Hesitation, deviation, repetition


In a New Year broadcast, the veteran radio critic of the Daily Telegraph, Gillian Reynolds, took the BBC’s “Today” presenters to task for their umming and erring. When they were about to interview someone, she said, they must often have prepared the questions hours in advance. They give a lengthy introduction to the interviewee for the benefit of the listeners, but then, she asked, why did they preface the first question with ‘um’ as if they were unsure what they were going to ask? Yesterday (17 March) the “Today” programme talked to Nicholas Parsons, the chairman of the radio panel game “Just a Minute”, in which the contestants must talk for a minute on any specified subject without hesitation, deviation, or repetition, and asked him for his opinion of the presenters’ fluency. Mr Parsons is very polite, and said he thought they were almost perfect. He was also brought on to today’s “Broadcasting House” programme, where he said much the same thing.

The irony is that immediately after the Parsons discussion on the “Today” programme, where he was talking to John Humphrys and Justin Webb, John Humphrys interviewed two people about something completely different, and having introduced Danielle Pinnington (the owner of Shoppercentric Ltd, a market research company), he said ‘um’ before he asked the first question.

Much as I admire Gillian Reynolds, I don’t think this is hesitation or uncertainty of any sort. I think it can be called a boundary marker: “I’ve done the introduction, now get ready for my first question”, which serves to prepare both the interviewee and the listener for the change in the dialogue.

I shall be interested to see if anyone either agrees or disagrees with me.


  1. Seems to work like “so, …”.

  2. It happens more often than not. There’s a linguistic term for it which eludes me at the moment, but as you say, in effect, it sets up what is to follow. A variation might be “Now…” Of course, the gambit also works as a chance for the speaker to marshal his thoughts within the context of a sentence, as in (opening statement) “like” (closing).

  3. Not a good idea to criticise other people’s language unless you are ready for your own to come under similar scrutiny.
    Result: pie on face.

  4. I agree with Graham’s view. Ms Reynolds is just being tiresomely eccentric about a completely normal speech phenomenon. Using ‘you know’ is similarly a perfectly normal thinking-time-providing insertion tho some people do let their use of it get out of hand. Another fairly venial device is slowing down but I feel some people, especially forecasters, overdo that.
    The champion performer in that respect is Robert Peston but I find what he has to say so worthwhile that I have no problem in forgiving him.

  5. Another boundary marker I have noticed is the use of ‘well’ at the start of a response, particularly from on-site correspondents who are being interviewed live. My guess is that this use of ‘well’ serves to indicate that the response is immediate and not prepared. In this way, it is rather similar to the use of ‘um’.

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