We often find ourselves using “filler words” in every day conversation. “Um,” “uh,” “like,” “well,” and “so” are just some examples of what pragmalinguists call “pragmatic markers.” At work, college, or any other professional or academic environment, these markers are seen as unnecessary and unprofessional. Although this has become a standardized norm and somewhat of a social ideology, these markers actually serve as many useful indicators and functions throughout our everyday conversations.
If we wanted to play devil’s advocate, we could argue that in the context of spoken discourse, and even more so in written text, pragmatic markers are mainly filler and “hold the floor.” Looking at written text, most if not all of these markers can be removed from the conversation without any adverse effects. By taking a sentence with pragmatic markers such as “Um, well, I’m not sure, you know?” and removing them all so it states “I’m not sure,” we can still understand what the speaker is trying to convey. These markers, however, can become much more complex when we look at their individual uses.
There are two main functions that pragmatic markers can serve: textual and interpersonal. These main functions are constantly being utilized in our speech whether we want them to or not. It makes language unique and enables us to pick up on spoken or social cues. Textual functions are probably the most common usage as they often appear as the stereotypical “filler word.” Aside from being able to open and close topics or indicate that a speaker is considering what to say next, filler words can “repair” certain ideas or segments of the speaker’s utterance. “Well” is a fantastic example of this method to remedy spoken discourse. One such example could be “I never said I was going to do that, well, maybe I did actually.” If we removed “well” from the utterance, the underlying message is still clear. By incorporating it into speech, however, the listener can discern that the speaker is reconsidering the previous statement in order to “save face” and prevent a Face Threatening Act (FTA) from occurring. Without these textual functions, arguments and misunderstandings would be much more prevalent than they already are because these pragmatic markers can serve as conversational cues, as in the aforementioned example. The real question lies in the amount in which we use them.
Where do we draw the line on what is considered professional or not? With language constantly evolving, who knows what will be considered academically appropriate in the next one hundred years. Is it OK to drop the occasional “um” or “so” into our public speeches? If so, how many times can we use those words before it is deemed as lackluster? Perhaps a closer look at language as a whole instead of the “professionalism” aspect of language could bring light into this dilemma.