It turns out those annoying Ums are Ers are an essential part of everyday conversation.

Um and Er in conversation

If you ever do any public speaking, or give presentations for work, you probably obsess a little over getting rid of all those Ums, Ers and other “fillers” that creep into your language.

Speaking coaches will train you to avoid them when speaking live. And audio engineers will edit them out when producing recorded speeches, presentations or training products.

But… it turns out that Ums and Ers actually have an important function.

According to Nick Enfield, a linguist at the University of Sydney, “pause fillers” like Um and Er are a signal that you’re not quite finished with what you’re saying.

For some context, think about conversations you have with friends and colleagues. When a conversation is going well, with both parties listening as well as speaking, the gap between one person finishing her thought and the other person jumping in is extremely short…measured in just milliseconds.

It seems human are really, really good at reading the signals that tell us the other person is done, so we can jump in quickly with our own thoughts or response.

This is what keeps conversations moving along at a good clip. There is almost not gap between one person finishing and the other person responding.

But sometimes, as we are gathering our thoughts, we want to let the other person know that although we are pausing, we’re not actually done yet.

That’s when we use Um and Er. It’s our way of saying to the other person, “Hang on a sec, I’m not quite finished.”

We can do something similar when writing online copy and content…

When you’re writing a page of sales copy, you’re not part of a conversation. The reader isn’t participating.

But the reader can still look for clues that you’re done with communicating a particular point… and they can use that natural break as an excuse to stop reading altogether and leave the page.

This is why, for decades, copywriters have used ways to bridge the natural pauses that occur between finishing one thought or paragraph, and moving on to the next.

Not sure what I mean?

Well, I imagine you’re familiar with this line…

“But wait, there’s more!”

Yep… that’s a pause filler… a device to hold your attention while the writer transitions from one thought to the next.

Other written pause fillers include…

That’s why…

In addition…

What’s more…

Better still…

All these phrases act as a bridge, often between one paragraph and the next.

Copywriters can learn and apply a great deal from the world of conversation.

Pause fillers, which have been used in spoken conversations for centuries, are a powerful way to hold an audience’s attention, even as the speaker transitions from one thought to the next.

When we are writing, we should be using equivalent linguistic devices.

Our readers are keenly aware any kind of pause or hesitation in our writing. They then use that as an excuse to stop reading.

By borrowing from the world of conversation, and using pause fillers of our own, we can hold our readers’ attention for longer… hopefully to the very last word on the page.

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17 thoughts on “It turns out those annoying Ums are Ers are an essential part of everyday conversation.

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  1. Hi Nick,

    Funny, but I understood exactly what you were saying comparing conversation transitional sounds, like “um” and “er” with copywriting “pause fillers.”

    What’s more…I think I understood your point because I’ve been studying the skill of copywriting by taking your classes… as well as other classes taught by professionals like you who have been doing this work for decades.

    I guess what I’m saying is…as a student and future “official” copywriter, your article was very clear and validated everything I’ve been learning. Thank you so much Nick!

  2. The Economist won’t allow me to access your link, as I’m not a subscriber.

    Used to be, when I was a hungry go-getter working in Hong Kong. An excellent magazine. I use their Style Guide still.

  3. Nick, plainly speaking, there are two points I’m making:

    1. While, as I’ve said, I agree in principle with your concept of conversational copywriting, in the case of this article I believe you have mis-described what occurs during a conversation where differing views on a particular matter are being expressed.

    For a speaker to hesitate, to stumble over his or her words, is not to signal there is more to come. On the contrary, it indicates a lack of clarity of thought or preparation, and signals an opportunity for the other participants to step in and present their piece because the speaker is drying up.

    I am an avid radio listener, especially of the public broadcaster here in Australia, ABC, which is the equivalent of your CBC, whom I also listen to in the late hours when I’m unable to sleep. There is nothing more entertaining than listening to some bright minds chewing the cud. But I do not recall an occasion when eager contributors hold back in deference to someone who is temporarily lost for words.

    2. My second point is a general one: that it is difficult to transpose oral habits to the textual. I think you’re stretching the point when you seek to equate one with the other, which is what you seem to be doing in this article.

    So much of our understanding of the spoken word is intuitive — it involves vocal emphasis, timing, cadence and even the speaker’s accent. It also includes those hesitations that occur during normal conversation. To extract those verbal characteristics and to transfer them to the written word in an almost literal sense is, I think, a step too far.

    Otherwise, Nick, I’m right behind you.

    • On the use of Ums and Ers, and the reasons we use them in conversation, I got my information from an article in the Economist magazine. They doubtless explain it better than I do.

      The importance of pauses in conversation –

      As for the equivalents in written language, any weakness in that argument is mine alone.


  4. Yes, I am disagreeing, and if you read my comment again you will understand why.

    But, Nick, I don’t want to pick over a bone. I support the generality of your premise, that conversational copywriting achieves results.

    I do hesitate, however, at your attempt to present it as a theorem.

  5. Nick, I’m not convinced that “Ums” and “Ers” are invariably signals for a speaker’s audience to hang on and wait because there’s more to come.

    For example, where a group discussion takes place amongst parties that have varying or opposing views. There will exist a tension between them, causing each to seek any opportunity to “hold the microphone” and have his or her say.

    If the current speaker hesitates, taking time to gather new thoughts, you will hear one or more members vying to take on that role — to fill that space the previous contributor has vacated.

    Of course, you have illustrated how this jostling for the speaker’s position can be overcome in a written context by your “pause filler” suggestions. But then, on the printed page or on the screen the writer is the sole speaker and can pre-empt in advance any loss of continuity.

    • I’m not sure you’re disagreeing. ; ) Yes, when the speaker hesitates, others will be ready to jump in. Hence the use of um and er… It’s a filler and a signal to wait a moment before interrupting. I’m not saying it always works. Some conversations go well, others don’t!

  6. Instructive article, Nick.

    Can a writer actually use “er” as a connecting device in writing … er … what I mean is, can it be used to extend upon an explanation, as in showing a different point of view?

    • Generally I would say no. But if, for example, you were writing an email or a social media update to a group that was already familiar with your very conversational style… then why not?

  7. Always thought Copywriting was a conversation between you and the person you’re writing to. On my journey studying the craft I found the push to persuasive copy. That didn’t work. Now I know why I couldn’t do it, it’s just a conversation.

    Thanks for the confirmation. I really appreciate your perspective. As a former student of yours, you’re the one responsible for straightening out my mindset. Now I write like I speak and get through to the human being at the other end of the keyboard. 🙂

  8. As usual, you make excellent points for how to include your reader in the conversation. As I look back on the beginning of my public speaking (in graduate school) I now understand how my nervous ums and ers allowed me to collect my thoughts and continue while keeping my audience’s attention.

    I can’t wait for the next But wait. There’s More!