Tag Archives: like as filler

Brits answer yeah …?


Question: “How was your day at the seaside yesterday?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … We had an absolutely brilliant time.”

Question: “What are you planning to do once you graduate?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … I haven’t really made any concrete plans yet.”

Question: “What did you think of the movie last night?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … It was pretty crap.”

For better or worse, as I become more and more American — culturally, socially and colloquially — and when I dip back into British life each summer, I enjoy picking up on some of the subtle speech habits that sweep through the British-English lingo, which I tend to notice having been away from it for a while. Some come for a short stay, others settle in for longer.

I’ve been especially struck by something in the last couple of years that (at least to my knowledge) doesn’t seem to have been noted or commented on. It’s the seemingly widespread use of yes — or, more frequently, yeah — as a filler kicking off the answer to an open-ended question; hence the examples above. (And I’m not talking about questions that obviously invite agreement or disagreement, or a yes or no answer). It’s a yeah that’s usually uttered with the faint upward lilt of a question and followed by an ellipsis-shaped pause for hesitant or thoughtful effect. You’ll know it when you hear it.

All languages have their own set of filler sounds and words; used primarily to hold our place in a conversation while our brains catch up with our mouths, they’re (usually) meaningless utterances that indicate, effectively, “it’s now (or still) my turn to talk, but please wait while I work out what exactly I’m going to say next”. In English speakers, the most common filler sounds are uher, and um, according to a study published in Language and Speech in 2001. Certainly the most talked-about modern filler word is like, and it generates enough discussion and debate to fill several volumes (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the subject), mainly because of its rapid, sweeping and largely inexplicable invasion of standard English. Anatoly Liberman noted on the OUP blog a few years ago that it isn’t just in English where this epidemic has raged: “the analogs of like swamped other languages at roughly the same time or a few decades later. Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence. Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean “as though.” In this function quasi, liksom, and kak by are recent.” 

Well is another very common sentence-starting filler, perhaps more acceptable or respectable than like and therefore employed in more formal situations, such as interviews. And more recently the introductory So … has become ubiquitous, especially in business, corporate or political settings. (That word is probably better left for a separate discussion.) Younger people are more likely to use the filler words like, y’know, I mean, so, actually, literally, basically, right, I’m tellin’ you and you know what I mean? These can occur more or less anywhere in the sentence, and don’t have any real semantic meaning when they’re serving this killer filler role. 

But fillers aren’t always completely meaningless: they can sometimes be a mark of uncertainty or even defensiveness, when the speaker is guarding against a possible rebuttal or challenge from their conversation partner. As it were, if you will, so to speak and even like can be used to tone down the speaker’s commitment to a statement or claim. (This was also discussed more fully in an earlier Glossophilia post.)

Whereas most of these filler words are heard and now considered standard on both sides of the Atlantic, there are a few that don’t travel well. We can easily imagine the words actually, basicallyas it were, or so to speak issuing naturally from the mouth of a dithering Hugh Grant character, but not so instinctively from a Bruce Willis type. If you will is the nearest American equivalent to as it were, although it’s fairly rare nowadays and considered rather stuffy.

As far as I can tell, yeah at the start of the answer to an open-ended question is something you’ll hear only on English tongues, and I’ll venture to suggest that it has become something of a Britishism (at least colloquially) in recent times. Listen out for it, and see if you agree …

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Update: Yeah, it goes even further. The simple “yeah …” has evolved and taken on a more overt element of ambiguity.  “Yeah, no…” is how a Brit might start to answer your question — or, equally confusingly, “no, yeah…” . And very occasionally you’ll get the full Monty: “yeah, no…, yeah …”. Just watch an episode of the BBC’s mockumentary W1A and – yeah, no — you’ll agree. Yeah. No, yeah. Really.


The ubiquity of like


Don’t you just, like, love it when your witty Facebook post gets lots of likes? Like, doesn’t it make you feel like a social media king, and like everyone likes you? And did you happen to cringe reading that last clause: “make you feel like everyone likes you?”?

A few years ago in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examined, like, the unstoppable onslaught of like. “Many parents and teachers have become irritated to the point of distraction at the way the weed-style growth of “like” has spread through the idiom of the young. And it’s true that in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary as candy expels vegetables.” With its modern ubiquity, it now acts as not just a sentence filler but also as a colloquial quotative (“he was like ‘no way!'”), a discourse particle, an emphatic, a hedge, and a speech disfluency.

But let’s not, like, spoil the proverbial child by giving it too much ink here, considering how much love — or like — like already gets on the tongues and keyboards of millennials. I’m not going to, like, dwell on the use of like as any of the above, nor on its new role as a quantifiable measure of one’s online popularity. I’d rather look at its use as a subordinating conjunction — ie. before a verbal clause when “as if” or “as though” are considered either preferable or mandatory, depending on how much of a purist you are.

But before we go there, I did find it fascinating to learn from the Online Etymology Dictionary that the word like has been used as a “postponed filler (“going really fast, like”)” from 1778: it’s like really old — 18th-century old. As a presumed emphatic (“going, like, really fast”) it dates from 1950, introduced originally in counterculture slang and bop talk. And as a colloquial adverb it has a long and illustrious history (“He was like to lose his life in the one [battle] and his liberty in the other [capture], but there was none of his money at stake in either,” from Charles MacFarlane and Thomas Napier Thomson’s Comprehensive History of England published in 1792). So like‘s ubiquity is not as modern a phenomenon as many might think …

Now back to grammar and the modern day. It used to be that like had just two official roles in linguistic life (not counting the fillers and emphatics as described above): 1) as a verb (“I like this dessert”) and 2) as a preposition for comparisons (“that car is like a house”). But increasingly — and somewhat controversially — it has come to be used as a subordinating conjunction, preceding a verbal clause when “as” (“as if”, “as though”, “as it should”) has been historically prescribed. “I feel as though I’m going to be sick” will more likely be phrased nowadays as “I feel like I’m going to be sick”.

Wikipedia describes how this distinction first made its way into many people’s consciousness back in 1954, “when a famous ad campaign for Winston cigarettes introduced the slogan ‘Winston tastes good — like a cigarette should.’ The slogan was criticized for its usage by prescriptivists, the ‘as’ construction being considered more proper. Winston countered with another ad, featuring a woman with greying hair in a bun who insists that it ought to be ‘Winston tastes good as a cigarette should’ and is shouted down by happy cigarette smokers asking ‘What do you want — good grammar or good taste?'”

To 21st-century ears, like as a conjunction is no longer considered “bad grammar” as it obviously seemed to many in the Mad Men era — although to some purists (including myself), it still grates. For a word that has such positive connotations, it’s one that seems to commit some of the most egregious of linguistic crimes in its various guises. You could like argue that it’s become like the bad boy of the English language. And if you like like this post, please would you like like it on Facebook?