web analytics

“Well,” an invisible word

Adults often get annoyed when teenagers use unnecessary words such as “like” when speaking: “That’s like, so unfair.”  Actress Emma Thompson in BBC News magazine says, “Young people make themselves sound stupid by using sloppy language.”  But according to language expert John Ayto, editor of Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, filler words such as “like” have nothing to do with sloppiness –– they simply give a person time to pause and think.  “Um” and “ah,” are other fillers that serve the same purpose.  Dr. Robert Groves, editor of Collins Dictionary of the English Language, suggests that teenagers make excessive use of an unnecessary word such as “like” because it not only gives them time to pause and think, but it is totally invisible to them … they are simply unaware of using it. 

Adults also make excessive use an unnecessary word, which is no doubt similarly invisible to them.  Recently, over a one-month period, while watching various TV news programs from the United States and Canada, I recorded the first word used by 100 different adults when replying to reporters’ questions that required more than a “yes” or “no” answer.  Surprisingly, three out of four (75%) prefaced their answer with the word “well.”  The next most popular word “ah” was used by 10% of respondents.  The remainder (only 15%) simply answered the question without an unnecessary interjection. 

There appeared to be no gender difference in the use of “well:” an equal percentage (75%) of the 68 males and 32 females used the word when replying to reporters’ questions.

I also found little difference between Canadians (39%) and Americans (36%) who started their sentences with “well.”  Nor was there a difference between younger and older adults.  Of those I estimated to be less than 40 years of age, 77% began with “well” versus 73% for those over 40.  Since all of the respondents were adults, I was unable to answer the question whether teenagers would respond similarly.  If modeling behavior plays a role in language acquisition, perhaps they would.  

As to why this word occurs so frequently, I disagree with the notion that it’s being used as “filler,” giving a person time to think.  If that were the case, as it sometimes is with “ah,” there would be a slight pause after the word to collect one’s thoughts.  That didn’t happen –– everyone continued replying without hesitation.  

If the excessive use of an unnecessary word makes adults “sound stupid,” as Ms. Thompson claims it does for teenagers, we have a lot of reporters, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and politicians sounding, well … stupid on a regular basis. 

Further research is needed to determine whether this phenomenon applies more broadly –– to teenagers, other nationalities, the deaf community, and to written communication.  With more information, language experts might be able to tell us how the unnecessary usage of “well” found its way into our everyday language.  But one thing is certain: if you watch TV news programs and listen carefully to the replies of adults who are asked questions, you will no longer find this word invisible