Monday, 29 September 2014

Um, fill(er) words

Do conscientious people say I mean and I know more often?

When we think of language we often think of neatly constructed sentences, but everyday casual conversation is peppered with hesitations, repetitions and sounds that you may not necessarily find in the dictionary. These linguistic phenomena often go unnoticed, with the exception, perhaps, of David Beckham TV interviews. Charlyn Laserna, Yi-Tai Seih and James Pennebaker’s research, however, was on features of this kind, They focused on uh and um (filled pauses) and also on words and phrases such as I mean, you know and like (discourse markers), calling both together ‘filler words’.

Although sometimes thought of as superfluous or even careless, filler words may give clues about the sort of person who utters them. The researchers investigated not only how filler words were used across genders and age groups, but also whether they correlate with certain personality traits.

They analysed transcriptions of spoken conversations from 263 participants with ages ranging from 17 to 69. The speech was recorded over 2-3 days using electronic devices programmed to automatically take audio recordings at set time intervals, thus capturing spontaneous natural speech.

The rate of use of each of the five filler words (I mean, you know, like, um and uh) was analyzed in the conversations, and because this study investigated these two types of filler words in relation to one another, interesting comparisons could be made. People who were young, female, or both young and female were more likely to use discourse markers. This supports previous studies regarding the use of the discourse marker like. The rate of filled pauses was not associated with gender; it was, however, associated with age, decreasing later in life.

The researchers then became curious about the way usage of these two types of filler words develops or changes over a person’s lifetime. They divided participants into four age categories:

·      early college (17-19)
·      late college (20-22)
·      early adulthood (23-34)
·      and adulthood (35 and older)

They found that the increased use of discourse markers among women only emerges during the early and late college years; as people become older, the gender difference disappears. They explain that this may be due to the way adolescents transition into adult roles.  Graduating from college and entering a job market or changing career may lead people to change the way they use filler words.

The 252 participants had also completed questionnaires regarding five personality traits - openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The study found that an increased use of discourse markers was associated with conscientiousness, while none of the traits were related to the use of filled pauses.

The researchers explain that this may be because conscientious people are generally more aware of themselves and their surroundings, so when they converse with others, they use more discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to share their opinions or rephrase them for their addressee.

Importantly, the findings indicate that filler words could potentially provide a quick behavioral measure of speakers’ personality traits. The researchers anticipate that one day people may use their interpretation of these verbal cues to improve the quality of their communication with others.

Um, like maybe…….
Laserna, Charlyn M., Yi-Tai Seih & James W. Pennebaker (2014). Um . . . Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality.Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33: 3, 328-338.
doi: 10.1177/0261927X14526993

This summary was written by Danniella Samos

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Are you commercially aware?

Most people pay TV commercials as little attention as possible and use these as an excuse to make a nice cup of tea or quickly rearrange their sock draw. We tend to see TV ads as bothersome interruptions that have the audacity to order us around. Barry Pennock-Speck and Miguel Fuster-Márquez from the University of València wanted to check whether this ‘bossy’ perception of commercials was accurate.

There are various ways to ask people to do something, including using interrogative structures (Would you mind opening the book?), employing modal verbs such as must in statements (Dogs must be kept on a lead), or using certain adjectives (It is crucial/essential to...). However, the researchers found that all these forms were negligible in TV advertising compared to the use of imperatives (open the book!).

Because the addressee in TV commercials has no obligation to comply with a request, the researchers hypothesized that imperatives are carefully worded to express advice or recommendations in a way that would seem to benefit the viewer. To test this, they collected recordings of TV commercials from ITV and Channel 4 between 2009 and 2011. After removing duplicate ads and those without voiceovers, 785 ads were analysed.

The researchers identified the imperatives in the adverts and found a total of 804 examples in 424 of the ads. In the voiceovers which contained imperatives, just over half contained a single imperative, about a quarter contained two imperatives, 13% had three imperatives and just over 10% had four or more imperatives.

As adverts are short texts with an average of 37 words each, the researchers looked further into ads with more than one imperative. They discovered that in these ads the imperatives occurred mainly in demonstrations on how to use a product (Just cut the jumbo block to size and simply add water - JMLDoktorPower), and in offers to viewers of different ways of contacting the advertisers (Call 08009166100 or visit cruisethomascook. com - Thomas Cook).

The analysis showed that while frequent verbs such as CALL, VISIT, GET, SAVE, GO and TRY played a central part in the voiceovers, the ads included a wide variety of 224 distinct types of imperative. The researchers classified these into five groups according to their function:  

Function group
Items per group
% of all imperatives
Distinct types
% of all the distinct types
Attention focusers






The group of ‘Attention focusers’ includes the largest number of imperatives, making up a third of all instances. In addition to obvious examples such as LOOK and WATCH, this study showed many that more imperatives are used figuratively to attract viewers’ attention; for example, Spend more time with our little ones (KFC).

The second largest category, the ‘Contact’ group, was less diverse with three verbs, CALL, VISIT and GO (ONLINE) making up just under 70% of all contact verbs. These request viewers to contact the retailers or visit their websites.

The third category, the ‘Acquisition of Product or Service’ group, includes verbs like BAG and GET. The latter is particularly favoured by advertisers as it highlights the advantages of acquiring a product without referring to a financial transaction; there were only 7 instances of the imperative BUY with its unfortunate connotations of parting with money.

The ‘Experiencers’ category is similar in size to the ‘Acquisition’ group, but is much more diverse. This may be due to the many ways in which a product or service can be used.  Verbs in this group include, for example, ENJOY and TRY. ‘Experiencers’ may function as instructions on how to use a product (Just shake 3 times, foam it, work it all over from root to tip - Nice ’n Easy).

The ‘Others’ group represents less than 10% of all imperatives and features verbs such as PLEDGE and GIVE. Most of these were found in the small selection of 26 noncommercial ads for charities and public services and were more akin to pleas.

To summarise, one would expect that when the addresser lacks the power to impose their will, they would phrase requests politely, using hedges and words such as please. However this study shows that the opposite occurs. As TV viewers are under no compulsion to comply with imperatives, these requests are presented as disinterested advice or useful instructions.

Pennock-Speck, Barry & Miguel Fuster-Márquez (2014) Imperatives in voice-overs in British TV commercials: 'Get this, buy that taste the other'. Discourse & Communication. published online 20 July 2014.
doi. 10.1177/1750481314537578

This summary was written by Danniella Samos

Tuesday, 5 August 2014



Dear Digest readers,

The Digest team will be taking a break during August.

This year has been especially busy for the Digest team and we have sometimes been a bit erratic in the postings, but we hope to resume regular weekly postings in September.

There has been a huge growth in the number of people reading the Digest and the number of followers also continues to grow. Please tell your colleagues/students/friends about us so that we can reach as many people as possible.

We are also interested in hearing from our readers with comments about the Digest and suggestions for how we might improve.

Thank you for your continued interest in the Digest.

Best wishes from all at the Linguistics Research Digest team!

Monday, 28 July 2014

(stereo) type your questions into Google

click to see this better!

While searching for information on the web, Paul Baker and Amanda Potts noticed that Google’s auto completion algorithm was inadvertently reproducing stereotypes. Troubled by this phenomenon, they set out to investigate which social groups elicited more stereotyping questions than others and how these differed in nature.

In 2010 Google added auto-completion algorithms to offer a list of suggestions when users type words into the search box. The predicted text shown in a drop-down list has either been entered by previous users or appears on the web. While this process can save time, it also has some unintended consequences. For example, when one types ‘why do gay’ into the search box, the information in the picture above appears.

These suggestions are stereotypical; they ascribe characteristics to people on the basis of their group membership, reducing them to certain (often exaggerated) traits.

To carry out their study, the researchers first created a list of identity groups to investigate. They found that the terms which produced the most questions were related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion. The groups eventually chosen were: black, Asian, white, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, men, women, gay, lesbian and straight. In each category, a selection of similar terms was used, so for example the male category included men, boys and guys. The researchers also chose people as a control group to show how humans are characterised when they are not associated with particular identities.

Next, they paired these terms with question forms in order to elicit auto-suggestions. The question forms included items such as why do, how do, where do as well as questions beginning with do, should and are. Each question was entered individually and the top suggestions were recorded.
Some of the elicited questions did not refer to social groups and were excluded. Finally, 2690 queries were analysed and it was found that the groups which elicited the most queries were Jewish, Black  and Muslim with over 300 results each, whereas People only elicited 70 and Lesbian a mere 41 queries.
The questions were then divided into the following categories:

Each question was also rated with regards to evaluation, and was classed as positive, negative or neutral. While the majority of the questions were classed as neutral, most groups tended to have more of their questions categorised as negative than positive. Surprisingly, the control category people elicited proportionally the most negative questions, which tended to be about why people engage in hurtful behaviours such as bullying and self-harming.

The relatively high proportion of negative questions for three groups was particularly concerning. For black people, these involved constructions of them as lazy, criminal, cheating, under-achieving and suffering from various conditions such as fibroids. Gay people were constructed as contracting AIDS, going to hell, not deserving equal rights or talking like girls. The negative questions for males positioned them as catching thrush, under-achieving and treating females poorly.

Conversely, all ethnic groups also elicited many positive questions. Black people were constructed as stronger, more attractive and virile. Asians were viewed as smart, slim and attractive, while white people were viewed as attractive and ‘ruling’ other groups.

In general, race and gender searches elicited questions concerned with the level of interest of one group for another. Indeed, top results for both genders featured the opposite sex. However, sexual fulfilment and references to orgasm appeared more frequently for the female questions.

The straight category included fewer questions (perhaps as this is seen as the ‘norm’). These tended to be about whether straight men enjoyed stereotypically gay entertainment such as TV show Glee or singer Cher, and whether straight men could ‘turn’ gay or have homosexual thoughts.

Whereas the Gay results included questions about whether gay people should be allowed to marry, adopt, join the military or give blood, Lesbian questions included negative stereotypes such as acting/looking like men, questions about sexual and emotional behaviour towards men and the mechanics of lesbian relationships.

While the researchers do not claim that people who are exposed to such questions will be influenced by the stereotypes they encounter, it is important to acknowledge that these do exist. In addition, this paper raises the moral question of whether content-providers should ‘protect’ their users and remove offensive auto-suggestions (and indeed who decides what is inappropriate?), or should they simply reflect the phenomena that people are interested in?

Baker and Potts warn that auto-complete suggestions could perpetuate stereotypes, and that not all people would view them with a critical eye. They therefore recommend that there should be a facility to flag certain auto-completion suggestions as problematic, and that Google should consider removing those that are consistently flagged.

Baker, Paul & Amanda Potts (2013) ‘Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms, Critical Discourse Studies,10:2, 187-204


This summary was written by Danniella Samos