Challenge: spend a day without “ums” and “likes”

Rebecca Herz, Staff Writer

It is incredible how often we use crutch words. It does not even matter really who we are speaking with or on what topic. We inevitably lean on them more heavily when we are nervous, rubbing our sweaty palms on our jeans, trying to look casual and, hopefully, intelligent, or when our classes have left us so depleted of energy that amongst caffeine jitters all we can muster up is a half-a-dozen “likes” per sentence, with “ums” enough to fill in any brain vacancies.

For many students, crutch words are a social language, much like texting or instant messaging. However, some among us dare to ask themselves why, and how, they have become so dependent on this terse, empty language. Moreover, without “like” or “um,” what would our everyday conversations sound like. How would we, as a society, interact differently? So I decided to put my linguistics to the test. For one day, I had a mission—no crutch words. I wish I could tell you that my command over the English language was sufficient enough to conquer such a task. After all, it should be easy; 12 hours without an utterance of only two words— “like” and “um.”But it was not at all what I expected it to be, and it soon became a challenge that led me down the steep road to speechlessness.

The following is a taste of my experience. I walk into my first period French class, over to my friend, to eat her food. But, to my dismay, the second I try to string together a sentence I find, already, that I am dodging those two words that seemed to shoot out of my mouth like fireballs. For a split moment I thought of trying to translate (badly) in my head what I had to say into French, but of course, then she might not get it at all. Then I had the brilliant idea of talking in a British accent. Soon enough I felt a mind-boggling vacancy under my armpits, where of course, the crutches are supposed to rest. It was as if I was wobbling through my own dictations, dancing on tiptoes in the spaces between what I had the urge to communicate, and what I could actually say.

So, instead of saying, “Hey Ash, do you um, have any like, um, Chewy Bars,” what came out of my mouth was, “Hi Ashley, I was wondering if perhaps you would be willing to lend me a chewy textured granola bar.” And I had to ask myself—is there no happy medium between a complete overexertion of linguistics, and a normal, human sentence? After a long day of no “likes” or “ums,” I have to admit there were various slipups; however, failing caused me to ask myself why it had to be so hard. I mean, after all of the time we spend as students working on the rhetorical triangle, vocabulary, essays, debate, etc. how can we not have such a secure command on our spoken language? Have our relationships made it easy to get away with relaxed language, so that it is always taking on the form of casual conversation?

In truth, I found during those 12 hours, the challenge of banning crutch words has its roots in our tendency, as Americans, to take liberties with language. After all, American English has always been, since its humble beginnings, a conglomeration of many flavors, a “melting pot” of phonetics and linguistics that both contend and compliment one another. Perhaps “like” and “um” are another part of what makes American language unique, alive, interesting. But it is equally possible that “like” and “um” are just sloppy teenager habits. Here is my challenge to you: for one day, and one day only, put down your crutches. Let yourself wobble. See how long you can balance on your own linguistic resources.