This week I’d like to talk about filler words: the tiny parts of speech with a terrible reputation. They’re the “ums”, the “ers”, the “likes”, and “you knows”, the little bits we are constantly told to eradicate because apparently they impede our communication and make us sound silly.

There are so many stereotypes that have become culturally ingrained when it comes to filler words: they denote unpreparedness, a lack of respect or honesty, low intellect or class. As with most prejudices, unsurprisingly, science didn’t get the memo.

Studies show that filler words can improve the speed and accuracy with which listeners process information, and they are more frequently used when people are telling the truth. Linguistics Professor, Dr Valerie Fridland, asserts, “The harder we have to think about formulating what we say, the more we show signs of this cognitive effort by using um and uh.”

Many of these prejudices associated with filler words are due to assumed intentions projected onto the speaker, which stand in direct contrast to the role they play in speech: to provide clarity and make information more easily digestible. The article “Um . . . Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality” published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology dispels the notion that people who use filler words are ignorant or do not care about the listener,

“When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients. Thus, it is expected that the use of discourse markers may be used to measure the degree to which people have thoughts to express.”

Using filler words helps indicate to the listener that we aren’t quite finished speaking, thank you very much. It gives time to think, breathe and sometimes, to calm down. Think of the most stressful speaking situations: speaking in front of your class, presentations at work, meeting your partner’s family, or literally every conversation, if you're like me. Consider the ways your body might respond to the stress of these situations: palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, and that’s just the ones I can plagiarise from Marshall Mathers.

Unless you rehearse every word you’re about to say, these interactions will take considerable mental effort and, whether you’re trying to win a rap battle or a battle of wits, the brain sometimes needs a little breather, a vocal pause, some tiny wee words that take up space without taking too much mental effort to produce.

There are many different types of filler words, all of which serve their own magical purposes when it comes to the way we speak. Take the word “like”, one of the most maligned wee filler words there is. “Like” can be used to both add or subtract severity to whatever comes next, it can introduce a metaphor or other imagery or in a rather ingenious way, or it can be used as a dialogue tag to indicate that someone’s speech is not being taken word for word but rather is being paraphrased. That's actually, like, a surprising amount of subtlety and nuance for such a small word.

Knowing when, where and how to deploy filler words is no less amazing than using any other part of speech, and yet these miniscule molecules of sound are subject to linguistic prejudice the likes of which is rarely seen for the average word.

If you’re wondering why we don’t use these allegedly essential words in our writing, it’s because we usually have as much time as we need to write. We can sit and rehash words, pick just the right phrasing, go to town on the nouns, get the synonyms spot on and the metaphors on the money. If you asked me to give a speech on this very topic, having the very same level of knowledge, you would absolutely be hearing as many ums, ers and likes as it took for me to get these points across. I get incredibly anxious when speaking, especially in front of people I don’t know, and regardless of how much I prepare beforehand or how educated I am about the topic, I use filler words to, well, fill the gaps it takes for my brain to catch up with my mouth.

I made a video on verbal pauses asking people if, and why, they use them. I was surprised by the variety of responses; some people were incredibly judgemental and used words like “bimbos”, “airheads”, (note the misogynistic tone inherent in a lot of “pet peeves”), and much stronger language I don’t think I should repeat.

Teachers reported marking students down for using them, and gleefully relayed they counted use as a mistake in a presentation or speech. I was well aware of the fervour with which people hate filler words but was taken aback by the range of reasons people gave as to why they are so helpful. Some people told me about communication issues due to autism, anxiety, tourettes or ADHD, and how having a reliable verbal pause helped them to avoid panic and issues which would have further impeded their ability to communicate. People told me they had experienced strokes, or traumatic brain injuries and, “words just take a little longer to happen some days”.

You may say these aren't the people you are speaking about when you judge someone’s use of filler words, but the fact that none of these scenarios enter people’s minds before passing judgement is part of the problem. Due to the stigma around filler words, some people tried replacing vocal pauses with actual pauses but found they were constantly interrupted by people either trying to finish their sentences, or jumping in with a new point entirely, ruining the fluency of their speech.

If you hate filler words, you absolutely do not have to start liking or using them, but many other speakers find them a useful and helpful part of their idiolect. Examining the prejudices we hold when it comes to language is the first step in overcoming stigma, and through avoiding unnecessary judgement we remove barriers to people expressing themselves and allow them to more fully explore language.

Maybe it’s time we reinvested the time and energy spent judging people for the way they speak into making them feel more supported and confident while speaking. If we are to consider filler words as linguistic “flaws”, they are flaws within a man-made construct: imperfections in an imperfect system. To repurpose a well-known idiom: to err is human, to um is also human.