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I'm Witty, Um… is Fascinating

Statesman columnist Katherine Tanney visited my talk at BookPeople and wrote this last Sunday:

“I’m Michael Erard. I will say “um” and “uh” tonight because I have trademarked them and wish to exercise my rights.”

So began the witty, stimulating talk at BookPeople Sept. 18 by the Austin author (soon to be a resident of Maine), whose book, “Um … Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean,” drew many linguists, speech therapists, and educators among the 35 in the audience. Erard defended President Bush’s many delays and slips of the tongue as normal errors and accidents of spoken communication.

The real question, said the author, is what can be learned about people from the neurological misfires, disfluencies and self-repairs exhibited in their everyday speech.

Erard’s observations:

American men use “um” as a placeholder indicating that they aren’t ready to give up conversational space, even when they don’t know what they’re going to say next.

Some people wander, lost, into “syntactical mazes,” having learned, “Don’t stop talking and never admit that you don’t know the answer.”

“I, like, had six beers” is an entirely different statement from “I had, like, six beers.”

In attendance: Dave Miller, who used to train people to pass the State Department’s Foreign Service Exam in Washington. He confirmed that government agencies involved in international affairs pay a great deal of attention to conversational signals. “Don’t talk when you don’t have the answer,” he advised. “Look at the floor and move your eyes as though you’re thinking.” Books sold: 24.

Is that “only 24!” or “wow, 24!”? At least five people there already had copies, including fabulous factchecker Mimi Bardgjy.

The original piece is here.