Tuesday, May 10, 2016



What is your favorite verbal crutch? We all seem to have at least one, a crutch that helps us gather our thoughts or prepares our conversation partners for what is to follow.

“Um…”, “uh…”, “like…”, “you know…” These are some of the most popular verbal pauses. “Um…” is the preferred crutch of NBA owner Mark Cuban (but it sounds much classier as it sets up Terry Gross’ next question on “Fresh Air). If you want to do a proper JFK impersonation, you have to employ the “Er…uh…” combo (or at least a decent Mayor Quimby).

“You know…” is semi-understandable. It is probably short for “Do you know what I mean?” It is almost like an insecure person wanting to know if you are following along with what they are saying…you know? I used to listen to a sports talk show in Dallas where they would take sound bites of athletes and count the “you knows…” then they would divide that number by the length of the sound bite. There would be extra points awarded for the double “you know…” and the elusive triple. However, I notice that “you know…” is rapidly being replaced in some circles with the one word “nowhatimsayin”.

“Like” may be my most frustrating crutch to listen to. “I was all like…and then she was like…” In most cases it becomes the replacement for “I said…and then she said…” A lot of the time it serves no purpose. “Then my dad went, like, crazy after I told him about the car.”

A few years ago, I noticed a verbal pause I never noticed before, even though I’m sure I’ve used it hundreds of thousands of times: “well…” I should probably capitalize it because it almost always comes at the beginning of a sentence or a train of thought. “Well, if you want to know how to make good tamales…” “Well, I think it is about time for me to head home…” “Well” is typically used as a noun to signify, among other things, a deep pit in the earth used to reach a supply of water (or other things like oil). “Well” is also an adverb that is used to define an action done in a good, proper or successful way. (It is often improperly replaced by the adjective “good” but that’s another lesson).

How did we begin using this as a verbal crutch that begins our train of thought? I’ve even seen it in writing. It first came to my attention while reading Tony LaRussa’s memoir, One Last Strike. This book was even co-written by Baseball Hall of Fame journalist, Rick Hummel. In several places, TLR begins to explain his reasoning behind a decision by starting with, “Well…” Why wouldn’t you edit that out? What purpose does it serve (other than perhaps to convey the sense that LaRussa is having a conversation with you). I read a blog post by an academic who started a thought with, “Well…” I’ve even received text messages that began with “Well…”

I have become self-conscious about my use of “well”. But I still catch myself starting a discussion with it. Where did this come from? What are we trying to convey? As someone who had to write a lot over my academic career, I try to eliminate unnecessary words.

Where did this come from? Is there a “well”, so to speak, from which this all sprang? It is my goal to help you think this through, to think “well” on this subject. Perhaps it could be the beginning of a movement to eliminate one unnecessary verbal crutch. If we could do that, it would be s’well.

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