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On the course of answering questions

Vicki L. Smith and Herbert H. Clark

People responding to questions are sometimes uncertain, slow, or unable to answer.  They handle these problems of self-presentation, we propose, by the way they respond.  Twenty-five respondents were each asked 40 factual questions in a conversational setting.  Later, they rated for each question their feeling that they would recognize the correct answer, then took a recognition test on all 40 questions.   As found previously, the weaker their feeling of knowing, the slower their answers, the faster their nonanswers ("I don't know"), and the worse their recognition.   But further, as proposed, the weaker their feeling of knowing, the more often they answered with rising intonation, used hedges such as "I guess," responded "I don't know" instead of "I can't remember," and added "uh" or "um," self-talk, and other face-saving comments.  They reliably used "uh" to signal brief delays and "um" longer ones.
Smith, V. & H. Clark 1993 On the course of answering questions. In Journal of Memory and Language 32: 25-38.

Key points relevant to the study of filled pauses


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