Filler expressions are words and phrases that don’t really mean anything in themselves, but they can make your English sound more natural when you’re speaking. Native speakers use fillers all the time in their conversation. In this article we will look at some of the most useful examples of fillers and you will learn how to be more natural when you’re speaking.
What is “natural” spoken English?
If you listen to native English speakers using the language in a normal, everyday situation, such as a meeting or on the phone, you will notice that they don’t speak in complete, perfect sentences. In fact, a native speaker spends a lot of time hesitating and reformulating what they want to say as they speak. Here’s an example of real, native English speech:
So, er… well, as I said to Barry last… um, the week before last, actually, you can’t… I mean… you can’t just expect me to drop what I’m doing and, you know, I can’t just run after him, can I?
Now, at first glance this looks like a complete mess. In fact, if you read word-for-word transcriptions of native speech, they can be quite confusing sometimes. But when this person is actually speaking to someone else, all these pauses, false starts and repetitions are actually very important. The main reason people do this is because they are thinking about what they’re going to say next as they are speaking. Words (and sometimes just sounds like hm, er, etc) are actually signals to the person listening that the speaker hasn’t finished what they’re saying.
Of course, as a learner of English, no-one expects you to use the language exactly like a native speaker, but you can “borrow” some of these verbal habits to make your own speech sound a bit more like a native and less like someone who has learned the language from a book.
The most important type of filler expression is those used for hesitating. If you want more time to think as you’re speaking, you can say:
I’m going to Manchester for the conference on, er… oh, yeah, the 17th. It’s a Wednesday.
Sometimes er is written err, especially if it’s a longer pause. (Note that these sounds are only written in careful transcriptions of what people have said, or in plays and scripts for TV, etc. Don’t write er / hm, etc in formal texts, such as emails or reports.)
Hm / Hmm
This sound is used by native English speakers to mean “Don’t interrupt me. I’m thinking. I’m about to speak.”
Why did you tell Samantha we don’t need her on the project?
– Hmm… Look, it’s not easy working with Samantha.
This is the “classic” British English filler expression. We use it all the time. You can put well at the beginning of your sentence or at any point in the middle to pause your language.
Well, I’m going to the bank. I’ll see you this afternoon.
We’ve got two thousand potential customers and, well, it would be a pity to miss this opportunity.
There are some specific uses of well:
You can use it to stop the sentence and contradict or modify what you’ve just said:
I’ve known Itesh for ten years, well, nine and a half actually, and he’s a really great guy…
We also use well to show that the conversation is about to end:
(after ten minutes of conversation) Well, I’d better be going. It was good to see you.
Very often we use this on the phone to terminate the conversation. We also use so:
Well / So… Listen, it’s been great talking to you.
English speakers, especially the British, use these words a lot to reinforce what they are saying. Actually means “in fact” (not “now” as it does in some languages). We often use actually to show that although a statement may seem surprising or wrong, it is “actually” correct:
Abdul lives in Leeds, doesn’t he?
– Er, he lives in Wakefield, actually.
Basically means “fundamentally”. When a native English speaker says basically what they mean is “this is the most important or essential part of my argument”:
Alan: Look, I’m not really happy with the way you’re managing this project.
Stacey: Well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s a really complex project with a lot of different challenges and, basically, I don’t care if you’re not happy with it because it’s my project, not yours. OK?
You can use these as you’re speaking to introduce a key idea or concept. You can also use them to introduce a new topic or change the subject of the conversation:
Look, Gareth wants to come round at 5 o’clock. Let’s talk about it with him when he gets here.
Listen, why don’t you tell Vanessa we’re going to scrap this plan and come up with a new one.
We often use look and listen to introduce a suggestion or make an invitation:
Look / Listen. Deirdre and I are having a dinner party this weekend. Why don’t you come over?
Some fillers are just used to show that you are expressing your own opinion. You can say:
In my opinion
In my opinion, there’s no reason why we couldn’t expand into the frozen yoghurt sector.
You can also use I think that to introduce an opinion:
I think that Kailan’s right. We need to approach this deal very carefully.
Note that you can say according to someone else, usually an authority on a particular subject, but you can’t say “*according to me”:
According to Adam Smith, there is an “invisible hand” guiding society to prosperity by means of self-interest.
You know, I mean, like
These fillers are extremely common and a lot of native speakers actually find them intensely annoying, especially when they are used unconsciously all the time. If you say you know or I mean, use them now and again but not all the time:
Tanya is, you know, a great person to have on the team.
I mean, Roger wants to succeed, but he really needs to help himself.
Saying you know or I mean before a word or phrase can indicate that you are hesitating or are unsure of the other person’s reaction.
Like is typically American. Some English speakers in the US, especially teenagers, use it every four or five words. Parodies and satire of American teenagers and “Valley girls” always focuses on this use of like.
Like can also be used to introduce reported speech, replacing a reporting word such as “said”:
So, I was like “What you gonna do?” and she was like “Duh?” and I, like, just wanted to, like, get out of there.
Big Business English tip: avoid using like in this way. It’s really irritating after, like, about three seconds.