THE LINGUISTICS OF “UM” AND ‘UH”. I think of linguistics as dealing with words. The Johnson column in the Economist for December 16 dealt with the uses of “um” and “uh”, which to me are not words. It turns out that there is a difference between the usage of “uh” and the usage of “um”. Men tend to use “uh” and women tend to use “um”. Both are signals to the other person that the speaker is not done.

When there is a pause, without a signal like “uh” or “um”, the other speaker will generally begin talking in about 200 milliseconds—which Johnson usefully says is the time it takes a sprinter to respond to a starter’s gun. This means that the listener has to start planning what to say before the first speaker has stopped talking.

This description of a conversation doesn’t fit a lot of the conversations at our dinner table when I was growing up. There was not a lot of waiting for the other person to finish.

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