BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014
Your Voice

BBC Homepage


Contact Us

The art of conversation
Also on Voices
Classroom talk
Elsewhere on BBCi
Learning English - tag questions
Elsewhere on the web
etymonline
Digital Spy Forum - discussion about 'innit'


In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
If you speak more than one language, scientists suggest you're less likely to develop Alzheimer's.
Being bilingual 'protects brain'

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Web sites.

Page 2 of 3
"You just don't listen!"
Why do people say 'like' every other word?
Isn't 'innit' ungrammatical?

Why do people say 'like' when it doesn't mean anything?

"I'm, like, really happy that you've come to, like, find out about 'like'. Like, I thought you might not, like, bother. There are some people who don't like, like, all this 'like' stuff, but you know, it can actually be, like, really handy, like."
OK, I'll stop that now.

'Like' is just one of many 'filler' words in English. Everyone uses fillers to an extent. Which ones you use and how often will depend on who you are and the situation you're in.
Right...like...you know...actually...I mean...kind of... um... basically...in a manner of speaking...just...if you don't mind me saying...uh...really...I suppose...if truth be told...without a doubt...or something...in actual fact...well...yeah...errr...of course...so if you know what I mean...and stuff...
Phrases such as this are often condemned as sloppy or meaningless. Many people assume that fillers are a sign of uncertainty, stupidity or weakness. Yet all styles of speech can contain filler phrases that are empty of explicit information. Compare:
"Hey, that's, like, a really really beautiful dress, yeah?"
"If I may be so bold, that's without a shadow of a doubt, a simply beautiful dress."
They may not have much semantic content of their own, but fillers do fulfil important linguistic functions.
Using fillers is an extremely useful conversation strategy since it helps you keep the floor, rather than leaving a pause where someone else could nip in and start talking.
They give you an extra split second to decide what to say next, for example. Using fillers is an extremely useful conversation strategy since it helps you keep the floor, rather than leaving a pause where someone else could nip in and start talking.

Fillers can also act as 'hedges', which soften or weaken what you're saying ("I'm you know, kind of worried about him,"), or 'boosters', which emphasise or strengthen a point ("I'm really worried about him, you know?").

These hedges can make blunt utterances sound more gentle or apologetic, and can be vital when discussing sensitive issues. Compare:
"If you don't mind me saying, you're, like... well, um I mean you sort of smell a bit."
"You smell."
'Like' isn't a new phenomenon. Etymonline says: 'The word has been used as a postponed filler ("going really fast, like") from 1778; as a presumed emphatic ("going, like, really fast") from 1950, originally in counterculture slang and bop talk.'

Incidentally, Swedish and Norwegian have the word 'liksom', which is just as useful and flexible as 'like' - and bears just the same social stigma.

previous next



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy