Are You Guilty of Non-Words?

They start out as innocent, unnoticeable vocal mannerisms.  But eventually, like a thief in a night, they creep into every sentence that we utter.

I am talking about non-words or filler words – the ah’s, uhm’s, so, all right, ok.  Oh, and let’s not forget  the Filipino non words like ano and diba.   They may sound innocent at first, but yes, they can get pretty annoying.  Consider:

The latest figures show that uhm, sales, uhm have been going uhm, up, for the past, uhm, four quarters.

I will cascade you to the right person, ok, because it is a programming matter and needs to be resolved by them ok.  Ok, I will transfer you now.

Paki-ano nga yung mga yan para ma-ano sila.

Let me add to the list two non-words we Filipinos love to say: actually and basically kahit ang pinag-uusapan ay hindi naman basic and actual!  There are many other non-words.  In fact, any word can be considered a non-word if they are unnecessarily and repeatedly used in a sentence, or if used in the wrong way.  “So”, for example is only used for caused and effect.  Therefore, to  say “So there” after every sentence also is considered a non-word.

Many years back, I attended a talk many given by a city official who had uh’s in every single sentence that he uttered.  Instead of listening to what he was saying, people just listened, counted, and even predicted when his non-words would come.  It became a game for the audience and the people laughed about it.  The people laughed at him!

So yes, non-words are annoying.  But more importantly, they lessen one’s credibility.  It lessens your credibility if you are selling a product or service on the phone.  It lessens your credibility if you are selling an idea in a meeting or face-to-face conversation.  And depending on one’s body language, saying non-words is even considered a sign of lying.  That is why we must avoid them at as much as possible.

Some may even count the non-words of people they listen to.  True enough, I encountered this video of Martha Stewart on Youtube.  A viewer had gone the extra mile of counting Martha’s non-words in one entire episode.

Why is it then that we fall prey to non-words?  There are quite a number of reasons, and it may vary from one person to another.  It can be as simple as a bad mannerism.  Naturally, it can be a sign that one needs to improve on the language one is speaking.  But it can also be a sign of lack of preparation for a meeting or presentation.  For journalists who are afraid of dead air during a live report, non-words serve their purpose of yes, filling the awkward silence on tv or radio with something – but not something good.

How can get rid or remove non-words?

It starts with a conscious effort to avoid them as much as possible, and to avoid them even in the most informal conversations.  It is said that it takes 21 consecutive days to get acquire a habit.  So try it.  Avoid non-words for 21 consecutive days to get used to avoiding them.  Of course, this means that if one says a non-word on the 20th day, then it’s back to day one until you get it.

Some of us, when talking, exhale with our mouths open.  Therefore, an uhm comes out when one exhales.  Try closing it.

When tempted to say a non-word, try swallowing.

Check if you need to speak a little more slowly.  Oftentimes, non-words are a result of talking too fast, with our minds not being able to catch up.

Take time to pause and emphasize on important words.

I even recommend getting a friend also to count your non-words when presenting.  When I conduct Presentation Skills training, I count the non-words and share it with my participants when I give feedback.

These are just some tips to get rid of non-words.  You may have more tips, and like to hear from you.

Post script: also do consider Butch Dalisay’s Top 10 Irritating Pinoy Expressions.

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