Thoughtless ‘Yeah’: The Everyday Scourge Of Linguistic Pollution

It used to be phrases that drove me up the wall, i.e. “There’s two minutes of my life I won’t get back!”, all the way back to “That’s a cool shirt/He’s really cool/I love this song, etc.– NOT!”.

It seems to me these thoughtless affectations of speech are acquired, usually, from television and motion pictures, or from friends, co-workers, etc., who picked it up…from television and motion pictures.

Thankfully, the whole “NOT!” thing seems to have died out since Wayne and Garth first introduced it in the early Nineties. We’re still stuck with the Southern California Valley Girl “like”, however.

stopsayinglike1

In 2003, Adam Sandler’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love had a tendency to preface his sentences with the word “Yeah”, as in “Yeah, no, I can’t do that”.

Early in the story, his character has an extended chat with a phone-sex worker, who soon tries to scam, then extort, money from him. Although Sandler’s character repeatedly refuses to go along with her wishes, he prefaces each refusal with “Yeah”, as if he’s agreeing with her.

When I first saw the movie, back in 2004 or thereabouts, this particular verbal affectation, by the end of that phone-sex/scam scene, had me feeling seriously irritated.

Why does he keep doing that, I wondered, saying “yeah” when he’s about to say, yet again, the word “no”?

I thought it made his character look like a weasel who feared making a direct statement. I wanted to throw something at my TV screen in the hopes it could break that fourth wall and bop Sandler’s bipolar, socially inept doofus in the forehead and snap him out of that maddening conversational tic.

punchdrunk4text

 

No wonder the phone-sex worker was so pissed off at him, I thought. I’m pissed off at him and I’m not even in the movie, just watching it. Who the hell talks that way? What sort of cretin mindlessly sprinkles gratuitous “yeahs” at the start of every other sentence?

Now, flash-forward to 2017, where, for the past several years, I’ve encountered, and continue to encounter, a dishearteningly high number of everyday people who exhibit that very affectation.

“Yeah, I told so-and-so they could forget it”“Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen”“Yeahhhh, that guy’s a real jerk”, etc., etc. ad nauseum.

Drives me nuts…especially when I catch myself speaking the same damn way.

It’s truly mindless, a subliminal decision to fill the air with the sound of one’s own voice a moment or two before presenting the substance of one’s sentence.

Aside from the “Yeah” tic, another example of verbal detritus I do my best to avoid using in a sentence is the addition of the word “right” at the end of the sentence “I know”.

“I know, right?”

Who the hell started this junk? That’s what I’d really like to know.

If someone tells me something that I already knew, I only need respond with “I know”.

Adding the word “right” to the statement, with a question mark tacked on the end of it, no less, seems to be a way for a respondent to signal they’re ‘in the know’ on the subject at hand without sounding too curt or abrupt, lest the first person’s feelings be hurt for stating what was already apparent to the person they’re talking to. 

I believe most who use “I know, right?” probably don’t put that much thought into it when they blurt it out. They’ve likely heard a handful of friends or co-workers use the phrase over a period of weeks, or months, and just acquired it over time themselves. Same goes for the “yeah” preface.

Perhaps it’s from all the Screenwriting books I’ve gorged myself on since 1987 or so. The authors always cautioned aspiring writers, when crafting dialogue, to make every word count. Avoid verbal diarrhea, such as “uh”, “y’know”, “like”, etc., when you have a character speaking. Sure, “real people may talk like that”, but very few go to a movie to see ‘real’ people, much less hear them have ‘real’ conversations.

Why not? Because ‘real’ conversation is actually mundane, repetitive and dull to those outside the conversation. Why pay for a ticket to hear something you can get outside the theater for free? Try harder than just being ‘real’.

In college, a classmate once impressed themselves by writing, in their words, “real-life” dialogue in a play that was “like real life”, meaning it had no discernible plot.

It was torture to read this meandering, tension-free, drama-free excuse for a play. Imagine how tedious it would be, I told him, to sit through a show like this. A paying audience member would likely demand their money back.

Even after admitting that his plotless play’s dialogue was merely a series of feverishly-recorded transcriptions of random conversations he’d recently overheard in a coffee shop, my classmate refused to accept my criticism.

Two weeks later, after subjecting more of our classmates to his coffee shop transcriptions, he finally realized that his sorry, plotless play was garbage and junked it completely. To my knowledge, he’s never attempted to write another.

Leaving that anecdote behind, I return now to my original pet peeve.

I view the mindless preface “yeah” as the arrogant younger brother of the older preface “uhhhh”. They serve the same purpose, to fill the air with useless noise.

But where the utterer of “uhhh” comes across as someone who began making sound a moment or two before they knew what they would say, the “yeah” speaker of today often seems to do so, consciously or not, to convey a faintly smug authority onto the statement about to be spoken.

Personally, I find that it sounds smug, so I try to avoid using it myself when I speak. Every once in a while, though, I hear myself slip and start a sentence with a ‘yeah’ for no good reason. Then I have to remind myself, This is what happens when you’re in a hurry to speak and just blurt out some bullshit to fill the air. Like a little kid might do.

It’s embarrassing.

Perhaps I dislike the “yeah” preface because not only is it carelessly added to a statement which doesn’t really require it, but because, in the broader sense, it seems a verbalization of witless groupthink, or groupspeak, lacking in originality and substance. The irritating squeak of a bandwagon’s burdened wheels.

Me: “Somebody somewhere at some time or other told these people the linguistic pollution they chose to mimic was funny or clever. Now they’re running it into the ground. The fact that it’s incredibly irritating is bad enough, but it’s so fucking lazy. I say if you’re going to speak like a jagoff, the least you can do is come up with your own material.”

Groupspeaker: “I know, right?”

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