The Grammarphobia Blog

Do you mean what you say?

Q: Why does everyone say “I mean” when the words don’t have any purpose? The phrase seems to pop up every other sentence, much like the repetitive use of “you know.” Do you have an explanation?

A: You’re not the first person to ask us about the prevalence of “I mean,” “you know,” and other empty expressions that litter our speech. In fact, we wrote about them on the blog more than four years ago.

But so many people still complain to us about “I mean” and company (often called “fillers” or “verbal tics”) that it’s time for an update.

Let’s go first to the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes this parenthetical use of “I mean” in conversation (or writing imitating conversation) as “a filler, with little or no explanatory force.”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from Children of the Ghetto, an 1892 novel by the British humorist Israel Zangwill: “Gawd! I mean, can I see him?”

Here are some other OED citations:

1938, from Ngaio Marsh’s mystery Artists in Crime: “I mean, it was only once ages ago, after a party, and I mean I think men and women ought to be free to follow their sex-impulses anyway.”

1951, from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “I knew her like a book. I really did. I mean, besides checkers, she was quite fond of all athletic sports.”

1972, from an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Well I mean a lot of these things that are happening, well they just don’t quite ring true.”

As for the parenthetical use of “you know,” which the OED describes as “now freq. as a mere conversational filler,” the usage has been around since the mid-1300s in one form or another. And it’s known in other languages as well.

Here’s an example from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1798): “Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine.”

The usage has been bugging people since at least the late 19th century, as we can see in this ironic observation from Mark Twain’s Tramps Abroad (1880):

“Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of ‘Also’s’ or ‘You-knows.’ ”

To be fair, we’re guilty of this sin too.

Pat has struggled not to say “you know” on the air since 1996, when her first book, Woe Is I, came out and she started making radio appearances.

Her advice: Concentrate hard on NOT saying it.

Why do we use these unnecessary words and phrases. Perhaps it’s to give us time to come up with necessary words and phrases.

Check out our books about the English language