Minor Rant: Is “Um” A Word?


A lot of things drive me nuts, I’ll be the first to admit it. I have pet peeves ranging from the way people chew to the audacious act of not using a turn signal, but my most frequently triggered grievance lately has been the overuse of the word “um,” as if it’s a word at all.

At one job I had, I was still in the stage of proving my worth when on a call with a client. From the next room, my boss sent me a chat that said “watch the ‘ums’ ;)”. I was immediately overcome with self-consciouness – like do you not have anything better to do but listen to me through the wall? – but the advice stuck with me.

We bemoan the way women talk lately. Everything from the vocal fry and the valley girl “like,” to the persistence of apologizing and everything else critics associate with women’s purported self-sabotage in positions of authority. I am willing to argue that the “um” issue is one that spans the whole race, and it’s indiscriminate in its effects.

For one, it’s assumed the speaker’s assertiveness goes out the window. They sound unsure and unprepared if they’re stumbling over “crutch words” like “um” and “uh” in a speech or interview. But I think it goes farther than that.

I listen to a ton of public radio. And granted, the guests on these talk shows are usually experts in their field, whatever it may be, so they aren’t career public speakers for the most part. But the habit of, um, pausing to, um, gather your thoughts and, um, really drive your point home, is more than a finicky little ism, it’s something we lean on in our language, like it’s a real word. Is it?

It has a definition.

um: expressing hesitation or a pause in speech.

But I’m not sure that really counts. It’s like if a martian came to earth and needed to understand what this word we say so often means to us. It’s not a real meaning; it’s just a use case.

My pet peeve, though, isn’t so much driven by the fact that it’s just a word our language has decided to grant undeserved credence towards, because there are tons of words like that (irregardless for instance *cringe*).

Someone trying to get a point across who leans on “um” to fill space creates a rhythm of tones – “talk, talk – umm – talk, talk – umm” – it’s mesmerizing, it’s hypnotic, it is not convincing. It does not implore the listener to pay attention. It’s not effective. It borders on annoying, but that’s just me.

So, word or not, does it really need to be argued? Man or woman, um, radio guest or regular Joe, um, I just think we could, um, live with a lot less “um” in our lives. Did I lose you?

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