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Meaning of FPs

When our attention is fixed on them, filled pauses in spontaneous speech really seem to distract from the message. However, the reality is that they may indicate certain cognitive functions as well as serve some very important communicative functions.

As indicators of cognitive and affective states

One possible function that pauses serve in spontaneous speech is to mark the boundaries between syntactic units such as the phrase, clause, and sentence. Many researchers hypothesize that these pauses occur at such junctures because the speaker is making linguistic decisions requiring extra processing time (e.g., Goldman-Eisler, 1972).

There is also an hypothetical link between occurrences of FPs in spontaneous speech and such cognitive variables as abstractness and task difficulty (e.g., Levin et al., 1967; Taylor, 1969; Siegman & Pope, 1965, 1966). Reynolds and Paivio (1968), for example, found that when defining abstract rather than concrete nouns, pauses increased. However, there is some doubt as to the reliability of estimating and quantifying task difficulty.

With regard to affective variables, the seemingly commonsense prediction that higher anxiety results in an increase in FPs has not been reliably borne out in research. Early research by Mahl (1956) lent some credence to the hypothesis, but later research (e.g., Cassotto et al., 1967 in Rochester, 1973; Siegman & Pope, 1965; Pope et al., 1970; Ragsdale, 1976) has contradicted these results with respect to FPs.

In conversational strategies

In discourse analysis terminology, all the contiguous utterances made by a speaker before the next speaker begins is referred to as a conversational turn. FPs serve an important purpose in helping a speaker hold a conversational turn. When a speaker appears to have finished an idea and wishes to continue speaking although a subsequent utterance is not yet prepared, a FP may be uttered in order to keep control of the conversational ball (Clark & Clark, 1977; Finegan, 1994; Levinson, 1983; Stenstrom, 1994; Wennerstrom, 1994).

From a different perspective, Clark (1994) notes the use of FPs as warning signs to the listener of an upcoming problem in lexicalization. In particular, his work with Foxtree (Foxtree & Clark, 1994, in Clark, 1994) found significant occurrences of lengthening before problematic noun phrases.

FPs also serve as mitigating devices--that is, mitigating against situational anxiety. Perhaps the most well-described (e.g., Finegan, 1994; Levinson, 1983) of these occurrences is when uttering a dispreferred response in an adjacency pair, as follows.

A: How about going to a movie Saturday?
B: Uh, I'm sorry. I already have other plans...

Eakins and Eakins (1978) in a study of sex differences in communication found that women tend to use FPs in order to give a non-aggressive or less-knowledgable appearance.

Women who do take the initiative more in conversations may feel guilty because of their past socialization to docility and their awareness of society's norms of talk for women. Perhaps to offset or play down their taking the initiative, some women try still to give some signs of "proper" nonassertiveness or submissiveness. Use of fillers and hesitations such as uhm, well, and so forth may serve as one such sign. (p. 48)


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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.