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Spoken Language Is, Um, Difficult

You've probably heard the expression, "We all make mistakes."

And it really shows when we talk. We stick "uhs" and "ums" into our speech, or we mix up what we're trying to say. Our brains are thinking one thing, but our mouths are saying another.

Now there's a learned explanation for this, in a book called Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, Verbal Blunders and What They Mean. It's by, uh, Michael Erard, an, um, Austin, Texas, journalist who, um, writes about language.

Erard divides spoken blunders into slips of the tongue and what he calls "speech disfluencies." Disfluencies, as in not very fluent with words.

He says slip-ups happen because we're thinking way ahead of what comes out of our mouths. We make what another linguist, Rudolf Meringer, once called "forward errors." We want to say, "Grab that glass."

But it comes out, "Glab that glass." That's because the brain is anticipating the "gllll" sound in the word "glass."

As for those "disfluencies," Erard says they happen because only a rare and usually brilliant person — such as the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — can speak without a hesitation or flub. It's called "eloquence."

The rest of us compose as we go. We're not always sure we've picked the right words, so we grope. And we cover the pauses with "ers" and "ums." Grabbing words out of the storehouse in our brain — one every four hundred milliseconds by Michael Erard's calculations — is not easy. Just because people hesitate does not mean they are stupid.

We do wonder, though, about many of today's young people, who, when it comes to speaking, are, you know, often, like, uh . . . lazy.

[Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, Verbal Blunders and What They Mean is published by Pantheon Books.]