"Um, tapes?"

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Over the years, we've discussed the fact that "filled pauses" (um and uh in American English) sometimes have communicative force beyond their role in filling compositional silences — see e.g. "And uh — then what?", 1/5/2004, and "Uh", 10/12/2016. There's a nice example in a recent headline at TPM: "Um, Tapes?", 1/21/2019. In the article under the headline, Josh Marshall remarks on a striking passage in Rudy Guliani's New Yorker interview:

RG:But I can tell you, from the moment I read the story, I knew the story was false.

NYR: Because?

RG: Because I have been through all the tapes, I have been through all the texts, I have been through all the e-mails, and I knew none existed. And then, basically, when the special counsel said that, just in case there are any others I might not know about, they probably went through others and found the same thing.

NYR: Wait, what tapes have you gone through?

Josh's headline is reminiscent of what we've called "awkward UM" and "snotty or dismissive UM", though maybe the sense in this case should be glossed as something like "suddenly attentive UM". The OED (1921 entry) gives just three senses for um, none of which fit here (and I think the third one represents a different non-speech vocalization entirely):

  1. Used to indicate hesitating or inarticulate utterance on the part of a speaker.
  2. Used to indicate hesitation or doubt in replying to another.
  3. Used to indicate assent.

Merriam-Webster give only one sense, "used to indicate hesitation".

Inadequate lexicography aside, there are some interesting questions here for the philosophy of language.

We infer things about the people around us from pretty much everything they do (or don't do). These may be true insights about the individual, or the activation of valid or invalid stereotypes, or wild paranoid fantasies — but most of us are forming dozen of such conclusions at every instant of every observation of another person.

And we're aware, to some degree, of the effects we have on others, so that some of what we do (or don't do) is chosen in order to evoke expected inferences. This is the basis for the idea of speaker meaning (as opposed to sentence meaning), associated with the work of Paul Grice. The same penumbra of contextually expected inferences underlies the concept of connotation (as opposed to denotation), and combines with frequentistic and information-theoretic effects to cause the evolution of word (and phrase) meanings over cultural and sociological time and space. Crucially, these effects are not restricted to things that speakers and writers consciously (or even unconsciously) intend — perhaps we extend Grice's ideas to include phrases like "listener meaning" or "reader meaning". (And of course this is exactly C.S. Peirce's notion of non-referential indexicality, so there's already a pre-Gricean term available…)

And this sort of thing is obviously not limited to words and phrases.

For example, there are lots of ways to get someone's attention that don't involve words — a nudge, a cough, a glance, a breath. And the attention-requesting cough in particular has been semi-conventualized in novelistic dialog as "ahem", as in this passage from Charlotte Brontë's Shirley:

Here the harsh voice of Donne broke in on the mild tones of Mr. Hall:—

"Ahem!" he began, clearing his throat evidently for a speech of some importance. "Ahem! Miss Keeldar, your attention an instant, if you please."

"Well," said Shirley, nonchalantly. "What is it? I listen: all of me is ear that is not eye."

"I hope part of you is hand also," returned Donne, in his vulgarly presumptuous and familiar style, "and part purse: it is to the hand and purse I propose to appeal."

In that example, "ahem" is just the novelist's way of transcribing an actual (if imagined) throat-clearing noise, used to interrupt and change the subject. But sometimes the conventional transcription is elevated to the status of a full word, even incorporated into the syntactic structure of a sentence, as in this D.H. Lawrence poem:

I never met a single
middle-class person whose
nerves didn't tighten against me
as if they'd got something to lose. 

Though what it was, you can ask me:
some mysterious sort of prestige
that was nothing to me; though they always
seemed to think I was laying it siege. 

It was something I never could fathom,
that mysterious prestige which they all
seemed to think they'd got, like a halo
around them, an invisible wall. 


For years and years it bothered me
that I couldn't feel one of them,
till at last I saw the reason:
they were just a bloody sham. 

As far as any superiority
or halo or prestige went
they were just a bloody collective fraud,
that was what their Ahem! meant. 

Something similar has happened over time to the transcription of filled pauses. Consider for example the case of "er", which starts as a conventional transcription in a non-rhotic dialect of English for a sound that is (I think) approximately the same as American English "uh", as in the r-less pronunciation of the last syllable of proper or sister. Speakers of r-ful varieties of English generally pronounce this r-fully, like her without the /h/, not only in reading British novels but also sometimes as filled pauses in conversation.

Like "ahem", this illustrates the way that (certain uses of) a non-speech vocalization can become conventionalized — and (partially or completely) lexicalized.

It's important to recognize that this process is always happening, across interpersonal time and space, along many dimensions of performance in speech and writing. And also to recognize that the same things happen to dimensions of performance, like voice quality and prosody, that are harder to map onto a given language's phonological and orthographic systems.

Update — some other recent UM headlines (that are not about the University of Michigan or Miami):

"The Trump administration tells its … um … biggest lie to date", LA Times 1/29/2018
"Intelligence Agencies: President Trump Is, Um, a Wee Bit Misguided", Mother Jones 1/29/2019
"A Valentine's Day Story That, Um, Won't Warm Your Heart", Forbes 1/17/2019



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:55 am

    I am confused (not an unusual state of affairs). I have read Mark's article, I have read the linked "recent headline at TPM", and I have read the article in The Newyorker, and nowhere other than in the headline in TPM can I find that phrase. So who said "Um, tapes?", and where is this reported ?

    [(myl) It's just in the headline — as I wrote, "There's a nice example in a recent headline at TPM: "Um, Tapes?", 1/21/2019." Sorry if the reference wasn't clear.]

  2. Ellen K. said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    "Um, Tapes" is not a quote, it's a reaction to a quote. It's in quotes because it's a headline (title) of an article. Well, if an article can consist entirely of a quoted conversation.

  3. Laura Morland said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 9:53 am

    I'm not a professional linguist, but I think you've nailed it with the descriptor "suddenly attentive UM". Clearly most Americans (I can't speak for the speakers of other Englishes) would immediately grasp the meaning of the headline.

    Your definition should certainly be added to the dictionary (and sooner, rather than later).

    (M-W is woefully inadequate, right?)

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 10:00 am

    Fair enough. I suppose I was mislead by the quotation marks, but I now see that they were there to indicate a &;lt;quote> rather than to indicate reported speech. I should have been more alert to this possibility, so my sincere thanks to Mark and others for taking the trouble to explain it.

  5. Rose Eneri said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    If I understand the meaning correctly, it seems to me that the article title might be better expressed as, "Uuuuhm, tapes?" I envision the writer looking up and side to side with a confused expression while saying "uuuuhm", then a pause before asking "tapes?" This is possibly followed by an equally befuddled, "What are you talking about? Are you saying there are tapes?""

    This question could be answered by, "Uuuuuh, yeah." As in, "Yes, of course there are tapes, duh."

    Does not the drawn out u change the meaning from a simple pause to first befuddlement, then frustration?

  6. Trogluddite said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 11:19 am

    @Laura Morland
    This kind of "um/er" would be idiomatic in any of the British dialects that I'm familiar with. I recall that, when I was a child, a very long "er" or "um" accompanied by a glare or an upward tilt of the head was quite often used by parents/teachers to indicate that one had forgotten one's manners and had missed a "please" or "thankyou". So when accompanied by appropriate prosody or other cues, the "er" alone can be sufficient to communicate that a speaker is perceived to have erred (apologies for the terrible pun, my resistance is weak today!)

  7. Trogluddite said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 11:53 am

    @Rose Eneri
    I think that may come down to the kind of lexical conventions described in the main post. Written "Um/er, [expression of doubt]" seems to have become idiomatic enough that the shorthand "um" or "er" is sufficient to make the meaning clear without further disambiguation (e.g. by attempting to render prosody.) Outside of quotation and transcription, filled pauses are generally not written, so the possibility that the "um" represents a filled pause is excluded by context.

  8. C L Thornett said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 12:04 pm

    In the context of informal online written exchanges, 'um' and 'er' can also be used like the tactic of deliberately using a crossed-out font for a word or phrase which is followed by another, or the tones and facial expressions that often go with speech. (I take the headline cited to be representing natural speech for effect.) 'Um' may mean 'Fill in the word you know I'd normally use that the forum won't allow in place of the one I've written' or 'I'm being a bit coy about my choice of words–please notice'. 'The weather is, um, really cold here.' 'He's, er, a bit careless with the truth.'

  9. Don Monroe said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

    Another example in a headline today, from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:
    Intelligence Agencies: President Trump Is, Um, a Wee Bit Misguided.
    I would have used "er" rather than "um" in that case, which is more like the usage that CL Thornett mentioned than the suddenly attentive one.

  10. Chandra said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

    As someone who frequents online spaces where this kind of "um" is used regularly, I feel that "awkward/snotty/suddenly attentive um" could all be collapsed into something like "I'm making a show of needing a moment to process what you've just said" (because it's uncomfortable, ridiculous, surprising, etc.). Sometimes a single occurrence of it can encompass all three connotations, especially in a phrase like "Um, ok".

  11. Breffni said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 4:44 am

    Chandra, I think that's right, but I'd add a tweak for cases where um/er/uh are inserted within an utterance, where they mean something like "I'm making a show of needing a moment to process an incongruity/irony/absurdity/etc that I've supposedly just spotted in my own unfolding utterance":

    fiat money is what we all have since the dollar went off the gold standard in the 1970s: it's backed by nothing but blind faith in the wisdom of, er, politicians and bankers

    Free-market forces have since overrun the island, meeting minimal resistance, except from a few brave and fiercely committed groups: dentists, doctors, solicitors, barristers, accountants, publicans and, er, every other profession you could mention.

    …or "need a moment to find a diplomatic wording":

    the mostly unspoilt idyll we relocated to was Playa del Carmen, about 20k down the coast. No doubt it's, er, developed now, but it won't be hard to find your own spot, it's hammock country

    My theory, for what little it's worth, is that it started as a sitcom trope, an actors' trick for performing "deadpan incredulity".

  12. Theophylact said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

    Breffni: Like, "Wait, what?"

  13. Breffni said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 4:58 pm

    Theophylact: yep. "Wait, what?" previously on Language Log, where one commenter described it as "the direct verbal analogue of an exaggerated double take", which seems to be another way of saying what Chandra said about response-initial "uh". And in fact, "double-take" captures "Wait, what tapes have you gone through?" pretty well too.

  14. Breffni said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:00 pm

    Oops, messed up the link. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1407 – see Matthew Kehrt's comment.

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