Toward Better Speech: Part 2

BY Miriam Silverberg TIMEDecember 22, 2014 PRINT

Uh, like, well, I wrote a column on bad speech, you know, and this is like a follow-up, you know?

Originally, teenage girls were guilty of the above, and these girls were called Valley Girls in honor of the San Fernando Valley where it seems to have started and their speech was dubbed “Valley Speak.”

Now, unfortunately, educated adults are speaking the same way. People use these “helper” words in every sentence. Like used to mean you had affection for someone and thought that person was nice. Now “like” is meaningless as in “like he said to me,” instead of “he said to me.”

Another annoying word that is horribly misused is “went.” Went used to be the past tense of go as in “he went away.” Now, instead of using the word “said,” we hear, “I asked him how he felt, you know, and he went, he wasn’t feeling well, you know?”

And why do people keep saying “you know?” I hear it at the end of every other sentence and in between many other words in a sentence. No, I don’t know but would like to find out if you would just complete the sentence and tell me.

Too often sentences are considered fragile little things like little old ladies who must be helped across the street with the aid of “well” and “uh.”

Well is a perfectly good word when it is used in answer to a question about your health (“I feel well”), or a synonym for good as in “all is well.” It is also fine to say, “Well, I must be going.” It is not fine or correct to say, “Well, we went to buy a card and well, I didn’t see anything I liked, but, well, he talked me into buying this, you know?”

“Uh” seems to be a nervous tic people use when they can’t channel their thoughts into complete sentences. Maybe we should think before speaking and then we might be able to complete a sentence without these helpers.

Good speech is very important. People judge us by the way we speak as well as how we look. One of the reasons Caroline Kennedy was not named to fill a Senate seat was because as soon as she opened her mouth, she sounded like a Valley Girl, and despite her formidable education, people laughed. She couldn’t string two sentences together without “you know.”

I think we should all make an attempt to improve our speech. It would certainly improve civil discourse and make us sound more intelligent.

Miriam Silverberg is a freelance journalist and owner of Miriam Silverberg Associates, a boutique publicity firm in Manhattan. She may be reached at

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