d sawyer11-sI mean… Sort of… Right?

In earlier posts I wrote about intentional word choices around being serious and referring to God. This week, I’m lightening up a bit to talk about less weighty choices of words in the common verbal pause.

There are many levels of communication in complex human relationships and word-choice is not the only criterion for effective exchange of messages. It’s not a cliché to remind ourselves that “you can’t not communicate.”

I am frequently caught off guard when I hear someone using these simple words and phrases in the media and in professional conversations. I wonder what is intended and what is communicated?

  • “I mean…”
  • “You know…”
  • “Right?”
  • “Sort of…”

Let’s start with the most existential of these verbal pauses. Starting a sentence with I mean is just the opposite of its use in earlier generations. I always heard it as introducing a clarifying clause. I say something one way and then I say, I mean, and go on to say it another way to emphasize my point. The current usage is a complete negation of the earlier referent—the deeper sense or significance of a person or thing, even to “have meaning” in one’s life. Rather when used at the beginning of a sentence it actually signifies nothing, it is completely meaning-less.

The phrase you know is less often heard now as a verbal pause. It was often placed in sentences to convey the concern of the speaker to be heard or understood, or even to reach out to another without sounding like a know it all.

The word, right?, with the questioning inflection is another way to reach out to your conversation partner, to elicit a common ground and personal connection. Sometimes iI hear it this way: "I know…right?” In this usage, the rightness of the statement is assumed and disagreement is not encouraged.

Inserting sort of as a modifier to soften or reduce the impact of a statement or description has the same indirect purpose. It suggests that the speaker is part of the smart set, the cognoscenti, who really know a lot about a topic but don’t need to show it off. Or it could imply that the speaker belongs to a particular group or region of the country where we all talk like this. In earlier usage, the word sort referred to categories or types of knowledge, to place something in its proper sequence or grouping. In the traqditional dictionary definition, sort of means somewhat.

The Urban Dictionary, which says that the use of I mean as I’m describing it here is: “Meaningless American use of the English language. Often reflective of a complete lack of content in what they are saying—people of average intellect, articulation and education will simply pause and think about what they are saying” (Urban DIctionary, October 17, 2012).

I think the other verbal pauses listed here are equally unnecessary and meaningless. In professional conversation, in reportage, in smart discussion even with friends, a speaker does better to simply say what one wants to say and be ready to defend it. If one needs to consider whether to say it one way or another, simply pause, choose the best words you can summon at the moment, and go on. A speaker establishes credibility by making clear, unique, insightful statements about topics of concern. One can reach out and connect emotionally with the conversation partner with tone of voice and eye contact. Use of cliché and meaningless words and phrases only detracts.

You know what I mean?


The Urban Dictionary.  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=i%20mean. October 17, 2012.

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