United States Senator Robert C. Byrd (D. W. Va.)


The below is a speech delivered to Congress on July 10, 1998 by Senator Byrd.


t is hard to imagine that our Founding Fathers would have undercut their speech with any of the all too common fillers that plague conversation today -- those "ums" and "uhs" a
nd "likes" and especially that inanity of inanities: "you know." How silly it is, how useless, what pure deadwood.

      If I were teaching a class, that would be one of the things I would come down very hard on. Most people have no idea that their speech is packed with "you know"s. And these are sometimes strung together in staccato multiples: "you know, you know, you know?" It is simply filler -- meaningless sound to fill dead air while the speaker's unprepared brain hunts down the sentence's conclusion.

      Perhaps it is because Americans are such creatures of the television age, used to actors, news broadcasters, even politicians, reading seamlessly from scripts, cue cards, and TelePrompTers. We have become used to true public speaking and debate in which informed individuals prepared their minds, listened to each other, and retorted and rebutted extemporaneously.

      It is possible to expunge "you know" from public discourse. I have seen it done by conscientious individuals, but it is no easy task. Like poison ivy, "you know"s are pernicious and persistent. It takes strong medicine to kill that lush growth, and diligent weeding to keep opportunistic tendrils from creeping back into common use.

      Various members of my staff, when and if they hear another staff person saying, "you know," point their finger immediately at that person. And in that way they help to break the habit. I think many people will be unpleasantly surprised at the results of such a test. Enlist your friends to alert you when an unconscious "you know" pops out. And then work at it, work at it, work at it.

      Alcibiades, the Athenian general and politician, was noted for his practice of simply pausing silently when the chosen word momentarily escaped his mind's ability to marshal and bring it safely to his lips. Then, when he could continue, he simply resumed speaking. And he was the finest orator of his time. Clearly, a moment of silence is preferable to "you know." Think of it: "Four score and, like, seven years ago, you know, our forefathers, uh, brought forth, you know, upon this continent, you know, a new nation, you know, conceived in, uh, liberty, and, you know, you know, dedicated to the proposition that, uh, uh, like, all men are created, like, equal." With that kind of delivery, President Abraham Lincoln could not have stoked the nation's determination to see the Civil War through to its conclusion. Or let's imagine Martin Luther King Jr.: "I, uh, have a dream, you know."

      Ridding your speech of such verbal trash may not make an individual a leader of nations or of men -- that requires great thoughts as well as a clear and stirring delivery -- but leaving them in can surely blight the path to greatness, you know.

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