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An interesting example of meaningful uh:

The effect seems different from um, in a subtle way.

A dozen years ago, I observed that ("And uh — and then what?", 1/5/2004):

There has been a lot of work over the years suggesting that disfluencies are often really communicative choices rather than system failures. I have a favorite anecdote about this. Former New York mayor Ed Koch has (or used to have?) a radio talk show, which I would sometimes listen to in the car when I lived in northern New Jersey, back in the neolithic era. Though highly verbal and even glib, Ed is a big um-and-uh-er, to the point that he would often introduce himself by saying "This is Ed uh Koch." Since it's not credible that he was having trouble remembering his own last name, I concluded that he often used a filled pause as a sort of emphatic particle.

But Sean Doolittle's uh is not the same as Ed Koch's uh –– it's more like the "dismissive UM" or "snotty UM" that (as Ben Zimmer pointed out a couple of years ago) was considered grounds for banning in the discussion forum Television Without Pity:

Q: Why can't I start my posts with the word "um," be a snotty jerk, or present my views as God's TV gospel?
A: Don't start your posts with "um" or "uh" or words like that because nine times out of ten, those words precede a snotty correction directed at another poster. It's rude and dismissive and it drives the staff nuts, so please, don't do it. The same goes for "sorry, but…" and "excuse me, but…" and, really, any other snitty post-starter.
If you can't talk to other people as if they're intelligent, you can't post. Don't talk down to your fellow posters, don't lecture them, and don't state your opinion as fact. And please don't think we're going to argue technicalities of whether you said "uh" or "um" at the beginning of the post; we can tell when you're being snide and snotty about other people's opinions.
If you're having a problem keeping your temper under control, get it under control, or post somewhere else. It's supposed to be fun. It's not combat. It's not necessary for it to become personal.
If you want to point out an error, that's fine, but please find a way to do it that isn't the written equivalent of an eye-roll.

A few of our many other UM/UH posts over the years — though mostly about gender differences rather than Gricean interpretation:

"Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005
"Some kind of grammar, um, strict police", 2/24/2009
"Fillers: Autism, gender, and age", 7/30/2014
"More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014
"UM UH 3", 8/4/2014
"Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014
"UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014
"UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014
"Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014
"ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014
"Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014
"UM / UH in German", 9/29/2014
"Um, there's timing information in Switchboard?", 10/5/2014
"Trending in the Media: Um, not exactly…", 10/7/2014
"UM / UH in Norwegian", 10/8/2014
"On thee-yuh fillers uh and um", 11/11/2014
"UM / UH update", 12/13/2014
"UM/UH accommodation", 11/24/2015

And for a summary and extension of that work, see Martijn Wieling, Jack Grieve, Gosse Bouma, Josef Fruehwald, John Coleman, and Mark Liberman, "Variation and change in the use of hesitation markers in Germanic languages", Language Dynamics and Change (forthcoming).

I wonder whether the communicative use of a hesitation marker, as in Sean Doolittle's example, is universal. You could tell a Gricean story about how the communicative effect of that example is created by general principles of cooperative communication. But maybe such things can be subject to pragmatic drift in a particular (sub-) culture?


  1. Joe said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    The "uh" in Sean's case is related to this particular meme. It is more akin to "d-uh!" ("Is today Wednesday?" "D-uh!") and Homer's iconic "D-oh!" than your garden variety disfluency.

  2. Linda Seebach said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    When I'm writing, and I intend to convey something like "I hate to tell you this, but . . ." I type it "erm . . ."

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    I do the same as Linda Seebach, but with "umm" :)

  4. Mr Punch said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    Ed Koch died three years ago – although that does not preclude an ongoing radio show, as Tom Magliozzi of "Car Talk" demonstrates.

  5. Rubrick said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    I would translate the "uh" in question as either "let's all just think about this for a second, shall we?" or "let me make my dubiousness clear".

    If it had been "um", I might opt for "I shouldn't really even have to say this".

    So, yeah, subtle. :-) (And likely almost entirely in my head, at least in terms of specifics.)

  6. Michael said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    It seems to me that "uh" could be swapped out with "um" in this sentence with no change in register or meaning. Perhaps the, uh, subtlety escapes me.

  7. Tom V said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

    @ Mr Punch:
    The essence of Car Talk exists in the realm of Platonic ideas, and neither Click nor Clack will ever die.

  8. JS said,

    October 12, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

    This "um/uh" definitely doesn't simply mean "I hate to tell you this." Best I can come up with is "…[pretending to be] deciding whether you're a freaking idiot or if the following goes without saying… aaaaannnd… yep you're an idiot so I'll say it…"

  9. Rube said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    @JS Yes, FWIW, that's exactly how I take "um/uh" when they are used on the Internet, and I've never noticed that it matters which is used.

  10. BZ said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    Uh no, for me that sentence is unidiomatic. It has to be an "um" (just like "um no" wouldn't work for me above)

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    JS, Rube: Or maybe "Let me collect my thoughts after that disconcerting piece of idiocy" or "How can I put this so an idiot can understand it?" I can understand why it's considered ban-worthy incivility at some forums.

    BZ: Sean Doolittle's sentence is unidiomatic for you? I'm one of the people who don't see a difference between "uh" and "um" (or "er" and "erm") in these situations.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

    Off topic, but as far as I can tell from the google books corpus, the phrases "locker room talk" and "locker room language" meaning more or less "vulgar banter among males, esp. sexual and/or sexist" are not attested prior to around 1986 (a few seemingly earlier hits are upon closer inspection apparently misdated). Obviously the phenomenon referred to is much older, but I'm curious if anyone knows of actual scholarship on the origin/etymology (or reliable earlier attestations) of these particular labels for it. One just-so story might be that "locker room" only became an obvious synecdoche for "social environment in which there will reliably not be any females around, so you don't need to watch your language" as a result of the dramatic decline in the per se exclusion of women from other previously all-male environments where vulgar banter might stereotypically have been expected (saloons, pool halls, army barracks, etc) over the approx 20 years prior to 1986. But that's a hypothesis I just made up on the spur of the moment, so better-informed thoughts are welcome.

    [(myl) From Jack Olsen, "Virtue is its own reward", Sports Illustrated 1/22/1973:

    "Pat almost fell off his chair. He whispered in my ear, 'Do you know what you just said?' I said, 'No.' He told me, and I announced, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid that I used a little bit of locker room language, and I apologize.' " That was back in 1962 when a man wouldn't say "jockstrap" in polite company if he was wearing three of them, but Schenkel rode out the temporary storm. He winced a few days later when he opened a letter from Fred Bowman, then president of Wilson Sporting Goods. "Chris." Bowman had written, "you must remember that the correct nomenclature is 'athletic supporter.' "

    And from the Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, June 22, 1929:


  13. JIm Collins said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

    Context requires "ah" with lifted index finger to indicate "yer wrong, but imma be polite while I inform you of the error of your ways". Mr. Brewer, allow me to assure you that the phrase was well embedded in Texas usage in the early seventies. Coach S and Coach M were quite firm about it.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    I failed to find that 1973 SI hit for "locker room language" in my prior quick-and-dirty searching because I foolishly had not thought that using ordinary google (outside the google books corpus) for anything with that old a date would be productive. Live and learn. It does seem that 'Ladies and gentlemen, Del Shofner has just faked Claude Crabb out of his jock' is a rather different kind of "locker room language" than what people typically mean now, both because it would now be hard to explain to young people why it was the sort of thing you ought not to have said in "polite company" in 1962 (the objection to Trump's language is not, I take it, merely based on a prim Victorian desire for euphemism) and because the referent of the "vulgar" word in question (athletic supporter alias jock strap) is extremely locker-room specific. But https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9691/1/fulltext.pdf seems to be a less ambiguous hit from 1973 of what I would think of as the extended modern sense in a Canadian M.A. thesis on Tennessee Williams (by a female student, FWIW), mentioning Stanley Kowalski's "locker-room language reserved for his male cronies."

    I can't figure out what the 1929 newspaper story (slightly misattributed, because the Morning News and Evening Journal didn't merge into the News Journal until maybe the 1970's, but maybe the predecessors' archives have been retrospectively merged) means by "locker room language" without seeing more context than the snippet, but it seems mildly improbable it specifically means "sexually-charged vulgar banter" as opposed to something vaguer like "a register too informal to be appropriate in context."

  15. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    The 1929 citation for "locker room language" is also discussed in a recent piece by Stefan Fatsis for Slate's Lexicon Valley blog.

    Getting back to UH/UM, I'll just point to my comment on this 2014 post for further discussion about the ban-worthiness of phrase-initial UM.

    [(myl) Thanks for the references — I've updated the post to be explicit about your comment, which I wasn't able to find when I originally wrote it.]

  16. Jean Reynolds said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 4:35 am

    Sean, thank you for writing "uh" instead of "er." I hate that "r"!

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