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A Definition

Allright, before we set our focus too narrowly on filled pauses we must lay down a few terms on its periphery as well as settle on a clear definition of filled pauses. I suppose the best place to start will be with hesitation phenomena.

While fluid speech is usually considered advantageous in spontaneous human communication, it is, in fact, rare. Human speech (and here I mean speech that is not 'prepared', that is, the discourse is being organized 'on the fly') is punctuated with and interrupted by a wide variety of seemingly meaningless words - uh, um, well, like, you know, as well as false starts ("I said, uh... She said..."), restarts ("When did you... uh- when did you go?), silent pauses ("I went there... yesterday.") and lengthened words ("Have you ever been to the-- uh... museum?").

Things can often be defined in two different ways - either by their appearance or function. Though the linguist (and especially the applied linguist) may value more from a functional description and classification of the various hesitation phenomena, on this page I will be concerned more with their 'appearance' (see "Why do, um, people use filled pauses?" for more about function).

Hierarchical description of Hesitation Phenomena

Four different kinds of hesitation phenomena have been identified in research on spontaneous speech. The most obvious to even the untrained ear are pauses. Pauses can quickly be subdivided into either filled pauses (i.e., vocalized), or unfilled (also called silent) pauses. Then filled pauses may be further categorized as either unlexicalized--that is, filled with some non-verbal utterance like uh or um--or lexicalized with such phrases as well..., like..., and you know... A pause may also be characterized in terms of its length. Some speech analysts measure pause length with little accuracy (that is, by ear only), others measure with greater accuracy (using sophisticated equipment to measure the gaps on tape) while a few others measure with nearly inconceivable accuracy (pause length as a function of one cycle of the speaker's own rhythm). Typically, though, pause length falls into one of three ranges: short, medium, and long.

Pauses seem to be the most studied of the hesitation phenomena, but their cohorts in disfluency - false starts, restarts, and word lengthening - are ever-present. False starts consist of those instances in which an utterance is begun and then abandoned. It is generally followed by a pause which may then be followed be a new utterance or a complete stop in the conversation. Restarts, on the other hand, occur when a speaker begins an utterance and then restarts the utterance (there may or may not be a pause before the restart).

Finally, the last kind of hesitation phenomena occurs when a speaker stretches out the enunciation of a word past its normal length: Have you ever been to the-- uh... museum? (in this particular instance, the would be pronounced like the King James English thee--a very common example of word lengthening).

These categories are not perfect however. There are some problems with respect to pause length. Does the utterance well... which is drawn out by the speaker represent a lexicalized filled pause or an instance of word lengthening? This presents an obvious area of overlap not yet resolved in pause description.

One more kind of hesitation may be identified in stuttering (or stammering). However, most speech analysts regard this as a pathological phenomena and thus leave its study to speech pathologists.


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This site is maintained by Ralph L. Rose
Last Revised: 99/08/26


Note! This is the original FPRC ca. 1998. It is made available for archival purposes only. Click here to return to the current FPRC.