Is there a word for a term employed to play for time and allow the speaker a little longer to work out what he/she wants to say next?

Words like um and er fall into this category, of course, but so (sometimes) do terms like actually, obviously, you know, like...

I wondered about filler word, but that would cover other reasons for using such a term. It's more about the grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence (none at all) rather than the purpose for which the speaker is using it.

  • 2
    Filler words, uhm, actually, is the perfect, uhm, word for that.
    – NVZ
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 17:21
  • @NVZ but don't some people say um or you know just out of habit, rather than to play for time? Commented May 14, 2016 at 17:27
  • Yes, they do. They overuse filler words. I don't think there's a special word for that.
    – NVZ
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 17:32
  • There's this "valley girl slang", you should look it up.
    – NVZ
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 17:35
  • 1
    In spanish we call them "muletillas" in reference to crutches.
    – Braiam
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 23:33

4 Answers 4


Although I am making an extrapolated assumption here, rather than quoting from a dictionary or personal knowledge, I would say that such terms are examples of stalling, as exemplified here. If you were to use a noun, then stalling-terms (or stalling terms), stalling words, stallers etc., would all be valid.

However, I have never heard a reference to any such term before (or a descriptive reference such as you gave) so I have no frame of reference to compare to. I think that may end up being a case of neologism.

As well as the wikipedia article itself, this article which comes under the see also section of the wikipedia entry deals with this case tangentally. It uses the words halting and faltering quite a bit, so perhaps rather than using a noun, one might refer to halting, faltering or stumbling (again, in the case of stumbling I'm simply finding like terms from my own knowledge, I can cite no sources) speech patterns or turns of phrase.

  • 1
    Nicely done. Why not register your account and help out more users? Welcome to ELU!
    – NVZ
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 18:09

I'm afraid filler is the only word that fits what you need. I'm not sure I understand the "but..." in your question, but the only way I can think of making a similar distinction is that a filler (either a word or just a sound) adds nothing to the sentence, other than to give you some time to think; while you could call "actually," "well..." or "in fact" pet phrases instead. A pet phrase is one that a speaker or writer uses very often even when it's not necessary or there are alternative options that may be better. It does not automatically imply the word or phrase is a filler, but I think with certain contexts it might make that suggestion.

As a more subjective argument, I'd say "Look..." "Listen..." "Well..." "In fact," etc. are like fillers masquerading as rhetoric devices. Or maybe simply both at the same time.**

And as a fun fact, Spanish speakers call these words or sounds muletillas, the diminutive for "crutches," which I think is a much more descriptive term.

**Edit: Actually, I'd ammend this after reading this response: they are still fillers, but phatic is probably more accurate than pet phrase.


They are interjections. Some interjections (hello, yes, no, ...) are essential parts of dialogue, some (oh, huh, oops, ouch, ...) give valuable feedback, and some (um, er, ...) are just stalling {don't switch dialogue state yet - I'll continue soon}.


There is a sense of vamping that describes the act rather than the actual words used. Being able to put together a little word salad while you gather your thoughts is a valuable skill.

To put together; fabricate or improvise or to concoct or invent

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