Common Errors in Spoken English: Word Repetition

Eliminating the Habit of Repetition

Okay…like…um…you know…ek setera”

by Owen Fourie

Recently, I listened to a speaker who had some excellent content, but he punctuated his message with many repetitive words and sounds.

Unfortunately, despite the good content, if a speaker interrupts the flow of his speech with repetitive expressions, the listener will be hearing those sounds more than the substance.

In ordinary conversation, this need not be a problem, except that some will be irritated by it.

When it comes to public speaking or a You Tube video presentation, avoid this habit if you want to be heard.

Why do some speakers do this?

Here are some reasons:

  • Nervousness. The speaker feels uncomfortable and somehow the repetitive word acts as a transition to fill in awkward gaps and to retain the audience’s attention. It often has the opposite effect;
  • Lack of preparation. The speaker is not well versed in the subject or has not practiced the speech;
  • A thinking mechanism. As they talk, some speakers are in a quick-thinking mode as they move from one point to the next. The repetitive “um” or “okay” serves as a connector from a particular thought to the words that are being formed to express that thought. For some, it is a “don’t interrupt my train of thought” alert to the audience “or else you’ll ruin this speech.”

Whatever the reason might be, it really is a habit that one should eliminate to be an effective speaker, whether in public or in conversation with friends.

How can you get rid of this habit?

Here are some tips:

  • Become conscious of the repetitive word, phrase, or sound, even if you need to record your speaking to detect it;
  • Ask a friend to point it out to you whenever you fall into the habit;
  • Once you are aware of the repetitive expression, consciously set about eliminating it;
  • Think before you speak; let your words take form in your mind and open your mouth only to say those words, not “um” or “you know” or “okay.” I remember a dear student of mine who “ummed” her way through many speeches. She became known as my “ummingbird”;
  • For public speaking, be well prepared and practice, practice, practice;
  • Breathe deeply during the delivery of your speech. Stand erectly with both feet firmly planted and comfortably apart, not rooted to the spot but able to move freely. If you are seated, sit firmly on the whole seat with proper support for your back. Don’t perch on the chair and don’t lounge on it. Whether standing or sitting, this will allow you
    • to relax;
    • to be attentive to what you are saying;
    • to think clearly;
    • to eliminate the false support of the repetitive expression.

“Like” and “et cetera”

I do not know how the word like came to be used repetitively in students’ speeches.

Somehow, it like crept in wherever there was like a pause in the speech, but it like really blows your mind when you like hear it, so if you like have this habit, you should like become conscious of it and like eliminate it.

If you succeed in doing this, you will like yourself for getting rid of this habit or any other repetitive expression in your speech.

Et cetera (abbreviated to “etc.”) is often mispronounced “ek setera.” Be aware of this. It is a Latin phrase meaning and the rest, and so on, and other things. The wrong pronunciation can be blamed on poor listening skills.

The correct pronunciation is “et set’-e-ra.” Note that the last two vowels are half-vowel sounds and in the preferred pronunciation, the first of these half-vowel sounds is omitted– “et set’ra.”


Are you troubled by repetitive expressions in your speaking? What are you doing to eliminate these expressions? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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