A new year means a new opportunity to learn something new. Too often, though, the early excitement wears off when you remember that attaining new skills means making a lot of mistakes. When you’re working on a new language, this can be especially intimidating, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a native speaker. Fortunately, there’s a built-in feature to help you avoid mistakes: English filler words.
The term “filler” word might sound like they’re only used to fill in the silence in conversation. That is true to some extent, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose. People use filler words to pause while they’re thinking, because it seems like a better choice than simply being silent, which might make the other person think you’ve finished speaking.
You probably learned the filler words of your native language naturally, but it’s not common for anyone to explicitly teach them. Here, we’ve put together a guide of the most common English filler words, which will help you sound like a fluent speaker, even when you’re stalling for time.
The Most Common English Filler Words
Many different words can take the shape of a filler word. They don’t necessarily add anything to a sentence — you can remove them without altering the sentence’s overall meaning — but they can affect the mood or emphasis of a sentence, depending on how a person uses them. Here are a few of the most common
- like — “Like” has become one of the most common words in the English language, and it has many different uses. It’s a verb, a suffix, a conjunction, and perhaps the most popular English filler word. It can appear almost anywhere in a sentence except the end, which certainly contributes to its use and overuse.
Example: “I know you, like, don’t want to go to the park. Like, the park is not important.”
- so — When used as a filler word, “so” only appears at the start of a sentence. Its long “o” makes it perfect for stretching when you really need to think.
Example: “So, where do you want to eat?”
- well — Another very flexible filler word, “well” mostly goes at the beginning of sentences, but can appear between clauses to give the speaker a chance to collect their thoughts before launching into the next thing.
Example: “Well, what’s our next move?”
- you know — Compared to the first three filler words in this list, “you know” seems a bit more specific. Starting a sentence with “you know” doesn’t necessarily mean the listener actually knows, though. You can say “You know, I saw Sam the other day” even if the person you’re speaking to is only just learning this fact. It may also appear in the middle of a sentence, but when it appears at the end it is almost always a question, to ensure that the person or people being spoken to understand what was just said.
Example: “You know, it’s not every day you see something like that.”
- I mean — Kind of the inverse of “you know,” “I mean” can also appear at the beginning or middle of a sentence, though only very rarely at the end.
Example: “I mean, there’s nothing like hot coffee on a cold day.”
- just — The word “just” as a filler is often used at the start of a sentence, to indicate that you are trying to break a complex topic down to its simplest parts. You might end a long lecture about driving with “Just…make sure to be safe.” The “just” is there to provide emphasis, while also giving you a moment to really consider what you’re about to say.
Example: “The problem is, just, you have no idea what you’re doing. Just, no idea at all.”
- alright — Though “alright” has many uses, it’s also a filler word when it appears at the start of a sentence. In a conversation, you say “alright” to assure the person you’re speaking to that you understood them, and it also gives you a second to think before launching into whatever you’ll say next.
Example: “Alright, I’m glad we have our next moves planned out.”
- yeah — “Yeah” works pretty much the same as “alright,” indicating that the speaker and the listener are on the same page. You might extend this filler word by saying “no yeah,” “yeah no” or “yeah yeah yeah,” among any number of other combinations.
Example: “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
- but, and, and other conjunctions — conjunctions and filler words are not the same thing, but there is definitely some overlap in conversations. When you say “and,” “or” or “but” at the end of a sentence, you’re letting the listener know that you’re not done speaking.
Example: “I love you, and I want to be with you, but I’m not sure this is working out.”
- actually, basically and other -ly words — while adverbs can influence the meaning of a sentence, there are some that are functionally filler words, particularly when they appear at the start of a sentence. Basically, literally and actually are all good examples, because they don’t really add to a sentence. You rarely say something you don’t “actually” mean, so saying it at the beginning of a sentence isn’t necessary except to fill the space before you get to your point.
Example: “Basically, there are two main possibilities here. Actually, there might be three. Technically, even four options if you think about it.”
Filler Words That Aren’t Technically Words
The above list included all the English words that have a dual purpose as a filler word. Some of the most common English filler words, though, aren’t really words at all. They’re monosyllabic noises that speakers use, and they can stretch to fill however much silence is needed.
Example: “So, um, what do you, um, think about that?”
Example: “Uhhhhhhhh, what are you talking about?”
Example: “I want pizza and ehhhhh maybe a side salad.”
Example: “Ohhhhh, I see what you mean.”
It might seem silly to list these non-word words, but it’s worth it because they do differ from language to language. The most common Spanish filler non-words, for example, won’t sound the same as these English ones. The best way to learn is to listen to a native speaker talk and pay attention to how they fill the silence.
When To Use Filler Words (And When Not To)
Filler words appear almost exclusively in spoken language. Probably the only times you’ll see them in writing is when someone is trying to copy the sound of spoken language. There’s a simple reason for this: writing doesn’t need filler words because there is no “silence” to fill. In speech, though, these words are everywhere. If you’ve ever transcribed audio of yourself talking, you’ve likely been shocked by how many filler words you use.
While there are clear benefits to filler words, they don’t have the best all-around reputation. There’s plenty of criticism when people overuse “like” or “um,” because they make people sound hesitant or less sure of themselves. In professional contexts especially, filler words are discouraged. If you take a public speaking course, one of the many things they’ll teach you is to get rid of the filler words when you’re talking.
This doesn’t mean filler words are a bad thing, however. While they might be frowned upon in formal settings, they’re an important part of casual conversations. Don’t let people tell you they’re “mistakes,” because really they’re one of our most useful tools to avoid making an error when we’re talking to someone. Next time you’re stuck thinking of the right thing to say, you should “um, so, you know” as much as you want.