Is there a word for saying "um" or "uh", etc, during speaking? Or a word for "um" and "uh", etc?

5 Answers 5


They are called conversation fillers:

In linguistics, a filler, filled pause, hesitation marker or planner is a sound or word that is spoken in conversation by one participant to signal to others a pause to think without giving the impression of having finished speaking. [...] Fillers fall into the category of formulaic language, and different languages have different characteristic filler sounds.


Every conversation involves turn-taking, which means that whenever someone wants to speak and hear a pause, they do so. Pauses are commonly used to indicate that someone’s turn has ended, which can create confusion when someone hasn’t finished a thought but has paused to form a thought; in order to prevent this confusion, they will use a filler word such as um, er, or uh. The use of a filler word indicates that the other person should continue listening instead of speaking.

Filler words generally contain little to no lexical content, but instead provide clues to the listener about how they should interpret what the speaker has said. While there are many different reasons for using filler words, sociolinguists have identified six main reasons for doing so: pausing to give time for the speaker to gather their thoughts, speaking more indirectly in order to encourage politeness, approaching delicate topics gently, emphasizing ideas, providing clues to emotions or behaviors, and communicating uncertainty. The actual words that people use may change (such as the increasing use of like), but the meaning and reason why people use them doesn’t change.

  • 1
    They are also referred to as fillers or filler words.
    – Zoot
    Jul 14, 2011 at 14:48

The word for sounds made that are not communicative, such as "er", "uh", "um", etc, and also for interruptions in speech, are generally called "nonfluencies". They indicate the person is thinking of what they will say next, either calling attention to their next statement, or if overused, indicating the speaker is not comfortable with the language they are using, or with speaking in general.

The Toastmasters groups in the U.S. ring a bell (ding) every time a nonfluency is heard from a speaker practicing at a meeting. It's distracting, and meant both to point out the nonfluency and throw the speaker off their game, possibly resulting in more. The idea is that nonfluencies imply unpreparedness and nervousness, which the groups members are there to train out of themselves to improve their public speaking.

However, some studies have shown that speech with no nonfluencies is actually paid less attention to by the listener than speech with a few "natural" nonfluencies. A person who starts an answer to a question with a short "uh" or "er" calls attention to the fact they are about to speak, heightening the listener's attention.


You might not find a single word that means "verbal pauses":

Verbal pauses are when you say um, ah, uh, you know, etc. While your brain is searching for the next words to say, your mouth keeps on going and blurts out meaningless extra syllables.

Verbal pauses also include bridge words like and, but, and so. If you say one of these words and hang on it before you actually know what you’re going to say next, it’s a bridge word.

Another form of verbal pause is the repeated word. You keep repeating your last word until you figure out what to say next, like and and and.


I think you'll find that "umming and ahing" is in most dictionaries as a phrasal verb.

  • 2
    Isn't it usually "hemming and hawing", though?
    – Marthaª
    Jul 14, 2011 at 13:27
  • Both variants get lots of hits from on-line dictionaries -- which is not surprising, because it's an extremely common thing, so there should be at least two ways of expressing it. Jul 14, 2011 at 13:48
  • 2
    @Martha: According to the dictionary, and to my experience, "hemming and hawing" is a specific use of "ummm" etc. It means trying to be evasive and not get to the point. That's not what I'm referring to.
    – Daniel
    Jul 14, 2011 at 14:22
  • @Martha: I first heard hemming and hawing from an American, so it could be an AmE vs BrE distinction Jul 14, 2011 at 14:32

Ahem, I would say exclamations.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees:

um |(ə)m|
expressing hesitation or a pause in speech : anyway, um, where was I?

  • It doesn't make sense to describe the set of pause filling words like um and uh, etc., as exclamations, because that's not specific enough given there are other exclamations that are not of that nature (e.g., hey).
    – nnnnnn
    May 8, 2020 at 23:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.