If You Have a Crutch, Use It! Language crutches and discourse markers

On a recent phone call, the person I was talking to ended nearly every inquiry with “Perfect,” even if it had no application to our topic of discussion. I eventually realized she was using this as a filler word, also called discourse marker, to fill in the silence that accompanies speech between humans. People used to commonly use “awesome.” Others over the years have included the British “brilliant,” the old-fashioned “groovy,” the hipster “right on,” and a slew of others, including “um,” “ah,” and “like.”

Discourse markers fascinate me. Although they do nothing to add to the content of speech, simply slowing the discussion down and, if extreme, distracting listeners who start counting the number sprinkled here and there. They can give hints about the speaker’s age and, I believe, a bit about his background, educational level, gender, lack of social ease, and social class.

Women tend to use them more than men, as if fearful that silence equates to boredom. Men tend to overdo the F-word. I’ve eavesdropped on men talking to one another during which a variation of “f—-ng” served as noun, verb, object for nearly the entire conversation.

My grandson picked up a filler word relatively young. At the age of six, he started prefacing his discourses with “literally,” which he probably heard his big brother using. It does serve to facilitate his language because (1) it sounds somewhat adult, (2) it grants him a few seconds to organize his thoughts before spewing. His big brother seems to avoid many of the common discourse markers. For some unknown reason, he doesn’t feel obligated to fill in every second with speech. On the other hand, my granddaughter could serve as the poster child for filler words. Like a traditional Valley Girl (which she is not), she uses the word “like” in every sentence.

I figured out why. Her brain is speeding so quickly, she has to allow her mouth to catch up. There are some valid reasons to use discourse markers. Some others are to slow down your news, particularly if it’s bad; to show you’re thinking; to stall for time. In my example, my phone partner indicated she was listening to me and working to resolve our problem.

This verbal shorthand seems to operate well only when talking out loud. Still many experts say using them too much makes the speaker appear unprofessional and scrambling or pompous and wordy. Best to try to avoid their overuse.

Can you imagine how boring a written passage would be if laden with filler words? Hmmm. Maybe not. Might make the story ultra-realistic and relatable. As a writer, I find the idea intriguing and challenging. Perhaps it’s exactly what I need. You know?

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