The “pragmatic particle” – public speaking nemesis?

Pragmatic: adj. practical, as opposed to artistic, theoretical or idealistic

Particle: n. a unit of speech expressing some general aspect of meaning or some connective   relation and including the articles, most prepositions and conjunctions, and some interjections and adverbs.

Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s only surviving child, tentatively tossed her hat into the political ring when Hillary Clinton left her NY senatorial seat open to become Secretary of State. Unfortunately, Caroline inherited the fabled name, but not the Kennedy silver tongue.

Among the albatrosses around her neck as a candidate was her inability to express herself clearly and succinctly. Her specialty is the phrase “you know,” which in two recent interviews she used 138 times and 200+ times.

You know, that’s hard to do!

In Toastmasters, you know, we have a person whose role at the meeting is to keep track of every speaker’s verbal stutters – um, uh, er, like, you know – and other elocution no-nos. By merely becoming aware of these verbal distractions, you know, it’s possible to reduce or eliminate them.

I thought they were just verbal tics, but “you know” is a special case about which someone actually wrote a doctoral thesis in 1980.

Linguists call “you know” a pragmatic particle, and it has its linguistic counterparts in many other cultures around the world.

“You know” typically occurs in face-to-face interactions, and can indicate discomfort. However, it can be used (usually unconsciously) as a mediator of social relations.  “You know” implies an attempt to maintain an already close relationship with the person being addressed, to simulate shared views – or to establish such a relationship.

In the case of a political candidate, who wants to be seen as at the same level as The People or be persuasive about an issue, “you know” brings the listener in closer.

I still think the repetitious use of  “you know” is annoying, sloppy, and unprofessional.

Before Caroline returns to the public eye she needs to detour through a year at a Toastmasters club. A club is easy to find (enter your zip code here) because most communities have at least one club – and some have dozens.

13 responses to “The “pragmatic particle” – public speaking nemesis?

  1. When NPR was discussing the Caroline Kennedy ‘you know’ situation, I found myself really noticing how often the commentator used ‘um’. And wondered why talking about someone else’s verbal fillers didn’t seem to make him more aware of his own fillers: he used a lot of them!

  2. Oh aint it the truth. We know not what we do.

    I’ve finally gotten rid of my ums, and never developed a taste for “you know” but I’ve gotten into “So… ” to introduce a sentence or question. It’s the Terry Gross “So…”.

  3. This is one of the problems I have with Toastmasters. Don’t get me wrong, I think they generally do a fantastic job (I’m a professional public speaking and presentations trainer) and for many, many people they’re just the ticket, but…..

    …. but I’ve yet to see the research on how simply drawing attention to the ‘filler words’ means someone uses them less. In fact I’ve read research suggesting that the appropriate amount of fillers is a good thing as it gives your audience time to assimilate more of what you’ve said. Okay, it’s easy to over do it but there’s obviously more to this than simply “Fillers=bad”.


  4. I went googling for info on language fillers; and found this :
    ‘Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics’
    Muffy E. A. Siegel
    Does anyone else find it really interesting that ‘Muffy’ would be publishing such an article?

  5. Simon – this would make an interesting research project, wouldn’t it? Does the simple act of having your “ums” counted reduce their frequency?

    In six years of attending weekly meetings at 2 clubs, my observation is that SOMETHING dramatically reduces the verbal tics of almost every member. Since most people are unaware of how much they use their favorite tics, I believe counting does. It becomes a point of pride: 17 ums this week! 12 this week! Only 10!!!

    I’m told that in some clubs the Ah-counter makes a noise (dropping a marble into a jar, for example) with each “um”. This would be a punishing intrusion on the speaker, and very unsupportive.

    As for verbal tics giving the audience time to digest the message, skillful speakers like you know that the most effective technique is the pregnant (silent) pause.

    The genius of Toastmasters is the weekly practice, with everyone taking turns speaking and offering constructive critique.

  6. Pingback: Caroline Kennedy a Toastmaster? « Barron County Toastmasters

  7. Thanks for the link Susan. Like, you know, you name it and someone, like, has done a study on it.

    I read the researcher’s summary, and came away thinking that with a name like “Muffy,” she must try super-hard to sound like an academic. Unfortunately, she does.

  8. “skillful speakers like you know that the most effective technique is the pregnant (silent) pause.” One of the articles I read about fillers suggested that they are used to quite often to fill in what would otherwise be a ‘silent pause’: because silence is usually interpreted (in conversation) as on opening for the other person to take their turn speaking. Which would explain why someone just making the transition from give and take conversation to delivering a monologue would find it difficult to just let the silence be. It would feel like losing control of the speech.

  9. Hmm- that makes sense, Susan.

    I do know that pauses are a lot more uncomfortable for a speaker than for a listener.

  10. You’re absolutely right about them being more uncomfortable for a speaker – they’re more hyped up, with mor Cortisol and so it feels like a loooooooong silence to them: to the audience it just feels like a second or so.

    Susan – yeah, I read stuff like that too. There’s a lot of evidence to support it in conversation analysis and the suggestion is that it becomes a habit which presenters carry with them (un-necessarily and counter-productively) onto the podium.

    I wonder if poor Caroline Kennedy suffered from being interviewed in what can feel like a one-on-one situation but being judged by her audience as though she was making a presentations (a one-to-many situation)…?


  11. When I first became a teacher I was observed by a mentor. His first comment to me (before noting that I had not paid attention to how long students went to the bathroom) was that I said “um” a million times in one hour. So now, every time I say “um” I am self-conscious. I say it much less frequently, but everytime it comes out I notice it. I’m not sure which is better: to repeat unself-consciously, or not repeat so flagrantly and feel disappointment everytime it comes out.

  12. Laura – nothing wrong with your mentor bringing it to your attention… my “complaint” is with un-supportive activities such as ringing bells every time you do it. Once it was brought to your attention you did something about it yourself – just like any other smart person!

    Would you have been able to bring your ‘um-count’ down if your mentor had sat in the classroom waving at you every time you’d said Um? (Assuming your pupils would have let it happen, of course! 🙂 )


  13. Laura – your mentor would have benefited from learning the evaluation techniques we use at Toastmasters. Most of a critique should focus on what the speaker did well – her strengths – with a gentle suggestion to “become more aware of your frequent use of um – and see if you can’t substitute a silent pause instead… it will take time, but with awareness and experience, the frequency of your ums will diminish and eventually disappear.”