English XXI – Fillers Part Four

“I Sort of, Kind of, Enjoy Life”

This is another in my series of posts that deal with fillers. I am coming to the conclusion that fillers are here to stay. I don’t want to accept this reality, and I continue to look for signs that the use of fillers is one the wane, but I feel increasingly helpless in my quest to reverse the trend.

I have discussed the use of the most common fillers, such as ‘like’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’. They are still out there as frequently used as ever. But, in the last two or three years I have noticed that a couple of expressions have taken on the characteristics of fillers. I will provide an example, and I think you will quickly notice the issue. This is something I might say on a topic of interest to me:

I enjoy reading novels, and sort of like the older ones. I kind of prefer novels written in different time periods, because they kind of give a different perspective on people and culture. For example, I sort of relate to the characters in Thomas Hardy’s novels, even though I kind of have difficulty understanding the cultural context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century England. It’s kind of hard to put myself in that pre-WWI, post-Victorian mindset.

 You no doubt noticed the number of times I used sort of and kind of.  What do these expressions tells us about the person speaking? Both of these expressions imply that I am unsure or that I have doubts about the topic I am describing. They communicate the idea that I have not thought about the subject enough to come up with a clear idea or opinion.

Well, that is not so unusual. If I am having an impromptu conversation with someone, and I am going into territory that I am not very familiar with, I might employ one or both of these expressions. But, if I do, I will use them when really necessary. I certainly won’t use them in every other sentence. I will probably state, early on in the discussion, that the topic is one I am not very familiar with, so I won’t feel the pressure to qualify so many of my comments.

If people are having a discussion, one that at least one of the participants has solid knowledge of, and that person uses one of these terms repeatedly, it tells me something. There are actually two possibilities, as far as I can discern. First, the person simply does not have a good grasp of the subject after all. That is the clear implication. Both of the expressions imply some level of doubt. If the person uses these terms repeatedly, then it is obvious that the person is not sure about the subject.

“I think the central theme of that novel is kind of vague,” a person might say. My response would be, “You don’t know if it is vague or not?” The person then says, “No, it is vague, for sure.” “Yes,” I say, “but you just said it was kind of vague. That sounds like you are unsure.” The point I am making is that this knowledgeable person should simply state what he/she feels and not try to hedge her/his bets by adding the ‘kind of’.

Now, let’s say the person really is an expert on a subject, but interjects the ‘kind of’ and sort of’ expressions frequently. If I am convinced of the person’s expertise, then I have to come to another conclusion. Obviously, this person has developed an addiction to these recent fillers. I have two examples from the real world to make my point.

I was listening to NPR one afternoon driving to my office, and the announcer explained the upcoming interview subject and described the person to be interviewed. It was going to involve a history subject, and an expert was going to explain the deeper significance of the period in question. Frankly, I don’t recall now the exact topic, but that is part of the point I want to make. The interview began, and I was instantly interested. I knew something about the general topic, so I was going to be entertained and better informed on a good topic.

Several minutes into the interview, I noticed a pattern on behalf of the expert. This person, a man, could not get two sentences out without using either ‘sort of’ or ‘kind of’. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. The subject was indeed highly interesting. The person obviously had done considerable research. I was a ‘captive audience’ and ready to get some great insights. However, the frequently inserted fillers made me start to think. Using those particular fillers left me with the impression that the person was not sure about his conclusions. I understand that not even experts have all he answers, and they don’t always know the tiniest details. I accept that, but there are better ways of expressing this.

Instead of saying, “It is kind of a difficult situation to understand,” and “I sort of realized that the conditions had changed,” the person might have said, “The situation was complex, and it is hard to make sense of all the events,” and “It was clear that the conditions had changed, but the reasons for the change were unclear.” I became so frustrated with the interview that I finally changed he channel on my radio. I realized that the problem was not the interviewee’s lack of deep understanding of the subject, rather it was an indication that the person had a filler addiction. Fortunately, the next pre-set button was the local classical music station, and I let Brahms help me feel more comfortable.

The other example involves a video that I show in one of my classes at Wilmington College. I teach a course called Global Issues & Awareness in which we learn about and discuss the major problems in the world today. The video I refer to was made by an activist and involves the occupied territories of the West Bank. It deals with the fact that Israel plays a highly invasive role in the lives of the Palestinians in the Palestinian’s own territory. It is a compelling video that is comprised mostly of photographs that show the constant obstacles that Palestinian residents have to deal with in their everyday lives.

I use the video every tie I teach the course, which means that I have seen it lots of times. About the third time I used the video I realized that in the first fifteen minutes, when the activist is shown on the screen explaining her background and providing an explanation for her activist activities, that she used ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ over and over again. I do not doubt for a moment this person’s knowledge of the subject or her commitment to bring about change in the struggle for the Palestinians to have some semblance of a normal life. What I concluded was she shows in the video a clear habit of using those fillers. What I don’t understand is why she didn’t realize that she was using those fillers when the recording was being made and edited and decide to re-do the introductory segment without those fillers.

At a time when fillers are running rampant, I find it hard to accept that new fillers are being created. It is another sign of the fact that we are collectively being challenged to express ourselves clearly and demonstrate that we have deep knowledge of a subject and that we can communicate our thoughts and opinions without a lot of verbal noise. I find that noise very distracting, and I cannot believe that many others don’t feel the same way.


English XXI – Is it Time for “Therz”?

I have spent many years studying several of the Romance languages. I was a Spanish major in undergraduate school, and I used Spaniish in my career in the business world for more than twenty years. Thus, I speak Spanish with native fluency. I took up Italian on my own, and I know a lot of Italian, even though I lack conversational expertise because I don’t have anyone to practice with. I started learning French as a child when our family lived in the western suburbs of Paris, and when I was traveling to Brazil on business I put considerable time into Portuguese.

I mention this as an introduction to a grammatical phenomenon, which is better understood when compared to the way the Romance languages deal with it. I refer to the way languages handle the issue of describing, in the most basic way, things that exist. In the Romance languages I have studied there is a consistent format that involves, in some way, the most basic verb in virtually any language – ‘to be’.

To begin he discussion, I will point out that Spanish has a verb – haber. Haber means ‘to have’, but in the modal format. In English we have one verb – ‘to have’ – that serves as a transitive verb (“I have some money”) and as a modal auxiliary (“I have borrowed some money”). In Spanish the transitive verb is tener (Yo tengo dinero).

When Spanish speakers want to describe something that exists, they use haber“Hay gente en el parque” (“There are people in the park”). The form hay (which is present indicative, third person) is invariable – it serves for both plural and singular nouns – “Hay una persona en el parque” – (“There is a person in the park”). In French the construction is “il y a” and in Italian it is “c’è”. By the way, this consistency is maintained regardless of the verb tense.

However, in English we take this in a different direction – we use ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. It is one of those situations in English when the verb precedes the noun; normally it is the reverse. Whether writing or speaking, the person doing the communicating has to decide what the noun is – whether it is singular or plural – before using the verb, which comes first, and get the verb form correct from the beginning. For example someone might state, “There are several reasons for this situation” or the person may say, “There is a primary reason for this situation”. These cannot be interchanged because they would be grammatically incorrect.

I admit that there is a bit more pressure on people who are engaging in oral communication, especially if there is a dialogue going on. This implies that there is no script and that the speakers may be asking and answering questions and be discussing topics spontaneously.  Nevertheless, educated people should have the mental dexterity to get the grammar correct.

Let’s imagine that one of speakers is asked a difficult question. That person will likely have to think for at least a second or two how to answer the question (assuming it does not require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’). Very often the respondent will begin by describing things that exist. For example, the person may say, “There are many reasons why weI have difficulty dealing with stress in our society today”, or the response may begin with, “There is one major reason for the increased stress in people’s lives today”. Again, these forms are not interchangeable simply because the subjects are different – one is singular and the other is plural. The verb has to change to be in agreement with the subject (unlike the examples from the Romance languages described earlier).

Readers of this blog might suggest that my bringing up this grammatical inconsistency demonstrates that there is simply too much pressure on people today to have to decide on the fly whether they are going to use singular or plural nouns while starting a sentence. Well, the world is indeed getting to be very challenging, isn’t it? Is there anything wrong with doing the following? I am asked a question, and I take a little time to think about my response. I’m uncertain, so this occurs:  “I believe there is, actually I believe there are, several good explanations for this situation.” As the speaker I might have to make a small alteration to my response in order to maintain grammatical consistency. Isn’t that to be expected in spontaneous discussions?

Why do people get this wrong so frequently today? I don’t know, but I will provide a telling example. A few months ago I was listening to an interview on NPR – National Public Radio. The person being interviewed was the president of a traditional, very well known liberal arts college. Two times in less than two minutes during the interview the president of the prestigious institution used the contraction “There’s” and followed it with plural nouns. One of the statements was something on the order of, “There’s many reasons for the decline in the study of liberal arts.” I can only assume this person has a doctorate and this it is in the Liberal Arts.

If the president of a liberal arts college, which has been around for more than one hundred and fifty years, doesn’t get this right, what hope do we have for others with less formal education? I listen to on the radio, or watch on television, the news virtually every day. When any of the broadcasts gets to an interview segment, it is surely going to happen that somebody is going to mess up and say “there’s” and follow it with a plural noun. If well educated, and often even highly educated, people don’t get this right, then we have a problem with the language.

Is it time, then, for the introduction of ‘therz’? We can simply add this new word to the lexicon and borrow the grammatical structure from the Romance languages. “Therz going to be some snow falling tonight” the meteorologist might say, or “Therz going to be five inches of accumulation tonight.” The person would have it correct either way, and would not have to go through the exercise of having to decide which form is correct. On the other hand, we might just stick with the traditional structure we have in English and expect people with a reasonable amount of education to get this construction correct. It isn’t that difficult, is it?

I think therz little chance that we are going to alter the language in this way – what do you think?

Society & Culture: What’s Love got to do with it?

My students at Wilmington College, who are mostly in the non-traditional category, must wonder if I am serious or kidding when I say, “two words I avoid using in English are love and happiness.” Some of them laugh, some of them put frowns on their faces, and others probably don’t know how to react. Surely, they all think I am unusual in this regard.

I need to explain why I would make such a seemingly ludicrous statement. In this essay I am going to focus on love; in another I’ll tackle the pesky word happiness. Countless books have been written on the topic of love, and this is in addition to the almost infinite number of books, both in fiction and non-fiction, that come under the category of love stories.

The Greeks can be credited with the first important exploration in Western Civilization of the concept. They identified three categories of love: Eros, Philia and Agape. Eros deals with physical love demonstrations and sex; Philia deals with love of others and is the basis for friendship; Agape is the concept of love as a pure ideal and the basis for brotherhood. These brief descriptions are admittedly very simple ones; if you are interested in exploring this matter in more depth, there is plenty available out there.

Anyone who has taken even a mild interest in Medieval History knows that the concept of love was developed in the High Middle Ages of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Love became an ideal that would have made, I suspect, Plato quite happy (let’s see, maybe I should say content). Once the concept got firmly established in the broad culture of the West, there was no way to eradicate it. We are still dealing with the effects of that concept today, a long time after rational and scientific thinking emerged.

So, you, the reader, might be wondering, what is the problem with love? Well, I can think of plenty of problems with this word. One of the difficulties I have is in knowing where to start, especially since I am interested in the contemporary connotations of the word, not the historic ones. When I am not sure how to start, I have found the best way to proceed is simply to select a sub-topic and dig in.

The place I am going to start, perhaps to get it over with, is the connection between love and sexual relations. It is important to make an important disclaimer here:  I am a heterosexual male (this is intended to be simply a fact, and does not have any deeper implications), but I am accepting of any kind of close relationship between consenting adults. I am accustomed to making the effort to consider every other perspective out there, but I will admit that I cannot reasonably do this. If I suggest that a woman’s perspective might be such-and-such, I know some readers will immediately think, ‘He’s a man, so he couldn’t possible understand a woman’s perspective on this matter.’ I won’t argue that point. Besides, I am an Existentialist; that implies I don’t know anyone else’s perspective other than my own.

Now, I will press on. There is plenty of literature available explaining why men to not necessarily have any emotional connection with sex. Some of the discussion gets rather scientific, but is nonetheless interesting. The real question is, does one have to have some sense of ‘love’ for the other person in order to have sex? Of course, this begs the question of what love means itself. The answer to that question should be obvious, but I understand that there are countless attitudes about it.

I have spent the last two years studying paleoanthropology (one of my hobbies is studying deeply things that I find highly interesting). That is a truly fascinating topic, one that I will surely write essays on at some point. If I just focus on modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, then we have at least two hundred thousand years (CHECK THIS) of history that we can look at. Social anthropologists, if they study that far back, may suggest that as a species we have a tendency toward monogamy. There are some physical reasons for this, certainly, as the name of the game for most of this time (and perhaps even today) has been survival. If something favored survival, it was practiced by those who wished to survive.

Would we, therefore, translate the ‘instinct’ of staying with a single mate (if indeed this can be scientifically substantiated) into an early form of love? That would imply that there would have been some degree of emotional attachment between the mates. By the way, I put that term in italics for a reason, which I will get to soon enough.

I think we must conclude that this is the case. There are plenty of species of mammals that demonstrate that monogamy is not the best way to survive or to ensure the survival of the species. The males of many species will take every opportunity to reproduce, and even risk their lives in mortal combat in order to engage in reproductive activities. No matter how cynical one might be about the nature of humans, few of us would suggest that we have that same instinct.

I will suggest that the monogamous instinct is the harbinger of love. The two beings, a male and a female (which I will go with for simplicity’s sake), developed a sense of attachment because it was understood by both that this was best for everyone involved, especially any offspring that survived. When two adults had to spend years, perhaps even decades, together in order to ensure their survival and that of their progeny, there would have surely been some sense of attachment involved.

It is important to point out a fundamental difference between humans of two hundred thousand years ago and those of today. We are of the same species, so there is virtually no difference in that regard. Since this started long before civilization, we must assume that the differences between two people prior to civilization would not have been based on those differences that can inhibit close relationships (attachment) today, such as:   Physical attraction; differences in personality – ‘I’m an extrovert, while he’s an introvert’; differences in personal interests – ‘she is dedicated to reading and learning, while I prefer to learn by doing’; religious beliefs; and potential degrees of jealously when it comes to people having close relationships with others.

Today we can find any excuse we want if the love, the attachment, is not there any longer. The problem sometimes is that while there is no intellectual love, there may be some degree of physical attraction. A man my think, ‘surely we can separate the physical attraction from the emotional (or psychological); I feel like having sex, and we don’t have to agree on everything to do that, do we?’ Meanwhile, the woman might just be thinking, ‘Hold on a second; there is no separating the physical from the emotional. You are asking me to do something that implies a commitment, which could result in some serious sacrifices on my behalf. I couldn’t just do that randomly, even if I felt like it.’ Modern technology and birth control certainly come into play, but I don’t think they have much to do with this controversy.

Now, I will explain attachment. Psychologists will describe the most basic form of attachment as what develops between an infant and its mother. The newborn infant is almost totally dependent on its mother. The mother is the focal point of all activities, and the purpose of the newborn infant in the first few years is simple – to survive. Instinct and the sub-conscious mind propel the infant into a relationship of the deepest attachment.

That attachment, at first and perhaps for years, is very much a physical manifestation, and eventually it becomes a psychological one also. Every sensory perception of the infant is tuned into the being that brought it into the world. Obviously, that infant is not consciously thinking about the various ways of manifesting its attachment – it is unconditional and instinctive. I see no reason to describe it in any other way than attachment.

Why should this be any different for people as they grow and mature? The level of attachment may increase or it may decline. It may transfer to others, and in some unfortunate cases, there may be no object of attachment at all. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the attachment can’t be shared with others. The child can grow to have deep attachment to the father (or father figure) to siblings and other relatives, as well as to friends, teachers and lots of others. There should be no boundaries to the levels or targets of attachment, although I would argue that most of us have relatively few attachment figures in or lives.

So, what is the difference between love and attachment? My principal problem is with the use of the word love. It must be one of the most often used words in English. It seems to have absolutely no limits when we want express something that we enjoy. Do you doubt my conjecture? Then consider the following:  “I just love the way you did your hair!” “I love the newest album by Beyoncé”; “I love to go walking in the forest on a quiet, cool morning in fall”; “I love to go shopping at the new mall”; “I love the way they cook the Brussels sprouts in this restaurant.”

When we overuse a term, doesn’t it begin to lose its meaning? I just can’t make the connection between love of a person that I have been living with for forty-two years and a green vegetable that needs a lot of preparation to stimulate the palate. Nevertheless, we go through this routine every day of our lives.

I propose we use love for all of those artificial things and switch as soon as possible to using the term attachment when it comes to describing close relationships with people. I know that there is something a little strange about saying, ‘I am attached to you’ to your significant other, family member or close friend. But, doesn’t it have so much more depth of meaning? Besides, when we invent new words and coin new phrases, they may sound strange to us at first. Then, when millions of people are using the new verbal expressions, we get used to them, and they take on a special sense and we embrace them.

We are unlikely to ever describe our relationship with a person’s hairdo, a shopping mall, or vegetables as one of close attachment. That sounds absurd even to me, but using the term for another human being has the potential to really catch on, doesn’t it? Just think about it. You are on your way out the door for a day of rigorous devotion to work, and as you leave you blow a kiss to your significant other and shout, “I am attached to you!” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

I must admit that my personal experiment with attachment has not shown great results. I have tried countless times to convince my wife of the value of the concept of attachment. I even go a little overboard and sometimes tell her that I am deeply attached to her – how can she not be convinced and moved? Alas, it seems she just doesn’t quite get it. That does not mean I will give up trying, however.

Now, here is the real problem with love. The expectations are simply way too high. How many times have we heard these types of comments? “I am searching for the love of my life,” or, “I have to find my soul mate.” Sometimes you hear something similar to this – “I’m looking for that one special person out there who is just right for me.”

The problem with this thinking is it implies that there is only one person, or an extremely small number of people, with whom one might have a life-long relationship. Well, there are about 7 billion people on the Earth now. If you are looking for just the right person, you will be very busy. And what happens if you live in the United States and that very special person, the one in a million (or a billion) lives in, say, Uruguay or on Easter Island? You might as well spend your money on the lottery, because your chances of finding that perfect match probably has worse odds.

Why is this relevant? One indicator is the divorce rate, at least here in the United States, which is about fifty percent. People go through a lot of trouble and expense sometimes, and almost express their vows about “devotion” and “love” and “commitment” for “all eternity”. Then, within a few years, about half of those relationships start to fall apart. Who could possibly meet those expectations? It is totally unreasonable, and puts too much pressure on people.

 I have an alternative suggestion for simple, right-to-the-point wedding vows that remove some of that pressure. “I am making this commitment today to be attached to you, for the indefinite future, and to get along with you as best I can. However, I also know that people grow and change all of their lives. So, if over the next few years or decades, we grow apart and pursue totally different interests and feel that we can no longer live together collaboratively, I am prepared to remove my attachment to you and devote it to another (or others). If you are prepared to accept this, I will make my best effort to achieve our goal of living together indefinitely.”

 That is nice, to the point, and realistic. It does not create this enormous pressure of having to make a commitment for “all eternity” (which is a very long time!). Who wouldn’t feel bad about breaking a commitment that was made for eternity?

Blog: Society and Culture Today

Introduction to My Blog on “Society & Culture”

I have been thinking about what to call my next blog. I have finally settled on “Society & Culture” as this implies a sufficiently broad subject area that will accommodate a variety of topics that I want to discuss. I will explain why I have chosen this title.

I have a decidedly eclectic interest in topics. I have as my foundation an interest in Philosophy. Philosophy is the most basic subject of all, I believe, and it is thanks to my exploration of philosophy, beginning about thirty years ago, that I have branched out to study, both formally and informally, so many subjects.

The subjects I have explored, outside of my professional interests, include the History of Rome, Medieval History (of Western Civilization), Psychology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistics and my most recent one, Paleoanthropology. All of these topics come have an overarching connection with civilization (with the possible exception for the majority of the history of hominids).

I am not sure what the exact connection is between civilization and society. Perhaps these two terms, from a historical perspective, are synonymous. Civilization goes back about 10,000 years or so, and I think we would probably say about the same for Society. I am using the term society in a broader context than might have been connoted during nineteenth century English literature (as in, “I enjoyed the society of that person”, which implies it is a synonym of ‘company’).

Society is a sufficiently large concept for me to talk about in this blog and have plenty to discuss. The term may be vague, but the idea I want to convey is that of a social group, large or small, or a collection of social groups, that make up a larger population. Perhaps the easiest way to refer to societies today is in the context of sovereign nations. That certainly makes me feel more comfortable when I discuss contemporary U.S. society, even if that idea, or that of any other large contemporary society, is a highly complex one.

Culture is an even more problematic term. I think it might take up too much space, and try the reader’s patience, if I went deeply into my thoughts on culture in the contemporary world. In the broadest terms, culture refers to the collection of ideas, ideologies, and generally accepted beliefs of a group, small or large, of people who have many of these things in common. That may be too facile to satisfy some, but for now that is as far as I will go.

There is also the issue of the dynamics of culture. There are many dynamics, and in this blog I might discuss any number of them. For example, there is a culture of technology today (more so than ever before, I think). Some people who are total strangers might well find themselves involved very quickly in some level of intercourse with others if they discover similar interests in the latest technology. This is something today that can happen anywhere in the world. It might even transcend the importance of oral communication; two IT people who speak different native languages might be able to communicate very quickly and effectively if they have a computer or other modern device in front of them. Just my mentioning the contemporary term ‘social media’ should clearly indicate what I am talking about.

Another dynamic, as an example, that people will quickly relate to, but is still highly complex due to the variety of forms through which it is manifested, is the musical arts (a huge of the arts in general). I am, and have been since I was just a few years old, a big fan of the musical arts. I have stated many times that this world without music would probably not be tolerable. If I need to get a distraction from all of the issues and stressors out there, one of the best ways I know how is immersing myself in some favorite piece, or collection, of music.

There are almost countless dynamics on which I could discuss the topic of culture. I might go in any direction in this blog; however, I want to make an important disclaimer. What I will avoid in this blog is any discussion of the following topics:  Religion, Philosophy, Politics, Personal Belief Systems and the most important topic of all, Why we are here on the planet Earth. Those topics are of great interest to me, and perhaps those are the greatest topics one can discuss. However, those topics will be considered in another venue.

I already have the topic of my first post for this new blog. It will be available on this web site before long. That means you have to return soon to see what the excitement (at least for me!) is all about. I appreciate your interest in my ideas and writing.

‘Fillers’ Part Three – Some Personal History

I have been doing some continuing research on the matter of fillers. However, I will begin with a lesson well learned by yours truly. A couple of decades ago I was living in South Florida, and at the time I worked for a not-for-profit organization in the area of economic development. I was asked to give a speech to a small crowd of community people, and by chance my father was in the audience. The details of the event are not important, but the part about my father is.

My father has quite a remarkable history, but that is the topic of another blog that I will eventually get to. He was a career military office who served his country for more than thirty-seven years, and is a veteran of some of the terrible battles in the Pacific during World War II, not to mention the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. After WWII he decided to stay in the military, and he eventually became a Lieutenant General (that means three stars) and was the Chief of Staff, Headquarters USMC. Early on in his professional life he took a special interest in building his personal skills, something that contributed greatly to his highly successful career.

One of the early projects for my father involved joining Toastmasters. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it was an experience that he would mention a lot when I was growing up. He never convinced me to get involved, but that was my fault, not his. My father has been a speaker all of his life, and there is no question that Toastmasters played an important role in his development as a speaker and exceptional oral communicator. I should add that my father was also an entertainer, actor and singer, in his pre-war days, and that must have helped him also. My father is now ninety-two years old and he still gives speeches!

The day I gave that speech in Miami, despite the nervousness because my father was in the audience, I finished up and thought I had done a decent job. My father confirmed my conclusion afterwards. However, he also told me that I had displayed something during my speech that caught his attention.  He was very careful not to criticize me, but he still felt, no doubt, that it was important to make his comment. “Tell me what it is” I said, not without a bit of trepidation. “You used ‘uh’ on a pretty regular basis in your speech.” That was all he said. My response was, “Really? I did? I didn’t even realize that.” Well, there is the issue, in a nutshell. I must have said “uh” pretty frequently, and I had no idea I was doing it.

I began to think about that experience and my father’s comment. I started to listen to other people’s speech (not just their formal speeches) and watched for fillers. I soon realized that many people were using “uh”. And that was not the only filler I heard. The other one that I began to notice was the now ubiquitous “you know”.

People are creatures of habit. That topic in itself is fascinating, but I don’t want to digress too much. We also develop linguistic habits, not all of which are bad perhaps, but once we have one, we don’t even realize we are engaging in it. I threw in those ‘uhs’ as a kind of crutch, I think. I was speaking formally, but I was also thinking and making sure I was saying what I wanted to say. I may also have added a few “uhs” when I was switching between looking at the audience and my notes. I had developed a bad habit and did not know it. The problem was, nobody else told me about it. All I can think about is, “Thanks for noticing, Dad”.

That was a powerful message from my father, and one I will never forget. I made a decision right then and there. I was going to clean up my bad linguistic habits. Then I thought, “Wait a minute, how many more do I have?” My father had pointed out one, but were there others? Everyone knows is it hard to break a bad habit. But it can be done, with time and effort. So, I had to start with my own possible bad habits. Of course, I am using the adjective ‘bad’ here, and some will suggest that perhaps these linguistic habits are not so bad after all. I might disagree with that, but that is a topic for another edition of my English XXI blog.

The important part of all this is the fact that I didn’t just decide that I would have to avoid ‘uh’ when giving a speech (not something I did that often anyway), but I would have to stop doing it every time I spoke. Now that was a challenge. But, I like a good challenge, just like the next person. Therefore, I took it head on.

Perhaps that event from the late 1980s was a key moment in my life as a user of the English language and an identifier of other people’s linguistic bad habits. I know that this has practically turned into an obsession for me. The readers of this series of blogs will hear me say this from time to time. If I mention it frequently it is because I feel it is fundamental to my beliefs on communication. I simply cannot listen to anyone speak, under any circumstances, without looking for their speech patterns and noticing their linguistic bad habits.

At some point I decided to refer to these things as fillers, which is a term also used by researchers on language. The most common ones are ‘uh’, ‘you know’, ‘like’, and ‘I mean’. I call them fillers because the user is probably filling in moments of silence while thinking of how to continue speaking. We all do that to some degree. Even the most eloquent speaker, unless reading from a speech or teleprompter, has the occasional moment of gathering thoughts. The problem today is that these fillers have become so common. I consider them a linguistic plague, and their use is spreading like a famous plague of the fourteenth century (the Bubonic Plague, in case you forgot).

Here is the problem, as I see it, with using fillers constantly. First, it is a distraction. A person is telling me something, and I always give people the benefit of the doubt – that are saying something that I am interested in. Of course, there are times when I am not part of the dialogue, and I might just be listening (intentionally or otherwise) because I am there and have no choice. If it is important, then I want to follow the discussion, and I want the person to explain him or herself clearly. Throwing in fillers regularly doesn’t allow me to focus on the ideas as much.

Second, and I realize this is my interpretation of the situation and is not always true, it sounds as if the person is tentative and not sure of how to describe things to the listener(s). It sounds as if the person is not sure how to proceed and must use a lot of fillers to think and decide what direction to go in with the discussion. Again, perhaps it is just me, but I will start to lose interest in the discussion because it seems the person does not know what to say or has ambivalent feelings on the topic.

Third, fillers tell me that the person does not have her/his thoughts very well organized. I can accept that people do not always have their ideas organized. I am not a “communications elitist” who expects if someone is going to speak he/she should always have all of the thoughts well organized and try hard to communicate them well. I will say, however, that I do expect well educated people to be better at this.

Fourth, I think it would be much better for a person who seems unable to express him or herself properly, and must add a filler in virtually every phrase, clause or sentence, to stop talking and get her/his thoughts organized. That person can defer to someone else for the moment, or simply allow a period of silence for everyone to do some thinking. The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Don’t speak unless you can improve upon the silence.” We don’t have to fill every moment of a dialogue with the sounds of the human voice.

What I tell people, if I feel comfortable broaching the subject, is this: “You can pause during a discussion to collect and organize your thoughts. There is nothing wrong with that. Not every moment has to be filled in with the sound of your voice.” Besides, fillers are a nuisance and may leave the listener with the impression that the speaker is not very confident in organizing his/her thoughts. Of course, very good speakers know the importance of timing and taking pauses for dramatic effect. They don’t need fillers, and I wish everyone else would come to that conclusion as well.

The contents of this document are the property of the Brian F. Snowden, and no reproduction of any kind is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Fillers Part Two

In my first edition dealing with ‘fillers’ I focused on the fact that the use of fillers has risen to epidemic levels in the United States. I understand, to a degree, why young people get hooked on fillers. Everyone they deal with, especially all of their peers, uses fillers. Of course, they are going to use fillers also. It might be more surprising if they didn’t use fillers.

The issue I have now is trying to understand why even educated people are using fillers more often. I have stated previously, and will no doubt do it again from time to time, that I notice everything about language when I hear people speak. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances, or what the venue, I noticed the sentence structure, the grammar, the organization of thoughts. This underscores my contention that the most important thing we do everyday of our lives is communicate. The better we can communicate our ideas, the less ambiguity we will have to deal with.

One supposes that educated people know about proper English grammar and good communications skills. I understand that people in some disciplines might not be quite as tuned in to good oral communications skills, even if they are highly educated. I don’t mean to say anything disparaging about people in technical fields, but I would understand that highly educated people in the sciences, mathematics, information science, etc., might not focus so much on their English language skills. Others, however, might be outstanding communicators.

Regardless of the background, I don’t understand why these scholars would pick up on the filler explosion. When I listen to the news, and news analysis, on National Public Radio for instance, I focus on how ideas, concepts and opinions are expressed. Most of the time, the people doing the interviews and the interviewees are people with credentials. Those doing the interviews are predominantly people with journalism backgrounds. I fully expect those people to use excellent communications skills. Is that not a prerequisite for that profession? The experts on the various topics should also be able to communicate pretty well.

I have noticed in the last several years that fillers are creeping into the conversations, even those involving highly educated people or people with deep knowledge on topics. Why is this happening? The only thing I can surmise is that it is primarily a social phenomenon. I am not an expert on linguistics or the relationship between language and culture. On a simple level, it is obvious that language is deeply embedded in culture, and that the most obvious way we communicate is through the spoken word.

If I assume that people have as one of their goals establishing relationships with others, even on very temporary and somewhat superficial bases, then I may have a better insight into the use of fillers. I will offer a couple of examples from the mass media.

Terry Gross is a widely recognized expert in doing radio interviews. I am not a regular visitor to her program Fresh Air, but when I am driving around I will often tune to my local Public Radio Station to see what is on the air. If I find a topic of interest I will listen to Fresh Air. For example, she recently interviewed Bruce Dern, the fine character actor of my generation, and it was highly enjoyable. At the end of the interview Bruce said to Terry that it had been the best interview experience he had ever had. That is quite a testimony, I would say. I will also quickly add that I think Terry is a first class interviewer.

What I have noticed is that when Terry is interviewing people and she becomes very comfortable with them, sometimes the dialogue moves toward more informality; that is predictable and fine with me. She is becoming comfortable with the other person, and vice versa. However, when that happens, Terry starts to use more fillers. It seems that she is “connecting” with the person and it is reflected in her language.

Her professional radio persona slides toward the back and her friendly persona moves more to the forefront. I am not criticizing Terry for that. Indeed, an interview with some people might be more revealing if all parties are feeling more comfortable. The point I am making is that when people are making a closer connection to others they might well pick up on and use the speech patterns, to some degree, of the other people.

The other example involves another nationally known broadcaster. Nobody doubts the professionalism and superior work ethic of Anderson Cooper. I might even call Anderson a gifted journalist and television broadcaster. Anderson displays all of the personality characteristics that I personally like in people who provide the news and analysis of the same.

In the last couple of years I have noticed that CNN, especially later in the evening when I am more apt to be watching, has segments that are more informal. This includes a program called AC360 Later in which Anderson sits at a table with his tie loosened and has three or four guest analysts with him to discuss the top stories of the day. He also brings in others via video feed to participate on the discussions.

This greater informality means that the communication changes, it seems to me. When Anderson is presenting the news, or on location providing updates on major events (such as the recent storm in the Philippines), his speech is more formal and might even be rehearsed (this is not a criticism). However, when things shift to an informal mode, the speech pattern changes. And this is when the fillers appear.

Anderson’s main fillers are “I mean” and “you know.” It is certain that as soon as things go off the formal news script, the fillers will soon appear. Again, it seems to be a sign of a person relaxing and trying to make a personal connection with others. I don’t have any issues with the switch to an informal format. What I find perplexing is what it is about fillers that makes educated people feel as if they are making a better connection with others.

I would be very interested in knowing how people such as Terry Gross and Anderson Cooper communicate when they are off camera and around people they know well, such as family members, friends and colleagues. I suspect that the conversation becomes increasingly speckled with fillers.

This raises the question of why people change their speaking habits depending on the situations they are in. Of course, I understand that when people give formal speeches or are talking in highly formal environments they are going to use more formal speech, as they think that is something this is expected of them. Those same people, if they go to a tavern to relax, they might well relax their language use. This may seem like a trivial point, but I don’t believe it is. Why should we change our communication habits? Do we not feel that it is just as important to clearly communicate out thoughts? I will pursue this question in the next edition of English XXI.

Do you, like, like the word like?

My first edition of this column was of an introductory nature. Due to the relatively short nature of these columns, in my Introductory Edition I did not go into all of the reasons for engaging in this exercise. One of the reasons, and that is precisely the case now, is that I am trying to understand something that frankly, I am having a very difficult time with. Here is the best example I can think of. This language phenomenon is so baffling to me that I don’t know where to turn to make sense of it.

English is suffering from a plague of fillers. Fillers are those words people throw into a spoken sentence while they are thinking about what to say. I don’t have a problem with the occasional filler. I sometimes even say “well” or “actually” or something similar. But the rampant use of fillers (“you know”, “I mean”, and “like”) has become nothing less than epidemic.

I was recently wondering if this is just happening in the United States. I don’t believe that is the case, but more study is required. I do know that I have spent some time recently in the company of a young man from England who is temporarily in the U.S. working as a soccer coach. We are all soccer fans in my family, and two of my grandchildren are playing the sport. This English person has been a part-time instructor, and to show our hospitality we have invited him to our home a few times. One evening we watched a couple of games after dinner. Before long I noticed something. The very nice young man from Newcastle could not utter a single phrase, clause or sentence without the word ‘like’. Don’t tell me that the epidemic has spread to England!

One of the important points I try to make when I am teaching my students and coaching people on good oral communications skills is that there is nothing wrong with a few moments of silence now and then. If someone is giving a presentation, during which it is unlikely that the audience will interrupt, the speaker can, and should, have occasional moments of silence. This might be for dramatic effect, or it might be used to give the speaker an additional few seconds to reflect on an important point. Regardless, it is not a bad thing and might even get listeners to pay more attention.

I would say the same holds true during times of dialogue. Our brains are capable of operating at lightning speed, but our voices simply cannot keep up. Thus, fillers are sometimes used during those few moments when we are connecting our thoughts, thinking about the right word or phrase to describe something. Some of the traditional fillers are ‘Well’, “Let’s see” and “Actually”. I am not suggesting that fillers be eliminated. I am suggesting that the frequency of fillers is the problem, and that a moment or two of silent reflection is completely acceptable.

The best example of a filler that has gotten out of control is ‘like’. The word ‘like’ has been around for a long time. It won’t serve any purpose to explore the etymology, but for centuries, at least back to Shakespeare’s time, the word has had two basic uses in English. The first one is as a transitive verb (those verbs that must have an object with them). I like Italian food. I like opera, and I like to take power naps. That is pretty simple.

The second use, if we want an easy way to remember it, is as substitute for ‘similar to’. “This song by Norah Jones is like (similar to) that one.” One additional use of the word like that I might be able to understand (but not really accept or ever use myself) is as a substitute for ‘approximately’. Someone might say, “I have like four hundred friends on Facebook.” This should not be confused with having ‘Likes’ on Facebook. Someone may be thinking, “Hey, ‘like’ can also be a noun.” That is true. We can say, “I have a number of likes”. However, this is not a popular expression today, and there are plenty of substitutes for that use of like.

There really are no other traditional uses for the word like. Today, however, like might be the most often used word in the language. How many times I have heard something similar to this (for example, while eavesdropping on the bus as a commuter)? “Wow, it was like a really nice weekend. We, like, went out to the park, and it was like, beautiful. I like went hiking and then came home and like chilled for a while, and later, I was like, wow, really worn out by the hike.” (I was more worn out by the person’s repetition of like.) If that person had removed every instance of the word like from that narrative the meaning would not have changed at all, and the point could have been made in less time and with greater clarity.

So, how did this begin? I have tried to think about the origins of the non-traditional uses of like. I could go back to my undergrad days – oh, no, that is too far back (and in another century!). Let’s say we go back twenty years or so. I don’t recall the ubiquitous use of like back then. It might have been used sometimes, but nothing to the degree it is used today. What I do recall is when one of my children was in high school during the early 1990s I overheard conversations between my son and his friends and there was ‘like’, popping up quite frequently. I asked my son about that, and he was oblivious to the issue. I saw the ‘What are you talking about’ expression on his face. He didn’t really understand. Fortunately, he did not emulate his friends to the degree they used like.

Isn’t it interesting that when we pay attention to something, perhaps for the first time really, we notice it more frequently? We have all experienced this. Well, all of a sudden, or so it seemed to me, everywhere I turned there was the pesky and irritating ‘like’. At first it was confined to young people. I was accustomed to words and expressions that became almost instantly popular, and when that happened it seemed that the whole world was using it. My favorite example comes from my high school years when I was living in Hawaii. The word that suddenly appeared, and was required in almost every other sentence, was ‘bitchin’. I must admit I adopted it for a while myself.

I continued to ponder this phenomenon and wonder about its longevity. Surely the use of like would be just another linguistic transient, similar to ‘bitchin’ in the 1960s. Then, something truly amazing happened. There was an open house at my son’s high school early in his junior year. My wife and I were able to attend the classes that evening that mimicked our son’s schedule. I only remember going to one of those classrooms. It was the English classroom, and there was the teacher, a man in his mid-thirties, who provided some insights into his class. I don’t remember exactly what he described, but I will never forget the pattern that I quickly noticed. Here is what I remember hearing that evening:  “I like to have them read, and like think about what they are reading. It’s like, you know, they need to, like, be exposed to this great literature. And, like, they will be writing a lot also. I mean, it is I important to, like, make the connection between reading literature and writing.”

Oh no! My son was not only becoming linguistically infected with the word like from his peers, even the teachers were contagious! How was that possible? The worst part of it all, of course, was the fact that it was his English teacher who was using those fillers. I left the classroom in disbelief, but at least I was coming closer to an understanding of the matter. One issue here is that people often imitate other people in their forms of speech. Nevertheless, if I were an epidemiologist searching for the origins of some strange disease, I believe I would have an easier time than trying to determine how like, and all of the other popular fillers today, have spread so quickly. All I know is, when somebody asks me, “Do you, like, like this movie?” I sit there wondering what that questions means. I also realize that just a little bit more of my sanity has seeped away.

In my next submission I will explore the psychological origins of fillers. I have a feeling there will be plenty of my blog editions on this topic of fillers, so please return so I can share my investigations and discoveries with you. Now, do you (‘like’) like what I have written so far? (‘I mean’) If you do, and (‘like’) you want to, (‘you know’) understand this topic better and (‘I mean’) try to (‘like’) see if there is, (‘you know’) something we can do about it, please stay (‘like’) tuned in. I trust I have made my point.

Introduction to English XXI

I am writing a series of essays, or blogs, on the subject of the English language in the 21st century. In this opening essay I will provide some background on myself and describe my qualifications for being an authority on English. I will describe what it is that motivates me to write about English, and why I feel it is important to keep the flame burning for preserving our language.

I am in my seventh decade now. In my sixty-plus years I have been to a lot of places and experienced much. I have lived in about ten states here in the U.S., from such disparate places as Englewood, NJ and Pearl Harbor, HI. I have resided in three foreign countries and travelled to about forty-five nations.

I had an early introduction to other cultures and languages. In 1956 my father, a career Marine Corps officer, was sent for a tour of duty to France. We lived just a short drive from Versailles, in the western suburbs of Paris. Even though I was very young, that time in Europe had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

When living in France I got my first exposure to a foreign language. We lived in a military compound and my brother and I went to a school for expatriates where all the instruction was in English. Nevertheless, I had plenty of opportunities to learn some French. I recall an elderly lady who was my babysitter on many occasions. I did not learn to speak French fluently, unfortunately, but my brain was still being programmed for language, and that was an essential phase for developing a “knack” for foreign languages.

When we returned to the U.S. my experience in France started to fade, and I became immersed in the more traditional cultural environment of middle class America. Except for a few after-school French classes when I was in the fourth grade, I just let the French exposure slowly erode until it has like a distant dream.

Things changed when my father was sent for a tour of duty to Hawaii. This was in the mid-1960s, and as chance would have it I had the opportunity to attend one of the premiere private schools in the U.S. I went to Punahou School for ninth and tenth grades. That is the same school Barack Obama would go to and graduate from. According to my calculations, President Obama arrived one year after I left.

There were countless things that were special about Punahou. There was one that was particularly important to me. My academic advisor told me I had to choose a foreign language when I was registering for tenth grade. French would have been the natural choice, right? Well, I opted for Spanish instead. I can’ explain my choice, but it is what I went with. I can still see the face of my first Spanish teacher as clearly as if I had just come from school today. Señora George was an immigrant from Cuba, who had apparently married an American soldier who was sent to Hawaii.

Señora George either didn’t speak much English or she totally bought into the progressive language philosophy that was accepted by Punahou. That philosophy was based on total immersion as the best way to get a strong start on a foreign language. The few times Señora George spoke English, as far as I can remember, it was hard to follow her. We watched slide shows, listened to tapes, and repeated dialogues over and over. One of the lines stuck in my head, and I remember it even today. It involved a dialogue between two students travelling around Madrid. One of them gets on a crowded bus and states, “Francamente, no aguanto tener que viajar como sardinas en lata.” Translation – “Frankly, I can’t stand to travel like sardines in a can.”

I went into that course a doubting Thomas, but I came out at the end with the best Spanish accent of anyone in the class. After decades of thinking about it, I realized what had happened. My time in France had given me the cognitive programming I needed to pick up a foreign language. Many years later I would read about language development and learn that children go through a period of programming for language that lasts until puberty. Something happens at about that time, and we stop that programming.

I would go on to study Spanish for years. I even chose Spanish as my major in undergraduate school at the University of Virginia. This helped me with one of my most important life lessons. When you are good at something, stay with it because you can make great progress. That is a huge element in the reinforcement of learning. I understand that there are other things that can reinforce learning as well. In my case I went with what worked for me. I have proved my success many times through the years. The statement I have heard countless times over the last forty years when I was speaking Spanish with a native speaker is something like this:  “You look like an American, but you sure don’t sound like one. Where are you from, anyway?”

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with English. I am going to get to that now. My years of studying and practicing Spanish forced me to learn more about English. When I had to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present perfect and the past subjunctive, I had to equate those to verb forms in English. When I learned new adjectives, prepositions, gerunds and modifiers in Spanish, I had to make sense of them in terms of English also.

Many years later, I was truly put to the test in my own, native English. I was going to school to get my doctorate and needed a work routine that would permit me to both do research and make some income. I happened upon a job as an ESL – English as a Second Language – instructor, and I ended up working in that profession for over five years. I also did translation and editing work in Spanish and English. Another of my fundamental life’s lessons is this – if you want to really learn a subject deeply, teach it.

For five years I taught English, and it wasn’t enough to tell my students, “That’s just the way it is in English.” I had to explain everything to my students. If there was something I didn’t completely understand, I had to find out what the reason was and explain it.

All of this time I was increasing my knowledge of the English language. I should also add here that I have been an avid reader all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father reading to me at bedtime. He would read me a story while I listened and looked at the illustrations. Some of those stories, which I have not heard for more than fifty years, are still familiar to me. Naturally, I developed an interest not only in reading, but in books as well. Listening to stories, and then reading books on my own, would instill in me a deep desire for books and a great appreciation of imagination.

I wish that when I was a little older, around high school age, I had kept a log of all of the books I read. By the time I finished high school, the number had to have been in the hundreds. As the old expression goes (roughly), I have forgotten about more books that most people have read.

All of the reading, and the language study (which includes formal instruction in Italian, German and Portuguese in addition to the Spanish) for the last sixty years or so have turned me into something of a language freak. This is particularly true when it comes to English. Every time I read something, and every time I hear someone speak, I notice the use of English. This is especially true in oral communications. I assume that when works are published, for the most part, that the authors are at least somewhat proficient in the language. I notice mistakes or inconsistencies, but those things are not very common.

It is a completely different story when it comes to oral communication. The deterioration of the average person’s ability to clearly communicate his/her ideas is nothing short of shocking. I have gotten to the point that when I hear someone speak, whether that is a sales associate at a department store or a so-called pundit on one of the cable news shows on television, I focus on two things. The first is the subject matter, and the second is the ability of the speaker to effectively communicate using English. Sometimes I focus so much on the latter that I lose interest in the former.

In a manner of speaking my close attention on a person’s communications skills is a curse (although I don’t believe in curses per se), because it means that my language monitor is on all day, every day. Every time a person uses a filler, I notice. Every time a person switches perspective in the middle of a sentence, I notice. Every time someone uses a misplaced modifier, I notice. Do I need to say more to make my point?

It is important that I state something else at this point. I do not expect everyone to use the best possible English grammar in every instance. I understand that English is a difficult language with countless grammatical pitfalls. There are times when I have doubts and have to look up something. I know that in our educational system in the U.S. we do not spend enough time reinforcing the elements of good verbal skills. I also know that languages evolve over time, and that some rules, even steadfast ones, may need to be updated by new ones.

However, we cannot simply let the language just randomly drift in any direction. There must be some rules that are maintained. If that doesn’t happen, then at some point we might say that ‘anything goes.’ If anything goes, then at some point the meaning of words, and the construction of phrases, clauses and sentences will lose their meaning. Then, how will we communicate our ideas clearly? What would happen to civilization as we know it, if we can’t communicate our ideas?

In these essays I will mostly discuss the problems that I notice. These are not isolated problems, rather they are problems that are becoming ubiquitous. Some people who read these essay are going to think I’m being overly picky, or old-fashioned, or that I sound like an old codger who would prefer to revert to the past. I don’t believe any of those things are the case. My objective is to ensure that we maintain the essential ingredients of our English language so that we can be efficient communicators. I hope you find my essays informative and even entertaining at times.


“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Bertrand Russell

Please check back here soon for my formal introductory blog essay on the subject of The English Language in the 21st Century. If you are dedicated to using proper style, organization and grammar in all forms of communication, and if you get perturbed when you see and hear the language being horribly deteriorated, then you will want to follow my posts.