RONZONE: Rhetoric in peril



Raquel Ronzone

Omit the niceties of language from past decades – the traditions of decisive, thought-provoking civil rights speeches, of the rich voice and eloquent delivery of unparalleled broadcast journalism legend Edward R. Murrow. Replace them with growing grammatical disregard, waning self-respect and confidence. Add to daily conversation a substantial number of filler words – including the senselessly misused “literally,” “legitimately” and “like” – and misplaced intonations of the voice. The result is modern communication, a practice insulting to the written and spoken word and perpetuated by people who make no effort to strengthen their limp grasp of language.

To his credit, David Letterman brought the issue into the public forum; however, improving language was clearly not his original intent. In March 2008, the late-night comedian aired a segment called “The Barack Obama ‘Uh’ Count,” a jibe at the presidential candidate often praised for his articulation. Aware of the respect earned by talented orators, one realizes that societies value fluency in itself and associate it with leadership ability and intelligence. The viewers’ main response, laughter, indicates just how seriously people interpret discussions punctuated with filled pauses.

The results of one study published several years ago seemingly countered the reaction of Letterman’s audience. Temple University linguist Jill Wagner, head of the study, concluded that filler words are beneficial. In an interview with Iowa State Daily, Wagner, an associate professor of anthropology with a focus on linguistics, said, “People … use fillers when they need time to think about what they’re saying, when they’re not quite sure, want to hedge or are introducing exaggeration.”

Psycholinguistics accounts for the connotations of these devices. In verbal dialogue, pauses full of sounds like “um,” “er,” “like'” and other comparable utterances either convey the speaker’s desire to continue leading a conversation, even if he or she does not immediately know what to say, or to disclose the speaker’s lack of confidence in what he or she is discussing. In both cases, uncertainty motivates the filled silences.

Cultural stereotypes propagate the idea that women use fillers, especially “like,” more frequently than men do. A 2003 study conducted by the psychology department of the University of Texas, “did not find that men and women reliably differed in their use of…filler words in their natural speech,” refuting the prevailing claim.

In her explanation, Wagner mentions another communicative phenomenon: hedges – words and phrases that simultaneously mitigate the impact of a sentence and undermine the integrity of the speaker. Statements such as, “I think I can … [execute a task]” or “This is probably a bad idea, but …” shift accountability – and consequentially credibility and intelligence – from the active conversationalist.

Others in the field of linguistics note similarly defeating sayings and devices: “I’m sorry,” said when one needs to hear a statement again; “I’m sorry to bother you, but …” or its variant “I was just wondering if you could …” that replace a direct question; the introduction, “It’s just me,” often used during telephone calls; and uptalking, the practice of voicing declarative sentences as questions in an effort to gain permission or approval from others.

Psychiatrist Dr. Anna Fels insists that the effect of such speech patterns extend beyond the verbal realm. People who use self-deprecating phrases in their daily interactions subconsciously minimize their own value, an act that enables friends, relatives, audience members, bosses, spouses and significant others to think of them and treat them as incapable individuals without opposition.

The self-belittling habits that constitute poor communication too frequently persist without notice or concern, gradually embedding themselves into the fabric of acceptable social dealings. Over time, these vices subvert advancing career positions and opportunities, flourishing interpersonal dynamics, healthy domestic relationships and, most significantly, positive introspection. Take control. Speak with the confidence to which you are entitled. Recognize and alter the utterance of demeaning expressions before they warp others’ perceptions of you.


Raquel Ronzone is a sophomore from Philadelphia, Pa. She can be reached at [email protected].