They might actually be, you know, be useful.
May 15, 2002 7:48 AM   Subscribe

They might actually be, you know, be useful. This year, a student in Nebraska won $1000 for finding the worst example of overuse of the phrase 'you know,' by an athlete who said it 30 times in a 135 second interview. But are they really that terrible? Known as discourse markers, phrases such as 'you know' and 'I mean' are thought to be essential in conveying information in conversation and helping us understand each other. Discourse markers also exist in many other languages and possibly even ancient languages.
posted by adrianhon (25 comments total)
"...possibly even ancient languages."

yeah, you know wha i'm sayin', like the pharohs, an sheet, they prolly had, like, hundreds a them, umm, discourse things, you know wha i'm sayin'.

aaa, it's like this, yo, I be talkin' atchu, you know wha i'm sayin', and we be havin' like a discourse, you know wha i'm sayin', and then one a my boyz rides up, you know wha i'm sayin', and he's like, like, "sup!", and i'm like, "sup, yo!", and weez like dat, you know wha i'm sayin'?

Theyz usefull, thas all i'm sayin', yo.
posted by mikhail at 8:04 AM on May 15, 2002

Yo, yo, yo! Slam the sayin' and grab the rope. We got a, like, pyramid to, um, finish building, like, you know.
posted by dwivian at 8:06 AM on May 15, 2002

Have been finding myself increasingly self-conscious about "ums" and "ahs" recently, and trying to find something else to say instead (just for variety, like...) Got interested yesterday by Dave Eggers' dad's trick of saying "now..." instead of "um" in order to sound wise and venerable in meetings.

The weirdest thing about discourse markers is how damn *contagious* they are though... still finding myself saying Swedish colleagues Swenglishisms all the fucking time, despite how much I hate and despise them. WHY IS THAT??? **fume**

Great post by the way adrianhon.
posted by bifter at 8:20 AM on May 15, 2002

Discourse markers are fine. But at a pace of every three seconds? Of course, I would probably stumble a lot if put in front of a camera for an interview.

I listent to baseball on the radio a lot, and so I frequently hear the post-game call-in shows they have. It is amazing to me how many people can not get three words out of their mouth without having to pause to think of the next three. A pause that is invariably filled with an "uhhhh" or an "ummmm" or a "you know" or a cleared throat.
posted by obfusciatrist at 8:27 AM on May 15, 2002

Also on my list are the words "basically" and "actually". These words seem to be the newer discourse markers on the scene. Anybody who has been to a tech trade show can attest to their rampant overuse. Well basically....
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:36 AM on May 15, 2002

Think before you speak, speak slowly, and prefer silence to filler. It's better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to, like, you know, speak and remove all doubt.
posted by pracowity at 8:43 AM on May 15, 2002


Think before you speak, speak slowly, and prefer silence to filler. It's better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to, like, you know, speak and remove all doubt.

"Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses".

Wise words, great mate ;-)
posted by bifter at 8:49 AM on May 15, 2002

They are useful precisely because they are content free. While words like "so" and "are" can't be removed from the language, and there's no particular reason to worry too much about "minimizing them", using them excessively sends is basically bad. For one thing, it tends to signal to other humans on a subconcious level that the person using them needs more of this "content free" time to collect and express their thoughts. (Subconcious->no matter how hard you try to see past it, you'll still notice.)

In other words, excessive use of "you know" conveys on a pretty fundamental level that the speaker is not all that bright.

Obviously, it doesn't necessarily mean that. Although I think it does sometimes, I'd guess that in the vast majority of cases, it's just a bad habit. Unfortunately, it's a really bad habit; as many psychological studies have verified, most cognition emerges into your conciousness as speech. If your speech habits include excessive empty words, while you are busy thinking "you know", you are not thinking something useful. So it probably can contribute to a slowdown in cognitive processes.

Similar situations can occur with bad reading habits; subvocalizing every word slows your cognitive understanding of what you are reading down to the speed you can talk, which is much slower then you are probably capable of reading.

In conclusion... yes, they are terrible. I don't mind listening to them, but they can be really damaging to the person using them. It's a very, very bad cognitive habit.
posted by Jeremy Bowers at 8:49 AM on May 15, 2002

Think before you speak, speak slowly, and prefer silence to filler. It's better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to, like, you know, speak and remove all doubt.

my man, Ed McMahon said that.
posted by mikhail at 9:04 AM on May 15, 2002

My sixth grade teacher cured all students of the "you know" and "um" habit. If you were talking to him and said "you know" he would respond immediately "no, do you?" If you said "um" he would just repeat it back to you. We all quickly stopped doing it.

I've regressed on the "um" a bit. But I almost never do a "you know".
posted by obfusciatrist at 9:24 AM on May 15, 2002

Uh, um, ah, right? Yeah? N'ahmsane? Like, so, y'no, er, the-uh, thing, oh, I sorta, well, kind of agree with you. I think.
posted by me3dia at 9:39 AM on May 15, 2002

when i took a course on public speaking in college, i was told not to say the "you knows" and the "uhhs" and the like. i still do (only got a B in the course). speaking of discourse markers, i am convinced the word "basically" is a discourse marker that indicates "please do not listen to what i am about to say, for it is very technical and though i am pretending as if i am simplifying it for you, i'm not really."
posted by moz at 9:44 AM on May 15, 2002

I would have punched that sixth grade teacher in the teeth.
posted by thebigpoop at 9:59 AM on May 15, 2002

I'm amazed that no one has mentioned Reagan's "wells" yet. He really did say the word constantly, and it even ended up in official transcripts of his speeches ("Well, the task I've set forth will long outlive our own generation.") Whether you thought it made him sound like an idiot or a statesman was a good barometer of your political leanings.
posted by yhbc at 10:05 AM on May 15, 2002

i've always been a fan of "nah mean?" how one can compact 5 words into 2 (you know what i'm saying?) is genius.
posted by lotsofno at 10:25 AM on May 15, 2002

I was like, "Hey. I know you from somewhere."
And she was all like, "Yeah, don't you go to my school?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I do. I know your sister."
And she was like, "Cool. Nice cell phone holder! I love hot pink and orange."
And I was like, "Me too! And I have to have anything with Hawaiian flowers on it, so I was all over this baby."

Just a little snippet of my daughter's phone conversation yesterday.
posted by iconomy at 10:28 AM on May 15, 2002

If you read the Boondocks it's one word ("Knaamean?") and therefore even more genius. I like your transliteration better, though.

It's not as though these discourse markers we use contain no information whatsoever. They carry tone of voice, attitude, and often the speaker's place in society. The guy who says "you know" once every ten seconds doesn't just have a tic - he likes saying "you know" because he likes to appear casual or something. For iconomy's daughter identifying with the kid on the other line was probably way more important than whether or not anybody actually loves hot pink and orange.
posted by furiousthought at 11:09 AM on May 15, 2002

the whole "i was like" construction is interesting.
i think it's indicative of generation more than age.
i find myself using it all the time, but when i see it typed out it looks icky.
i think i fell into using it because it's a way of paraphrasing; ie, i can say i said something along the lines of (like) x without actually claiming that i said x (which is probably for the best since who can really remember all their prior conversations word for word).
i also find myself substituting "i heard" for "i saw on the web" or "i read" which i'm somewhat disturbed by as well.
posted by juv3nal at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2002

Blah Blah Blah.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 1:45 PM on May 15, 2002

When I was in high school, I found myself sliding into the habit of using "like" a lot. To break myself of the habit, I would hit myself whenever I noticed that I'd said it.

I was a weird kid. People were scared of me. But, I don't punctuate conversation with "like" too frequently anymore.
posted by willnot at 2:29 PM on May 15, 2002

My dad tried to cure my sister from saying "like" and "you know" one night at dinner. He was sitting right next to her, and he tapped her on the face every time she said one of the verboten phrases. She slowed down extremely noticeably, but once she thought she got it, she sped up and flubbed. My dad tapped her so many times, she got flustered and red in the face... it didn't really work, so he did it only that one time.
posted by meep at 2:35 PM on May 15, 2002

If a person is talking and suddenly starts using "you know" a lot for no apparent reason, when they hadn't said it before, they're probably making up what they're saying, which means they're probably lying, or at least they don't know what they're talking about, and are desperately trying to cover.

I have found this principle very useful in business meetings.
posted by kindall at 2:40 PM on May 15, 2002

that's a really weird mental image you've given me, meep. but i like it. i imagine a girl trying to carry on a conversation with her mom while her dad occasionally does this thumb tap on her forehead; neither mom nor dad nor daughter say anything about it directly. i can imagine the intro for a movie featuring such a scene. "behind the very nice and very sad families are thousands of quirky but otherwise normal families. this is such a one." starring ben stiller!
posted by moz at 3:12 PM on May 15, 2002

This is a bit tangential, but this is one of my favorite "like" stories.

If you can find an MP3 of Taylor Mali reading it, even better.
posted by nath at 3:35 PM on May 15, 2002

iconomy: I think your daughter was talking to my daughter...that conversation sure sounds familiar around here.... :-)
posted by davidmsc at 5:39 PM on May 15, 2002

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