Last week, I read Michael Erard’s exceptional Um… Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean. It is the kind of book that changes you. At least, it does so if you care about language. Regardless, the subject of the book was very much on my mind in the months leading up to reading it.
You see, I’ve been making videos and annoying my friends by making them watch them. This is all supposedly leading up to public videos that are basically of the “talking head” variety, but cleverly disguised. What I’ve learned is that, much as I might want to cut from sentence to sentence, I must be able to do one to two minutes continuously in front of the camera.
I’m a pretty good public speaker and an excellent impromptu speaker. But there is a big difference between performing for people and performing for a camera. Once you start recording yourself, you become painfully aware of every slip, stammer, and pause. And you really notice—Are hypersensitive do?—your own personal cliches. For me, the most annoying is, “Okay?”
Verbal disfluencies come in two types. The best known is the hesitation disfluency: use of “uh” and “um” and other indicators of planned pauses. “Uh” means, “I’m inserting a short pause here.” “Um” means, “I’m thinking; don’t interrupt.” In conversation, I do not use a whole lot of these. However, when doing the videos, trying to remember some speech I’ve worked out but haven’t memorized, I use “um” a lot.
In normal conversation, I use the repair disfluency: repeated words and phrases. This is like, “Mozart wrote Don Gio, The Magic Flute…” Or, “When I was a kid, when my father was a kid…” And if I go in front of the camera cold and start ranting, these are the kinds of errors that I commit.
Generally, the hesitation disfluency makes someone sounds a little thick. But this is a misimpression. Everyone commits these errors and they even commit them at about the same rate as those they are around. How you are disfluent is determined by your style: do you like to plan things out or just wing it. This is verbally speaking, of course; I know that I am more the type who likes to wing it verbally but apparently in no other part of my life.
What Michael Erard’s book did to me is make me more sympathetic to verbal blunders, at the same time it has made me hypersensitive to them. I used to only notice them in my videos. Now I notice them everywhere. So if you are brave and true, read Um… Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean. You have been, uh, you know: warned!