Help with, um, help....
August 19, 2006 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Lately, much to my annoyance, I've encountered many examples of this kind of sentence: "Customers like their hamburgers to taste like, well, hamburgers." "The album `The Allman Brother's Band' by, um, the Allman Brothers is one of my favorites." "Dorothy has red shoes, a dog named Toto, and is from, wait for it, Kansas." My questions: is there a name for the "well" "um" and the "wait for it" in these sentences? Is there a literary term for this sort of thing? Am I wrong that this is a growing trend?
posted by pasici to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ironic hesitation?
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:49 AM on August 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

They are parentheses. though the "well" and the "um" are really pushing the envelope.
posted by cardboard at 5:55 AM on August 19, 2006

I'd say they're just interjections.
posted by Gator at 6:13 AM on August 19, 2006

It is probably a growing trend as people are attempting to put more casual personality into communications. (Though I always thought collections of old letters of writing had more personality, but in reality the spelling and grammar is just as horrendous.)
posted by Ookseer at 7:04 AM on August 19, 2006

Hesitation devices. For people want to pretend they're talking when they are actually writing.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:35 AM on August 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pregnant Pause^ (I've been dying to do that ^ thing)
posted by klarck at 7:54 AM on August 19, 2006

On second thought, maybe it's a pregnant pause, um, without the pause.
posted by klarck at 7:59 AM on August 19, 2006

If they're used as an affectation then they're parenthesis or interjections. If they're used when they're fumbling for what to say (everybody does it from time to time, listen to an actual speech, even a famous one, as opposed to the printed version for example)

I don't know if it's a growing trend, but if it is it'd be very annoying. There are times and places where an affectation of more casual speech can be appropriate or at least have a point but it isn't something that should be encouraged.
posted by substrate at 8:02 AM on August 19, 2006

Best answer: I think they're often used to sort of apologize for what follows, because the following part's stating the obvious. Why state the obvious in the first place? Because the writer believes it isn't obvious to everyone, and wants to avoid confusion for those people. The interjections are a way of acknowleging that others would not be so confused.

Other times, it's an ironic affectation.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2006

Best answer: Most of these answers seem to address the hesitation device, like "um." Maybe Pasici could clarify, since he/she seems to be asking a more interesting question. In the three examples, the speaker says something in the second half that follows obviously from the first half (or almost obvious, since who doesn't know Dorothy is from Kansas?). So rather than a hesitation device, that pause/interjection serves to indicate that, well, duh, of course a hamburger should taste like a hamburger and the Allman Brothers made "The Allman Brothers" album. Is there a name for the literary device where there's some sort of beginning/ending echo, with a hesitation in the middle? Or in overthinking it this way am I, um, uh, overthinking it?
posted by bigmuffindaddy at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2006

I don't really think this is a literary device, and it's not a trend I've noticed. The examples you give are just poorly written. There "um" and the "well" serve no purpose, and the "wait for it" makes no sense in the Dorothy sentence, even though everyone knows she's from Kansas.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:48 AM on August 19, 2006

I believe these are parenthetical interjections. I vaguely recall a university English class in which the professor noted that, in some languages, interjections can appear in the middle of a word, but that this does not occur in English. However, a student asked how "abso-f***ing-lutely" would be treated.
posted by acoutu at 8:55 AM on August 19, 2006

Response by poster: bigmuffindaddy is asking the question I meant to ask, and in a better way. I think Kirth Gerson is on to something with the why of it, but does it have a name?
posted by pasici at 8:59 AM on August 19, 2006

It depends on the usage, but I'd guess that most of the time the writer is trying to make their writing sound like speech, since there are subtle nuances you can't convey in writing like the pregnant pause that separates the "punch" from the sentence.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2006

I've only noticed this in online communications, not in print. Specifically I've noticed it most on message boards and other social sites, but it seems to be bleeding into other arenas. I think it started as a means of informalizing the tone when in the middle of a discussion, making it less academic and more personal.
posted by lekvar at 9:29 AM on August 19, 2006

They often function as expletives as well, though writers looking to make wordcounts through that type of gimmickry are obnoxious.

I might neologize and call 'em "Informalizers."
posted by klangklangston at 9:44 AM on August 19, 2006

I might also mention that they seem to mostly defray redundancies, though a stronger phrasing can make the redundancy more effective than trying to halfway disavow it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:45 AM on August 19, 2006

Maybe I'm just imagining things, but the sentence structure sounds a lot like Delerium of the Endless.
posted by Fejery at 9:54 AM on August 19, 2006

I don't think you're wrong that it is a trend right now. Jon Stewart might be helping to popularize it, he does it on his show every so often.
posted by starman at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2006

It's a form of humor used show emphasis by restating the obvious. It also can illustrate a sort of "stream of conciousness" approach, as words are spoken as they are thought of; like thinking yourself into a corner.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on August 19, 2006

Best answer: "Um," "uh," "er" and similar are sometimes called "disfluencies." Of course what you're talking about is slightly different - these words are being used ironically and intentionally rather than mindlessly as filler. As with so many topics linguistical, Language Log should be the resource of first resort. This seems to directly address your subject. (I've only just skimmed this. I'm half way out the door.)

If you google "disfluency" you'll certainly find some interesting reading even if it's not all relevant to your question. In particular I saw several other entries at Language Log that looked interested. And I know for a fact that they've discussed the topic other times, too. I remember them discussing disfluency and the speech of George Bush.
posted by stuart_s at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2006

I read the "wait for it" in the Dorothy sentence as a dramatic pause to convey a sense of "isn't this ridiculous?' or "what an expected final coincidence" because I though the sentence was referring to a different Dorothy than the Wizard of Oz's Dorothy. "So I met this girl, Dorothy, the other night at Mike's party. She has red shoes, a dog named Toto, and is from, wait for it, Kansas." It doesn't make the interjection good, but it does make more sense.

As for this being a growing trend? It's, um, hard to say.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2006

I think it is becoming more common (and I think I have used it - apologies). News reporters are using it, too, although most copy editors shoot it on sight, so you don't see it as much as you otherwise might.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:07 PM on August 19, 2006

I've also noticed a lot of this lately, writers inserting "well" before things that are intentionally repetitive or obvious. The point, I think, is to assure the reader that it's being done on purpose. But all it really does is underscore the writer's inconfidence.
posted by obvious at 12:26 PM on August 19, 2006

Response by poster: Felicity Rilke (great name, by the way): That is exactly how I meant the sentence to be taken and all day was kicking myself for not phrasing it the way you did.
posted by pasici at 2:00 PM on August 19, 2006

IMNALinguist, nor do I play one on TV, but I don't think it's safe to say these interjections don't have purpose. When used in the ways pasici describes they emphasize whatever comes after them. In other words, they're devices to get the listener/reader to pay attention. IMO these examples are irritating because they've gotten the reader to pay attention just for a stupid joke- the linguistic equivalent of crying wolf.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2006

These hesitations generally serve, like air quotes, to indicate that the speaker knows how the statement is going to "sound" -- silly, pretentious, inadequate, obvious, or whatever -- but is going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I find them irritating as hell in articles or essays, but if they're used sparingly they can work in fiction to make a character sound endearingly or annoyingly self-aware.
posted by tangerine at 2:48 PM on August 19, 2006

They are at their root, however, interjections.
posted by limeonaire at 3:06 PM on August 19, 2006

To answer acoutu's implied question, "Abso-fucking-lutely" is an expletive infixation. When I saw that comment, I thought the answer would be some variation of infixation, and, lo and behold, it is (at least according to Wikipedia).

posted by lackutrol at 3:07 PM on August 19, 2006

Their use is on the rise, though. Follett campus bookstores are now using these kinds of interjections in phrases on their in-store advertisements, and while they do sound kind of "annoyingly self-aware" and/or like a disingenuous attempt to sound authentic, they also have their charm.
posted by limeonaire at 3:09 PM on August 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hoofuckingray infuckingfixes! Too bad there aren't any polite ones for use in English...that would be fandamntastic.

And the ums, wells, and wait for its are expletives.
posted by owhydididoit at 3:43 PM on August 19, 2006

British satirical magazine Private Eye has been using this device for at least the last decade. It is usually used to reveal an embarrassing connection - eg "The owner of the company was, er, Mr X."
posted by TrashyRambo at 6:17 PM on August 19, 2006

The form of what you've noticed may be recent, but I'd call these examples of rhetorical tautology (2nd def).
posted by rob511 at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2006

In his On Language column for the NY Times Magazine in June of 2001, William Safire called this the arch pause. Unsurprisingly, Safire seems to be agin it:
I inveigh against the use of the written grunt because either it assumes the reader is an ignoramus or it needlessly apologizes for a writer's attempt at wit. Do not presume that your reader is moving his lips as he reads your prose. Do not be afraid to deliver the nudes.
I seem to remember a more recent article from him on the same subject, but I can't locate it.
posted by jkottke at 8:16 PM on August 19, 2006

How, I wonder, is this related, if at all, to the "cough cough", which I thought was a cute fad that was going on for a while?

The best example I can find right now is flawed but here it is anyway:
"some air purifiers create -- cough, cough -- smog."

In both cases, we are drawing attention to the ridiculousness of how we are about to end the thought. Like blue beetle said, when we are thinking ourselves into a corner.

My friend uses "ahem" quite gracefully in these situations.
posted by Aghast. at 9:33 PM on August 19, 2006

"... News reporters are using it, too, although most copy editors shoot it on sight, so you don't see it as much as you otherwise might. ..."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:07 PM EST on August 19

The mere thought of selfless copy editors, shooting vile mannerisms on sight, in service of a greater linguistic expressiveness, in many a cold, dark pre-dawn press run, brings tears to my old eyes. If only television, to say nothing of bastard internetworks, had such stalwarts, and real newspaper subscriptions were free for the signing up, we would still be a real republic, and Jefferson would not turn constantly in his grave.

But alas, we live in society built on B-movie title negotiations. We live in a time where the unliterate (not the illiterate) rule. If we're waiting on copy editors to keep our society from crumbling under the weight of bad irony, we're lost.
posted by paulsc at 9:58 PM on August 19, 2006

Apparently what I was talking about may also be termed tmesis.

/continued derail
posted by lackutrol at 10:09 PM on August 19, 2006

I'm a big fan of this device. It's a nice tool for altering the register of a written utterance. In effect, it turns a piece of written speech into something more like spoken language, and that definitely has its uses. I can understand how employing it poorly could prove annoying, but I think that if it gives your sentence a flavor it wouldn't otherwise have, especially one that contrasts interestingly with the rest of the sentence, it's a fine thing. For instance:

"I find your last point a bit, er, confusing." = Not such a great use, but:

"This October the, U.S. Supreme court is, dude, check this out, planning to hear argument on the retroactivity of Crawford v. Washington as applied to admission of out-of-court statements." = A use that shows something interesting about the voice, the subject of the sentence, or the speaker.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:10 PM on August 19, 2006

paulsc, I agree with what you wrote. By "news reporters" I did not, of course, mean those creatures that appear on television making superficially meaningful noises. Those are a lesser species, and itemizing their offenses against language would be a full-time job. And no, I'm not waiting for copy editors to rescue our civilization, but I do enjoy watching their struggles, as chronicled at Testy Copy Editors.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:52 AM on August 20, 2006

Palmcorder, were you trying to complicate the register of your comment by providing a link that give directions to a Chinese food place in Seattle or was that a sloppy paste? I'd like the real link for register if there is one.
posted by Aghast. at 9:07 AM on August 20, 2006


Did you really mean to say inconfidence ?
posted by Mister_A at 7:49 AM on August 22, 2006

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