Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Learning all the rules of the English language can be confusing enough, especially when every rule has so many exceptions. The problem can be further exacerbated by idiomatic phrases that don’t really make any logical sense. How on Earth does it rain cats and dogs? And how am I supposed to pull myself up by my boot straps? And why wouldn’t someone want to let the poor cat out of the bag?

I will admit that, for the longest time, I had this phrase entirely wrong too. This is largely because, like so many other terms, I only really ever heard it said and rarely, if ever, saw it written. This is the sane reason why most people don’t know how to spell segue correctly, instead spelling it Segway like the mode of transportation.

For the longest time, I thought that when someone would take way more time thinking, discussing or debating a decision rather than actually making up his or her mind, you would say that this person is “humming and hawing.” The rationale is that when you are thinking, you might say “hmm” or “hum.” It seems strange to write “hmm-ing,” and so “humming” seemed like it would make sense.

And it would be wrong.

The correct idiom to use in this context is hemming and hawing. I know. It doesn’t seem like it makes all that much logical sense, because I associate “hemming” with sewing or clothing alterations. Then again, as with the felines and canines falling out the sky, idioms don’t need to adhere to the laws of logic. In this case, “hem” still refers to the sound that people make when they’re thinking (“hum” or “hmm”), only spelled a little differently.

Now, while the most common way to use “hem and haw” (or its conjugated variants) is to describe when someone is contemplating something for a prolonged period of time, it is just as appopriate to use it to describe someone who is mumbling or stalling when giving a speech. This is the very common practice of using so-called “filler” words that have no meaning, like um, you know, and hmm.

Do you have a topic that you’d like to see discussed in a future Grammar 101 post? Stop hemming and hawing about it and leave a comment below! 🙂