Fluent disfluency

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A couple of days ago, in "Mistakes", I noted that

verbatim transcripts of spontaneous speech are often full of filled pauses, self-corrections, and other things that must be edited out in order to create what that commenter would count as a "coherent sentence". And this is true even for people who have risen far in the world on the basis of their ability to impress others in spontaneous verbal interaction.

In the comments, David L suggested that we should

Listen to sports commentators, for instance. The best of them of them can keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation or stumbling.

So I took two random segments featuring a local sports-radio talk show personality, Howard Eskin. These were literally random segments, in the sense that I picked two random spots in the time line of the first hour of the podcast of Eskin's March 4 show, and selected a coherent segment of monologue around each point.

Eskin is certainly known for his ability to "keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation". But what I found in those two passages was the typical pattern of "fluent disfluency": filled pauses and self-corrections are roughly as common as the commonest "real words".

They- here's the problem in the world we live in now:
your- the people you work for
they want you to have content
for- and it's the newspaper, it's the website, it's twitter, it's all these other things,
and you're forced
to take a leap
uh with- uh with things you do.
We're not always going to be right
but if you do your best
to find out you're going to be wrong less-
less times and that's-
hey it's not an opinion that he wrote, it wasn't an opinion.

The score so far: 6 self-corrections and 2 filled pauses in 91 words.

But- anyway we'll uh
uh continue with the discussion — free agents,
do you want
Cooks on the Eagles, Brandin Cooks from New Orleans,
and what would you trade for him? And don't tell me a first round pick
because that just s- that's just lunacy, that is total lunacy.
Do you want a- a- becau- I- I think
they're going to trade for
uh a wide receiver uh pick him up.
Free agency's just too expensive
so uh
tell me what you think,
what they should do,
do you like Cooks
uh and what would you trade for him?
uh we'll continue that discussion.
The Seventy Sixers
they won last night they beat-
can you believe how bad the Knicks are?
The Knicks just are awful.
Although they have a player that should be on the Sixers
if somebody had half a brain and uh
drafted him ahead of Okafor,
it would have been uh
this team would have been in so much-
this- sh- so much better shape than they are right now.

For the second segment: 7 self-corrections and 9 filled pauses in 175 words.

Overall, a total of 13 self-corrections and 11 filled pauses in 266 words (including filled pauses and partial words in the "word" count). The commonest "real words" in the passages: 13 you and 11 the.

I don't doubt that there are radio personalities, in sports and elsewhere, who can improvise at length without disfluencies. But there are many others who are fluently disfluent.



  1. ErikF said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    A source that you may want to check are Twitch streamers. Many of them (not all, to be certain) have to fill large amounts of time playing a game, sometimes in conversation with viewers but sometimes not. An example of one who I follow often because he's very comfortable with speaking is a YouTube/Twitch broadcaster called Northernlion: in his YouTube recordings where there is no live audience he is able to maintain a generally coherent speech pattern while throwing in stream-of-consciousness ideas to keep a flow going.

  2. David L said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 11:08 am


    I'm tempted to see if I can dig up any of my old radio bits for analysis but (a) it's been at least 20 years so I don't know if any record survives and (b) I would probably be dismayed by the result.

  3. Karen said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    I believe that when the speakers just keep going, our minds edit out the errors and we perceive their speech as fluent and errorless. Because it's what we hear almost all the time.

  4. Jeremy Fagan said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

    The BBC's long running game show, Just a Minute, would be interesting for comparison – it's surprisingly hard to speak for a minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    March 12, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

    I wonder if there is a perception difference between visual/audio and audio only.
    Some years ago during the reign of George W (the ex-president), one day I was listening to a press conference on the radio in my car and he sounded almost incoherent. I got home and turned on the TV and my impression was very different. He seemed much more fluent (relative to the radio).

  6. Grover Jones said,

    March 13, 2017 @ 8:08 am

    I doubt the original commenter was talking about talk show hosts. I immediately thought of those announcing a live game.

  7. Adrian Morgan said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 11:21 pm

    Speaking of disfluencies I'd just like to drop a thought in here, while I think of it.

    When I'm listening to a podcast, I often find myself realising — quite suddenly — that I've forgotten how the conversation got to the current point and what they were talking about just a few moments before. Not being able to let this go, I typically rewind and listen to it again.*

    From accumulated experience, I've come to learn that the trigger for these memory lapses is, very often, a disfluency on the part of the speaker. It is as if my brain, in trying to edit out the disfluency, inadvertedly edits out a large chunk of the conversation.

    Just wondering, has anything interesting been written about this phenomenon: disfluencies as amnesic triggers? Because if other people are anything like me, it is certainly a thing.

    * Which, incidentally, is one reason why I have zero patience for online player interfaces that don't enable fine RW/FF control, and hereby place a curse on any and all programmers responsible for the existence of such beasts.

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