Umm, mmm, or hmm?

I recently read a book where the hero frequently answered questions with “umm.” This got really annoying for me, but not for the reason you might think. I wouldn’t have minded the repetition if it had been “mmm” instead.

I’m not knocking this book, by the way. It is actually on my keeper shelf. It is just that to me these little consonant rich quasi-words each have their own meaning.

For me, “mmm” is a noncommittal sound that could mean I agree with you but more likely means I’m going to let you think I agree with you even if I don’t. I think this is what the author was going for—trying to create an enigmatic hero that didn’t want to lie, but wasn’t ready to reveal the whole truth about himself.

But she chose to use “umm,” which to me indicates a hesitation due to uncertainty. Someone who has been put on the spot, feels unsure, or is nervous about speaking in public might pepper their speech with this sound, but I don’t think the author meant to make her hero seem nervous. Each time the hero made the “umm” noise it threw me out of the story.  But, maybe other people would only read it that way if she added an “h” as in “uhm.”

It would have been a little better if she’d chosen to use “hmm,” which often implies a question. That might have made me think the hero was hard of hearing, but maybe not. I don’t feel nearly as strong about “hmm”.

I hope this post on umm, mmm, and hmm has been of some use to you.

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