The Lawyer's Guide to Um

31 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2014 Last revised: 26 Oct 2015

Date Written: October 21, 2014


The verbal fillers um and uh are uniquely disfavored by public speaking coaches and law school professors, who describe them as "fungi" and compare their use to spitting or picking one's nose. Yet for all their unpopularity, uh and um stubbornly persist in our spoken communication, appearing in some variation in all languages. Speakers of the English language pepper their speech with anywhere between 1.2 and 88.5 um's and uh's for every thousand words. In the face of harsh criticism and disapproval, why do we continue to use verbal fillers?

The public perception of uh and um is at odds with the field of psycholinguistics, where verbal fillers are studied for their communicative value. This article demonstrates that um and uh are the inevitable -- and potentially beneficial -- byproducts of the enormously complicated task of human speech. According to many psycholinguists, speakers who are searching for the next word, thought or idea are apt to fill pauses in their speech with an uh or um. Other researchers suggest that speakers who focus on how they sound, rather than what they are saying, will likely use more uh's and um's -- thereby defeating well-meaning efforts to eliminate verbal fillers by drawing attention to them. The complexities of the law and the need to speak in public settings make lawyers especially prone to using verbal fillers, even as they are expected to be models of eloquence. Fortunately, most listeners don't even hear verbal fillers unless specifically asked to listen for them, and judges look to lawyers to be resources to the court, regardless of their oratory skills. Moreover, uh's and um's that operate under the radar actually help listeners to understand and remember the speaker's message. Speakers (and their coaches) would do well to give up the um fixation and instead focus on the content of their speech. Confident speakers who know their material will be measured by the substance of their presentation and not the frequency of their use of verbal fillers.

Suggested Citation

Gotthelf, Barbara, The Lawyer's Guide to Um (October 21, 2014). Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD, Vol. 11, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Barbara Gotthelf (Contact Author)

McCarter & English, LLP ( email )

Mellon Bank Center
1735 Market Street, Suite 700
Philadelphia, PA 19103
United States

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