Queen Elizabeth and George W. Bush
Photo: Anwar Hussein/WireImage.com
Fascinated by the widespread obsession with President Bush's verbal blunders, journalist Michael Erard set out to uncover the roots of our stutters, pauses, and grammatical gaffes. The result is Um... (Pantheon), an absorbing survey of the (mis)spoken word, from ancient Egyptian cases of speechlessness to television bloopers ("Relieve an upsex stomach," Johnny Carson once said, "with Sex Lax...Ex-Lax!"). A few talking points:

1. To err is humid: Each day the average English speaker makes seven to 22 slips of the tongue (think "cuff of coffee" or "I caked a bake") and has some two to four moments when the right word eludes her.

2. Mind over mouth: If you're worried about spinach in your teeth, you're more likely to stumble over your words. The fewer thoughts distracting you, the less your speech will suffer.

3. We are the word: Yogis may recognize "om" as the primordial sound of the universe, but "um" might be more accurate. One Yale doctor found that "um" and "uh" accounted for 40 percent of the speech disturbances in his patients.

4. Chattering classes: Disfluent people fall into two main groups. "Um"-ers and "uh"-ers are worriers and planners—they like to know where a sentence is going before it starts. So-called sentence-changers are a little too confident: They speak faster than they think and often end up starting over.

5. Appreciate the gesture: Talking with your hands in your pockets makes you prone to all types of verbal mishaps. Apparently, gesticulating aids smooth speech.


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