It’s Like Totally … huh? How The New York Times Got it Wrong

Confused woman - people feeling confusionIn the April 5, 2014 issue of The New York Times, there is an op-ed article called, “Like, Degrading the Language? No Way.” The article was written by John McWhorter, who is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

McWhorter’s premise is that today’s common usage of English, particularly in regards to words such as “like” and “totally,” represent an advancement in the language. McWorter postures that using these types of ‘filler’ words (that is my term, not his) shows “an awareness of the states of minds of others…”

Um, what?

He also says that the hesitation that we sense when someone uses the word like, “can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.”

When I have to listen to someone who tosses in the words “like” or “ya know” every other word, it makes me crazy. Those people are not aware of my state of mind. And they are certainly not being considerate. After a while, my state of mind is: ‘I’m going to reach into your throat and pull out those words if you do not say them soon.’ When I speak with someone who constantly says “ya know,” I’m always tempted to say, “Well, no, actually I don’t know.” And the word, “totally,” is totally amusing to me.

I find it quite surprising that The Times would print this type of nonsense. Our language does not advance because people toss in words that break up their thoughts and our listening. Our language advances when people can locate the words they need to say, speak them, and listen to the response.

Have you ever sat through a presentation and counted the times the presenter said, “um” or “uh”? I have. There have been times when I completely miss the point of the talk, because I’m busy tallying up all of the nonsense words. I do understand that public speaking is something that can be foreboding and that some people are riddled with anxiety at the mere thought of speaking to a group. And, for those people, saying, “like” or “ya know” is not done on purpose. Those slips are just nerves speaking.

But to say that nonsense syllables spoken in the middle of actual information is a cause for rejoicing is, like, ya know, wrong.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.
Blog · Content Development · April 15, 2014


  • Like, totally!

    McWhorter seems to think that “like” originated with today’s younger generation. He doesn’t remember (born in 1965, according to Wikipedia) that “like” was common among young people way back in the 1960s. With the assurance that comes from having been there, I can attest that it was a sign of fuzzy thinking — not a sign of awareness of other people’s states of mind (whatever that means). Most of us outgrew it and got on with our lives..

    • Thanks, Larry. I agree 100%. We also said “groovy”. 🙂

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  • Julio Vazquez

    I absolutely agree. I would rather pause than add words like, totally or ya know. Yes, it’s difficult and probably not something I do in casual conversation but when it comes to presenting information that others want to hear, I try to avoid those distractions. Too many times I’ve heard these verbal slips and, like you, I start focusing on them rather than the content. It’s, like, distracting.

    • Chris Hussein Finnie

      When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher got annoyed with us for saying “um” so often when we were trying to think of the correct word in Spanish. He finally said, “If you’re going to say ‘um’ every other word, at least say it in Spanish!” I’ve forgotten a lot of the Spanish I learned in school. But I still know to say “este” instead of “um.”

      • I’ve never considered that the mumble “um” has translations! Who knew?

  • It’s really bad when I start counting the “Ahs” and “Likes”. I am completely distracted from whatever the person is actually trying to say. It is mind-boggling that a professor at a highly-regarded institution would write this article.

  • Ray Gallon

    Well, uh, it’s – like colorful, ya know? I mean, you wouldn’t wanna lose like all that color, would ya? Ya know? What ahm sayin’… It’s um, like – all the meaning gets squashed if you can’t um, give it some perk, like. Ya know? Jus sayin’…

  • writegeist

    It could be our society has become less inhibited and we are all speaking in stream-of-consciousness. The problem with that is our brain moves faster than our mouths and we use “like” as a speed bump to remind our brain that our mouth is like the little brother or sister who can’t keep up… Or maybe not.

  • nc_mike

    Maybe, its like, um, uhhh, informal voice for dummies?

    • Yeah, ya know, like, totally something for dummies.

      • Chris Hussein Finnie

        That sounds so Valley Girl. And wasn’t that like totally 80s? Maybe it’s a retro thing.

  • BethRFinch

    In Toastmasters, we were rapped on the knuckles for using filler words. The rest of the members actually counted them and announced the tally at the end of the meeting. That’ll cure ya!

    • I cannot tell you how many times I have sat through presentations and counted filler words and sounds. Sometimes, stop listening to the presentation itself, it is so distracting!

  • Chris Steele

    Hmmm….I can see the point about “you know” etc. intended as a check with the listener–a method to evoke shared meaning. However, as with any term, it can become a filler instead of a communication tool. This can be said of any number of fillers including “and” and “so”. I too find it distracting when fillers are overused and I take upon myself to work through the distraction to listen to content. Not everyone speaks with complete elegance and clarity. Can we not hold ourselves accountable to doing the work required to listen as well as to speak clearly? In college, I recall one and only one class that taught listening skills, and I minored in Communication Studies along with a my Engineering major. Seems to be imbalanced.

    • Thanks for your comments, Chris. For me, my ability to filter out the noise depends on how noticeable and distracting it is. If I’ve paid to hear someone speak, such as at a conference, I expect the speaker to be able to give a presentation without a lot of filler. Perhaps that is just me.

      Either way, I still find the notion that this type of language is a good direction for us to be moving. But, ya know, it’s totally okay if you disagree. 🙂

  • ThirdEar

    Technical communications is part of my job, but human language is part of life itself. Go easy on us, there.
    You say, “There have been times when I completely miss the point of the talk, because I’m busy tallying up all of the nonsense words.” Sounds like you are the one in the room with the communications issue, not the speakers. (Most likely, other listeners do not have this language filter rising like gorge.) Precise language skills should be part of a complete tool belt — not the one, single tool in hand at all times. (To a hammer, every problem is a nail.) Shift, pivot, and rebalance on the fly: Makes for a happier life not to “go normative” on speech all the time.
    I have long been a supporter of Valley Girl talk and subsequent social offshoots of the creative mind, though my temples are gray and I don’t go there myself. Words that you call “filler” were actually called “particles” in Ancient Greek and have cued up hundreds of dissertations on the amazing expressive power of that language. The modern English particles that you decry are attempts to communicate just as expressively; please don’t cut yourself off from the the subtle messages they convey!

    • Thanks for your comments. I will agree to disagree. I think that if I’m paying to hear someone speak at a conference, they should know how to speak without fillers. I also think I am not alone in this. If it doesn’t bother you, that’s great. You have a better filter than me.

      Just speaking with someone everyday is another story. There, we don’t filter ourselves nearly as much – though I try to pay attention to how I speak when I’m talking to customers. I think the setting is important.

      Thanks for your point of view!

    • Susie Sentevski

      Also a technical communicator here, as well as a blogger and journalist. After reading both articles, I was ready to make the same point you (ThirdEar) so perfectly summed up. I think of conversation (spoken, written, whatever) as art. Not every brush, color scheme or style works to successfully execute every artistic endeavor. I use a different version of language with my coworkers than I do in the documentation I create at the very same job. I use another version over dinner with friends. Another still with casual acquaintances. The different versions are representative of the relationship I have with the listener and they are all absolutely necessary to communicate not only effectively, but appropriately.

      More importantly, language changes over time. Societal changes and technological advances are just two of the many forces that impact language. McWhorter’s point overall, I think, was to introduce the idea that this change is not necessarily a devolution. What the author here considers “filler” words do make conversation less direct. McWhorter’s argument is that this indirectness not only servers a purpose, but introduces another element of “humanness” to language. It allows it to function on a more emotional level. In my mind, being distracted by a bounty of “filler” words says less about the speaker’s ability to communicate than it does about the listener’s ability to embrace language as a set of living, breathing, evolving tools.

  • Barasurr

    For all that the practice of using fillers is not at all new to us, it is no less irritating.
    Perpetuated through every facet of our popular media culture, it is also
    exported. During the past several years, I lived and worked in Sweden where there
    is a sponge-like absorption of media-delivered English into the Swedish
    language. This is heavily weighted towards fillers, scatological language and misogynistic
    “endearments.” Because of the monkey-see-monkey-do media delivery as opposed
    to more nuanced personal cultural experience, the result is a Swedish culture
    where grown women and men, broadcasters, social commentators, and others all
    too often sound like slack-jawed morons. Those with an actual command of the
    language can only wish that it were not too late to put the genie back in the

    • This is such an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered. Thanks so much for sharing it. The “marriage” of the current English vernacular with globalization is certainly something to think about. I’m going to ponder this for a while!

  • Carl Temme

    Great perspective, Val. I’m concerned that the trend is progressive and irreversible. It seems we are moving past filler words such as “like” and now have layer upon layer of filler words and non-words. For example, rather than articulating, “I told him that his article was rubbish,” we might say, “He was all like, ‘.’ So I was all like, ”. Ultimately, I think we will be able to get rid of words entirely and just go with all grunts and gestures.

    • You must have been speaking with my teenager recently, Carl. 😉

  • bsaunders

    Hmmm … Though I think he chose an academic and timid way to make this case, I read something else. I happened to be ruminating on the subject when I found this post. The “ums” and “likes” that creep into a presentation often reflect poor performance skills rather than poor language skills. The usage of “like” as a linguistic habit may be something else, something more threatening (in a good way) to the social order.

    In business language, social signaling often trumps communication. Hence the inappropriate use of jargon. When I cringe at “like,” it’s not that I don’t understand. It’s that my internalized rules about “what business people are supposed to sound like” have been violated. But I hate those rules in the first place! Like McWhorter, I see some light at the end of the tunnel to a time when “professional demeanor” isn’t so stifled – and stifling.

  • Geri Modell

    I’m surprised the word “so” was not included in the list of filler words. “Like” and “you know” have been around for at least a few generations, while “so” seems to have emerged as part of the internet generation. Ask anyone within the tech industry or of a certain age to explain something, and I would be willing to bet the response with begin with “So … ” I’m as guilty as anyone, but it bothers me nevertheless. Anyone agree?

    • Thanks for your comment, Geri. I see your point about the word, “so”. To me, “so” is the same thing as “never the less” or “none the less”. So can also be written to mean “Because” (I think, so I am).

      That said, I could see where it would be considered a filler work in many instances.

      • Geri Modell

        So … (there it is!) I’m not saying that there is no useful function served by the word “so.” I’m saying that this poor little word has been elevated to a prominence it never needed or merited, as a way to sort of “glide” into a statement in an imprecise but still quasi-assertive way. I think there could be an interesting linguistic analysis of what precipitated this new verbal convention, and I have my own theories. In any case, it’s here to stay.

  • I’ve met some very smart people who just aren’t good speakers. Yes, it would be wonderful if more people had better training, but sometimes they just don’t. To be fair, sometimes people who spend a lot of time creating stuff are not getting the opportunity to work out their speaking skills. In marketing, sure, we have a lot of well-spoken people. In other industries, they may not get the practice and then struggle when it is their turn to speak.

    • Thanks for your comments, Buddy. I agree.

  • If someone says to a waiter “I want like a hamburger?” (with the uptilt), what does he mean? He wants a hamburger? Or he wants something similar to a hamburger, such as a veggie burger? But generally, he really does want a hamburger, yet he adds the “like”. It’s not advanced language. It’s muddled thinking. He should just say what he wants. A burger. A veggie burger.

    A Chinese friend live in a US college dorm in the late 90s. Her spoken English is college girl talk. Like, you know, totally, like… she can’t get rid of this.

    • That reminds me of when my kids say “Ya know?” after every three words. My usual response is, “No, I don’t know. If I knew, why would I be asking?” Definitely pisses them off.

  • GringoViejo

    I often disagree with McWhorter, but in this case, I think you’ve misconstrued his meaning. For instance, although he ascribes a supposed sophistication to the use of “like” and “totally”, he doesn’t claim that this is an “advancement” — itself a peculiar word that, in fact, he doesn’t use. I suggest that those who find this topic interesting take the article in The Times as a reference point.

    [Pedantry alert]

    In the 60’s, the late Harvey Sacks and Gail Jefferson developed a system of annotating actual speech — including not only filler words but all “utterances”, such as pauses, “uh’s”, “ah’s”, sniffs, and coughs — the purpose of which was to develop a generative grammar. As far as I know, this project was not ultimately successful, but it was foundational work in the emerging field of sociolinguistics, and McWhorter, among others, such as Deborah Tannen, follow in their footsteps. There are huge debates among linguists, who can be classified as falling into either prescriptive or descriptive damps, and I don’t want to re-start any of them here (debates, that is); but McWhorter’s article, IMO, describes what he hears, and he comments on what use the usages in question might have. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I don’t see him claim, in this article, that the use of filler words represents progress or, as he doesn’t say, “advancement”.

    [End pedantry alert]

    As for what editors of The Times choose to publish on the Op-Ed page, please remember that the previous resident expert on language was William Safire.

    • Perhaps. However, he starts the article with, “IF [sic] there is one thing that unites Americans of all stripes, it is the belief that, whatever progress our country might be making, we are moving backward on language.” And two sentences later, “However, amid what often seems like the slack-jawed devolution of a once-mighty language, we can find evidence for, of all things, a growing sophistication.”

      To me, a “growing sophistication” is an advancement.

      Don’t get me started about William Safire…Oy!

  • WryBradbury

    Well, like, you know, it’s um, like this. You em can’t actually, I mean really just say something. Like, as if, er, now by em this point, you um, should be ah totally like ah frustrated with my um like pauses and be well totally er ready to em throw something at er me.

    I have dropped off supposedly professional conference calls when the presenter could not manage to complete a sentence without a pause word. I have turned off radio interviews when the interviewee could not manage to complete a thought without a string of likes, ems and other phrases.

    Personally, even in general conversation, by the time the other person has said “like, em, er, ah” more than two or three times, I’m done. Pause words are used to let me (the listener) know that the other person still has something to say. I would ask simply that he/she say whatever it is without er ah like em spending ah er well like totally all that energy and em er effort on pauses.

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