feature of everyday speaking?

Anu Garg
Maybe these are online-chat equivalents of ahs and ums. :-)

Michael Erard
Yeah! People always wonder, well, when we're talking and need to think, why don't we stay silent?

Anu Garg
Some people are able to remove them from their diction but it appears to be a hard thing to do to be completely ah/um-proof.

Michael Erard
We don't, because to vocalize these pauses is to communicate. I may be pausing now, thinking of the exact phrase to type, but it's hard to communicate that. Here's the other thing about the disfluencies: even if people are umless, they still delay or pause. They repeat words, they restart sentences, they're silent. I should think that people, should they be looking for some underlying hesitation, anxiety, lack of prep, or whatever, would look for the full range of disfluency.

Anu Garg
So there's a discomfort if there's a pause in conversation and people try to fill them.

Michael Erard
There's that, too. American men (in the studies I saw) say um and uh more often than women.

Anu Garg
By the way, all the attendees of this chat are welcome to chime in.

Michael Erard
And I will forgive you for your ums. And slips of the fingers. Some people fall silent, thinking I'm tracking their gaffes. But it's not true.

Claude - Houston
Is "like", "you know", etc. specifically attached to some regions or age ranges?

Anu Garg
Would that be younger people?

Claude - Houston
That's what I was thinking for "like".

Michael Erard
I've heard some people say that "you know" is a generational thing -- older people (like my agent) say they had a different phrase.

Laura - Marshall
I am familiar with those here.

Michael Erard
"Like" is the sequel I'm working on. Just kidding.

Claude - Houston
I've often heard African-Americans say the full "you know what's I'm saying"

Michael Erard
And "like" does get used more often by young people, but I've heard it a lot out of the mouths of the 40-something set. So it's moving up.

Laura - Marshall
What if you just can't get the words out?

Michael Erard
What do you mean, Laura?

Michael Erard
BTW, there's a pic of me, typing up at michaelerard.com.

Laura - Marshall
Trouble voicing a thought; getting frustrated in communication somehow.

Michael Erard
In what sort of situation are you thinking of?

Laura - Marshall
Explanations to parents, for one.

Michael Erard
Are you asking about "like"?

Laura - Marshall
Stumbling on words sometimes results in the use of "like".

Michael Erard
So "like" has a couple of functions. it can buy a speaker time; it can also be used to mark the new or important info in a sentence.

Michael Erard
That's a legitimate use of "like" that English is evolving. I've always thought that what makes young people's use (overuse) of like sort of annoying is that there's no way, to the older person's ears, that all that info can be new or important. Like many of these other phenomena, it's not just a judgment of a language performance, it's a social judgment about the person talking. But if you're anxious, you know, there's nothing wrong with being disfluent. Maybe you could try another communication channel -- writing, maybe. You could have a computer chat. Or sit down at a computer and type to each other, passing control of the keyboard back and forth. Does that help?

Laura - Marshall
Yes.

Claude - Houston
Any thoughts about what happens in teleconferences, where if there is a silence there's no visual cue that someone is just looking for a word or thinking?

Misty
That drives me crazy! ... as someone who works from home.

Misty
The absence of any visual cues is maddening.

Michael Erard
That's probably an instance where an um might come in handy.

Claude - Houston
Or the opposite happens, people just "fill the time" to avoid losing the virtual podium.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
There's also the use of like (and go, too) as a verbum dicendi: "and he's like: No way!"

Michael Erard
Has anyone encountered a technological solution for teleconference settings that indicate that someone is thinking?

Michael Erard
A blinking light on a desktop or something.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
In some chat clients, there's an indication that somebody is typing, but yes a little thought balloon maybe.

Michael Erard
What about for teleconference settings?

Claude - Houston
Only in the context of prototypes that didn't become commercial systems... I saw something about this general idea at the MIT Media Lab a couple of years ago.

Misty
Not that I know of. The "um" is hard to interject in conferences, because you can't tell if someone has already started talking. If you've already lost the floor, for instance.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
It would be a good feature.

Misty
Cool - Claude, that's great.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Back to what Claudia asked a while back: there's a difference in the use of um or er to pause while speaking and stammering or stuttering.

Misty
"Um" is so convenient in face-to-face interactions -- it's short-hand for so much.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Sorry, Claude.

Claude - Houston
np

Michael Erard
Jim: Definitely. Are you British?

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Nope, Californian.

Michael Erard
Your use of er was interesting there...

Michael Erard
So people who are diagnosed as stutterers have a bunch of disfluent behaviors that don't show up in "normal" disfluency -- though I didn't go into those behaviors much in the book.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
I've been looking into the ways um, erm, etc. get transcribed in rhotic and non-rhotic dialects.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
For me, er is an r-colored schwa. Like in bird.

Michael Erard
Interesting. Is that interference from the British spelling, do you think?

Claude - Houston
I use "er..." in written text to give an indication that what follows is not an obvious derivation, that it takes time to think about the question and/or that my answer may not be something I hold as definitive myself.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Could be. I always wondered about erm, until I realized it was probably just US um transcribed into UK English.

Michael Erard
By "rhotic," Jim means the sound of "r." So we live in Maine, where there's a marked nonrhoticity: pahk the cah, etc.

Claude - Houston
But I tend to pronounce it like a schwa without the r, under the influence of my mother tongue, which is French, and has "euh" as the hesitation marker.

Misty
I have heard Americans say "er," enunciating something they've read, it seems.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
But in some parts of back East, they introduce an r like in idear or erl (for oil).

Michael Erard
We just moved here four months ago...haven't heard much of that added r. Though I did hear "dater," as in "data."

Michael Erard
What about "warsh," is that a California-dialect feature?

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
The erl thing is Brooklyn, IIRC [If I recall Correctly].

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
I always associated warsh with folks from Arkansas.

Misty
It's all over the midwest, too.

Claude - Houston
It is a standard British pronunciation thing to add an "r" between two words that respectively and and start with a vowel: "the idea-r-of it" is correct in Britain.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Sort of a Grapes of Wrath thing.

Michael Erard
@Jim: exactly what I was thinking.

Claude - Houston
Warsh is midwestern, I think.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Kind of like liaison in French, eh, Claude?

Claude - Houston
Yes Jim.

Claude - Houston
Except the reverse: add a consonant where there was none, instead of "exposing" a consonant that was there but silent.

Michael Erard
The effects of migration on dialects in the US is interesting -- everyone goes, y'all is spreading north! When it was north a long time ago.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Though my Uncle used to say crick for creek, and he was born here too, but was brought up in a generally non-English speaking household.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
In Sanskrit it's called sandhi (pronounced like Sunday).

Michael Erard
@Claude: you mean, between the disfluencies and speech errors?

Claude - Houston
Exactly.

Claude - Houston
Michael, can you talk about the difference between um/ah/like/... and blunders?

Michael Erard
Sure. But first off, let me say that I realize that the "uhs" and "ums" are useful pragmatically speaking, that they're not "blunders," in the sense of unintentional errors. Or some of them, anyway.

Claude - Houston
That's why I was asking, I realized this was quite different, possibly.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Not like malapropisms or lapsi linguae.

Michael Erard
The speech errors arise because the units of speech get out of order in the planning stage (or maybe, maybe the speaking stage).

Michael Erard
The other day, I meant to say, "Amy is angling," and instead I started to say "Angly."

Laura - Marshall
Just last week I said "man tag" instead of Maytag...in class.

Michael Erard
As you can imagine, there's a lot of attention to slips in my house. The disfluencies mark (most of the time) boundaries between cycles of planning and speaking -- the degree to which these are wholly unintentionally spoken and perceived is still under discussion. It's mainly psychologists who study these things.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Once the mistake has taken place, have you looked at how far back in the sentence a person retreats?

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
To rephrase.

Michael Erard
Herb Clark at Stanford looked at repairs; other people have as well. I think the rule is that you back up far enough to produce a whole constituent. I can't remember if it's a whole phrase or a clause. Constituent: A natural linguistic unit.
"The dog ate a purple hotdog" is a constituent. "a purple" isn't.

Misty
Do different people repair differently?

Michael Erard
Not everyone repairs -- some people are planners by nature, so they tend to say "uh" and "um."

Michael Erard
People who repair also repeat repeat repeat words more frequently -- they're thinking on the fly.

Misty
Does that mean they're more disfluent - but less likely to make slips?

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Thanks re Herb Clark: he has many of his papers online.

Michael Erard
Herb Clark has done some interesting stuff on "uh" and "um." He takes them to be words -- Nigel Ward at UT El Paso by contrast calls them conversational grunts.

Claude - Houston
Any studies on how people may recover from a slip differently depending on the audience's reaction?

Michael Erard
Claude: I don't recall one.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Discourse particles, perhaps.

Laura - Marshall
Is it like humming in speech ... don't know the words.

Michael Erard
Anu, you spend a lot of time in front of audiences with Toastmasters -- what do you think of the recovery question?

Anu Garg
In Toastmasters there's something called table topics where people practice speaking off the cuff, i.e. they are given a topic and are asked to speak on it without any preparation. Speaking on your feet is challenging but it encourages people to think on the go, and may help with recovery too.

Michael Erard
Claude, this is the place where I bring up Bush. A lot of speakers, including Pres. Bush, monitor their speaking so that the full speech errors don't make it out.

Linda - Windsor
Has anyone looked at correlations between slips etc. and language pathologies, like schizophrenia vs. dementia?

Michael Erard
Laura: Yes, a couple of people have. You could google Gary Dell, who is at the University of Illinois.

Laura - Marshall
Schizo on board, people. And man do I like to talk!

Michael Erard
It's not so much about frequency of slips as it is the types of slips.

Michael Erard
You know what's a really fun speech error engine: improv comedy. I did two classes last year, and it was nonstop.

Michael Erard
Here's another speech error engine: Sing the song "jingle bell rock," using only the words "jingle," "bell," and "rock." Spoonerisms galore.

Misty
Good for recovery, too?

Michael Erard
Sorry, I can't remember any good slips from improv class or from the jingle bell rock song -- it's things like "Brock" and "ringle."

Misty
Ringle jell brock.

Anu Garg
What about Freudian slips?

Michael Erard
Freud didn't call them Freudian slips, of course.

Claude - Houston
lest he be diagnosed with an inflated ego?

Laura - Marshall
Freudian would be "I slept with her mother."

Michael Erard
I have a chapter about Freud's slips in the book and about Vienna at the end of the 19th c. He clashed with another guy who had another interpretation -- closer to the right linguistic interpretation -- of why slips occurred.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Who was that?

Michael Erard
His name was Rudolf Meringer. Freud's Psychopathology borrowed some slips from Meringer's collection. Rudolf had 8800 of them stashed away by the time Psychopathology was out. Meringer saw that slips were about language, not about the self. It's a good chapter, if I can say this -- it's an interesting slice of Freudian history that not many people know.

Misty
Must've been a popular guy, that Rudolf.

Michael Erard
Freud's interpretation makes for good poetry. Meringer had the scientific explanation, though. You can't explain most slips using Freud.

Michael Erard
We make one or two slips per 1000 words, it's been calculated. But people report hearing only one a week. Those will probably be the ones that are suggestive, off-color, or wildly inappropriate for the setting.

Jackie - Louisville
Sorry so late; why is that, please?

Michael Erard
Jackie: Why is what?

Jackie - Louisville
Ah. The human factor again! The difference between uttered slips and reports of hearing them.

Michael Erard
Oh, because most are minor. Because they're not funny. And, most importantly, because our brains filter them out.

Jackie - Louisville
Oh, yes; I see. Thanks.

Michael Erard
We listen for message/content (most of the time). That fact has always fascinated me, too.

Linda - Windsor
Maybe listeners make the "repairs" unconsciously when they hear a slip, just like those studies where listeners don't notice that a sound has been obscured by a cough.

Michael Erard
Linda: it's like that email thing that was going around, with all the vowels missing. You could still read it, though!

Laura - Marshall
I get enlightened by some blunders, personally.

Michael Erard
How so, Laura?

Laura - Marshall
Sometimes a phrase has more meaning than in its intended context. Buried memories, personal issues, etc.

Jackie - Louisville
Or reading misspelled words despite their being misspelled; and our brains "filling in" missing parts of test pictures.

Michael Erard
Jackie: yes.

Michael Erard
Laura: Is this different than poetry?

Jackie - Louisville
Cool; our brains, I mean, aren't they?

Michael Erard
My brain is cool; I live in Maine.

Jackie - Louisville
Ha!

Michael Erard
:-)

Laura - Marshall
Michael: Either way.

Michael Erard
Laura, I did have one encounter with a slip recently that seemed to me very Freudian. I wrote about it on my blog.

Laura - Marshall
I'll have to visit the blog.

Jackie - Louisville
Me, too.

Michael Erard
I wrote "handwriting" instead of "handwringing." There's LOTS of interpretation that's available from that particular slip.

Misty
Looks like it's here.

Anu Garg
Speaking of hands, you write that putting hands in your pockets makes you say more ahs and ums. Why is that?

Michael Erard
There seems to be some connection between gesturing and planning what to say next.

Jackie - Louisville
That makes sense.

Jackie - Louisville
LOTS of people talk with their hands.

Michael Erard
So if you tie down one hand, the person will be more fluent than if they have both hands tied.

Linda - Windsor
Is there an ASL equivalent of um?

Claude - Houston
Or perhaps just *expressing* to the audience that you're going to say something else, which you can't do with your hands in your pockets.

Michael Erard
Claude: that's interesting.

Michael Erard
Does Toastmasters teach appropriate thinking gestures?

Anu Garg
Gestures are big in toastmasters.

Misty
That's what I want in teleconferences. A virtual gesture, if I can't have "um" or "uh" because of delays, etc.

Laura - Marshall
Defensive hand gestures to ward off the verbal pause.

Michael Erard
Linda: definitely on the ASL.

Michael Erard
To pause, you wiggle your fingers in the last/most recent sign.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
The study of gesture used to be an important part of rhetoric. Chironomy, I think it was called.

Michael Erard
And "um" is a rotating gesture with one hand in front of your body, palm up.

Michael Erard
Jim: I looked through all that stuff, to see if anyone had proscriptions against "uh" and "um" in the 19th century.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
I wonder if anybody has looked at disfluencies in ASL? Did they?

Michael Erard
This is in the book, "A Brief History of Um."

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
I'll take a look.

Michael Erard
No, they didn't; not specifically against those sounds.

Michael Erard
Disfluencies in ASL: yes, it's been looked at. But speech errors in ASL have gotten more attention. It was a key way to prove that ASL was a language.

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Any names?

Michael Erard
Jim: Don't have a name for you.

Jackie - Louisville
Is there any way to hurry the speech of people who say um a lot? Or to quit doing it so much oneself?

Michael Erard
Jackie: There's negative reinforcement that appears to work.

Jackie - Louisville
I don't think my husband would appreciate that very much! :-) Thanks, though.

Laura - Marshall
A deep breath and pause before speaking can help.

Jackie - Louisville
Thanks, L.

Michael Erard
Jackie: It's a question that gets to the heart of a lot of this. Are you the only one who hears these things? Or is it a liability elsewhere in his life? Is it a pet peeve of yours? And does it seem like he's avoiding/evading answering you in full? Toastmasters offers a program that cleans up people's speaking, but it also makes them hyperaware of the disfluency.

Jackie - Louisville
Oh--sorry, it's just something that gets on my nerves sometimes, thanks. No problem at work for him, or at least not a significant one.

Michael Erard
So it offers and takes away. I'm not so much a big ummer as a pauser, at home, anyway. You could ask my wife what she thinks of this.

Jackie - Louisville
By making them more aware, possibly more nervous?

Jackie - Louisville
Ha, maybe!

Michael Erard
Jackie: No, people tend naturally to listen either for content or for style. When you cue listeners in to deviations of style, you may be cueing those who listen for content to listen for style. Suddenly you have a big room full of people who hear every um!

Michael Erard
I know it gets on her nerves -- sometimes she interrupts.

Laura - Marshall
Saying nothing has its appeal.

Michael Erard
Saying nothing definitely has poetry.

Anu Garg
Ummm.. how about one more question for Michael Erard before we start to wrap this up. Anyone?

Misty
Is interrupting a kind of negative reinforcement, then? Because you actually further prevent someone from getting their words out?

Michael Erard
Misty: nice timely question. It can work that way. It can also make someone feel closer to you, if you're finishing their thoughts.

Anu Garg
Thank you, Michael Erard, for taking part in this chat. For more, please see his book Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean and visit his Web site michaelerard.com. And thanks to all the participants.

Michael Erard
Thanks, everybody!

Jackie - Louisville
Thank you.

Laura - Marshall
Great talking with you all.

Michael Erard
Thanks, Anu. I love the word in my inbox every day.

Anu Garg
Thank you!

Jim Bisso - Sonoma
Thank you.

Anu Garg
Our next Wordsmith Chat guest will be Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. The topic of the chat will be "The life (and death) of languages". The date and time for this event will be announced at Wordsmith Chat soon.

Karen - Brazil
I arrived late and was lurking as this was my first chat here. Enjoyed it a lot, though. Thanks to you all!

Michael Erard's picture

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