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Like, You Know, Whatever:

A reader writes:

A question for you (and perhaps other profs) arises from what used to be my extensive daily contact with undergraduates. As you know, a high percentage of them these days have their speech laced -- and in some cases saturated -- with "like" and other fillers.

Listening to them, I sometimes get an image of one of them getting through law school, and the first time he presents an oral argument in an appellate court, an annoyed senior judge interrupts to ask him a question such as, "Is your assertion that the sentence was *actually* cruel and unusual, or just that it was, as you said, "*like* cruel and unusual"?" Or perhaps a judge reacts to every "y'know" or "know what I'm sayin'" with "No, I don't know--that's why you're here to explain it." (The fact that I, as a judge, would do such things, and derive sadistic pleasure from it, is one of roughly 12 million reasons that I will never be appointed to the bench.)

You must have students who have really terrible speech habits. What, if anything, do you do about it, as one who demonstrably cares about language? Do law students learn fairly quickly and easily to suppress their verbal tics?

If so, is this because the professors point out the mannerisms, because other students do, or do they just automatically become more aware of it because of the (presumably) increased amount of public speaking and classroom contribution they're required to do? Are there professors who are notorious for needling students about such things, good-naturedly or otherwise? If so, is the needling effective, or just embarrassing?

A very interesting question; I wanted to pass along some of my own thoughts, and ask you to comment on it further.

(1) I've known a few twentysomethings -- including one who was very smart and accomplished -- who have used "like" and "you know" so often that it's jarring to me. But I don't recall any of my students doing it in class. Occasional "like"'s and "you know"'s are not uncommon, just as "um"'s and "er"'s are for others; but they're not to the level of lacing or saturating.

(2) If a student did this, I wouldn't point it out in front of the whole class. I'm not hesitant to gently correct student errors; that's part of the educational process, both for the student and for classmates. If, for instance, a student who's asked how he'd argue that speech is constitutionally unprotected says, "I'd argue that this case is like a fighting words case," and it turns out that the case is a fighting words case, I'll point out that there's no need to suggest a similarity when one can suggest identity -- lawyers who are crafting arguments should learn to craft them as precisely and forcefully as possible.

But if the student had said, "I'd, like, argue that, you know, this case is, like, a fighting words case," I wouldn't correct him the same way. Such habitual use of "like" and "you know" strikes me as more a form of speech impediment than an error -- sufficiently hard to control that an in-class admonition would likely be especially embarrassing to the student (since it's a comment on a bad habit rather than just a specific error), and not terribly productive (since the habit is hard to control).

Nor do I share some people's view that such speech tics are indicative of sloppy thinking, or otherwise a sign of poor character or intellect. I'd treat such tics as similar to someone's having a mild stutter, or a Brooklyn accent (especially if in one's circle such an accent is seen as somewhat embarrassing rather than funny) -- not something to publicly berate.

(3) Nonetheless, the tics are distracting and annoying; and even if they aren't an indication of intellectual weakness, some people will likely see them that way, even if unfairly. Moreover, I suspect that it's possible to try to do something about them (more on this in a moment), and that some people are unaware how frequent their tics are and how annoying they can be. Since I think it's part of the law professor's job to give students professional advice, I might therefore gently mention this to the student outside class, especially if I've gotten to know the student.

(4) As I've suggested, one question that drives the others is whether in fact such tics are controllable. I'd think they'd be very hard to control, precisely because they're unconscious. On the other hand, I do know (though not very well) one person who had such a tic into his twenties, was gently admonished, and some time later no longer had the tic; so unless I'm misunderstanding or misremembering the situation, I think there is something to be done. And, as a practical matter, it's something that's much worth doing, for the reasons I mentioned in item 3. Can anyone speak to that, either pointing to ways in which can people ditch the tics, or to evidence that that's impossible or at least very hard?

Steve:
I think this is a bit overblown. This is how people talked when I was younger too; it's not a "new" phenomenon. Sometimes in casual conversation I may lapse into talking that way myself. But I still don't see lawyers my age lapsing into these speech patterns in court. I infer that people have already found a way of dealing with the issue.
6.15.2006 1:43pm
Federal Dog:
There was a student in my contracts section who made those little finger quotes a lot while speaking. The professor assured him that if he did that again, he would break his fingers.

I do not think I saw the guy do it again.
6.15.2006 1:55pm
College Student (mail):
When I was in high school, I spoke with 'like' about once every few sentences. While debating in a government class, my opponent used this tendency to score cheap points. I was rather em rather embarrassed, lost the debate, and have not used 'like' since.

However, I still find myself using it to describe past speach; i.e. "And then I was like 'Look out!'" and do find it hard to not do so.
6.15.2006 1:57pm
Dude in the Veal Calf Office (mail) (www):
The writer's complaint reminds me of adults making fun of the way young people dress. Its a complaint as old as Thucydides and persistent in Roman and Midieval literature. The writer's complaint at speech is more a complaint about the way younger people speak. Would the writer take sadistic pleasure in hammering a 45 year old who used tiresome subjunctive or passive tenses? One who redundantly qualified simple words ("includng without limitation" "as defined herein below", etc.)?

Poor oral expression is not unique to the young among us, they just do it differently. Like bad fashion.
6.15.2006 2:05pm
Zubon (www):
You can learn not to use a particular verbal tic fairly quickly, although it is frequently just changing the form. In Japanese class, everyone very quickly learned to use the Japanese equivalents of "like" and "umm," since we would lose points on the verbal tests for the English tics. Similarly, if you show someone a video of himself speaking, he will note the "y'know" tendency, and most people can stop that after a few speeches. They may need occasional reminders.

You use the tic as a little filler while you are deciding which real words come next. The problem of eliminating the filler is that you may still need that time and...end up...sounding...like...Shatner. I once had...a professor who...frequently...would pause in his...sentences as he decided just...the right word or maybe what...concept he wanted to explain next. That can look less silly in the transcript, but it is about as annoying as "like."

Think of how many you still use in written text. "Actually" "the fact is that" "of course" "we all know that" we have bits that could be edited out of every paragraph with no loss of meaning.
6.15.2006 2:07pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
I don't know - I always thought it was a "kid thing" - the way teenagers (some of them, anyhow) talked, and one would think that most people would grow out of it, just like they grow out of raggedy baggy pants, long hair and pierced nostrils and eyebrows.(As a 50's teen, I didn't go in for this stuff and currently find it not only inexplicable, but often offensive)

Most kids grow out of this stuff, most of the few that don't seem to be involved in some counter-culture/protest mode. I would say that it's more habit than tic, and can and hopefully will be dropped when the student gets into - or out the other side of - college.

As for your sadistic reader, I'll support him for the bench any day - and come in to watch the fun. But as you say, you don't - or shouldn't - do that sort of thing in class. I figure a lawyer in a courtroom is a consenting adult and had better learn to take his lumps - or go into the sensitivity training business....
6.15.2006 2:07pm
Jason Fliegel (mail):
Oral communication is a skill like any other -- it must be practiced to be perfected. Most of us pepper our speech with filler words or non-words, be the youthful "like" or "you know," or the more timeless "um," "uh," and "er." The trick is to become aware of it and consciously work on eliminating them.

Part of it also comes with confidence in what you are saying -- once you realize "Hey, I actually can explain to somebody how this case should be analyzed under the fighting words doctrine," the hesitations in speech tend to drop out. It also comes with learning that it's perfectly OK to pause for a beat or two in the middle of a sentence to figure out what you're saying -- that you don't need to fill that pause with noise.

But overall, I've found the best way to deal with these tics is to record yourself talking and listen for it, then make a conscious effort not to do it.
6.15.2006 2:12pm
Splunge (mail):
I would not be surprised to see 'like' enter English, in time, as proper grammar. It seems to serve in some circumstances a very useful syntactical purpose, similar to but not exactly like quote marks.

I was going to the store and he was, like, why are you going to the store, man?

Here 'like' introduces a quote which is not exact (he may not have used those exact words) but which gets the gist correct and is more easily understandable because it is in the form of a direct quote. I think it would be difficult to say this exact thing with the same connotations in any shorter way using proper (as of 2006) English.

As soon as I got to the next level they were, like, jumping all over me and using magic attacks, so I had to switch characters to my fourth-level mage...

Here the 'like' serves notice that the narrator is about to go into "flashback" mode and narrate the past but in the present tense, as if it was happening now. Very compact, compared to a sentence or three saying "now I am about to tell the story as if it was happening right now," and less awkward than transposing everything into the past tense.
6.15.2006 2:20pm
dew:
I am neither a professor nor an instructor, so this may not be what you are looking for, but I was required to take a once a week "technical communications" class in an undergraduate program years ago. It was not a class with long writing projects, but rather a series of short writing and oral presentations -- e.g. pick an item, such as a pen, and describe its characteristics and proper use clearly and concisely.

For oral presentations, the instructor kept count of every "um", "y'know", gratuitous "like", and similar issues. He made a bit of a joke of it, to help lower the stress on people who already had stage fright, but everyone got the message that it was something important that should be avoided -- and everyone was able to overcome most of the problems. Stage fright did seem to make the problem worse.

It was only a requirement for that college, but not for the university, which in some ways was unfortunate, since many people obviously benefited.
6.15.2006 2:22pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
It's kind of funny that a reader would complain about undergraduate speech patterns to law professors. The practice of law, more than any other profession, glorifies obtuse, confusing and unnecessarily complicated prose and all too often uses language to obscure and obfuscate rather than illuminate.
6.15.2006 2:22pm
Le Messurier (mail):
I would say that the subject speech patterns are not tics in a psychological or physical sense, but rather are habits which can be broken or controlled if the individual is made aware of them. Certainly, one would rather not embarrass someone in front of others, so it is best if the discusssion is done in private. Having said that, there is something to be said for embarrassing the person in order to make a strong point if necessary. I, for one, do not think it wrong of a professor of any kind to try and improve the speech patterns of his students.

The real problem with the speech habit is that it can be so distracting that the listener never hears the point the person is trying to verbalize.
6.15.2006 2:28pm
The Original TS (mail):
You may get away with the occasional "like" and you "know," but do not ever refer to an appellate judge as "Dude."
6.15.2006 2:35pm
steveh2:
I would definitely point out the "likes" and "you knows" in class -- it's an important teaching moment. People can easily learn to avoid such interjections if they are aware of them, and when a student uses them in class, that's a perfect time to make an example.

I would do so in a polite, professional manner, but I think you are doing your students a disservice by not using such an instance as an example of improper speaking style in a formal setting.
6.15.2006 2:48pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I don't think it's a speech impediment; the difference is that people wouldn't stutter by choice, but they do use California language by choice.

Of course, California language isn't so appropriate in various situations (and maybe in general as you get older) and that creates a problem for people who want to speak formally sometimes but not others. I think that can be changed, but probably in most cases only by completely switching to a more formal style of speaking.

The thing is, though, that speaking formally isn't always appropriate. There are a lot of groups in which talking like a lawyer is just going to make you a misfit. It's like wearing a suit to the beach or singing Bob Dylan like an opera singer.
6.15.2006 2:54pm
Cat Morgan (mail) (www):
My linguistics professor docked me points on my first college presentation because I used the word "like" a number of times. I thought at the time I was using a regional (West Coast) dialect, though it was probably also generational. I also understood, though, that she wasn't the only person in the world who would find it annoying. I dropped it immediately after and have sounded less vacant ever since.
6.15.2006 2:59pm
jallgor (mail):
Wow, Freder and I are batting 1000 today. I disagree with everything he says. Clear and concise speech and prose are highly valued in the legal world. The "obtuse, confusing and unnecessarily complicated prose" that Freder complains of is often attributed to contract language. Even in those instances, however, the contract language has usually morphed into something complicated after hard lessons learned when previous attempts to keep something simple merely left it vague.
I find that most lawyers of all ages use verbal ticks less than the general population but probably no less than other professionals or successful executives. which takes me back to the "proper english" debate from a few weeks back. The people in power tend not to use "like" and "ya' know" (at least no often) and they do not say "let me axe you a question." I think most law students are smart enough to learn to follow suit if they want to succeed.
6.15.2006 3:03pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Thank you, Professor Volokh for suggesting one more decent and productive method for helping students. I will try to emulate you when I begin teaching again in the Fall.
6.15.2006 3:05pm
Houston Lawyer:
I cured my 8-year-old daughter of Valley Speak by repeating every like back to her as she spoke it. Since she was intent on telling her story, she composed herself and spoke properly. You could see the mental effort this required.

Bad speech habits should be attacked early and often. When I was in high school, we thought it was fun to use improper verb tenses. It later took some effort to stop doing this.

Legalese, properly done, is not meant to be confusing. It is meant to be exact. This greatly limits how you can state things. A properly written legal document will become more clear the more times it is read, rather than the opposite.
6.15.2006 3:10pm
CEB:
I wonder if anyone has done a sociological study of tics like this. I have noticed that, for example, white people of a certain age always say "you know," and their black peers always say "know what I'm saying," (pronounced "nome sane") Older people may not have this tic, but they have their own: beginning every sentence with "well."
6.15.2006 3:14pm
EricK:
People will change the way they speak depending on who they are talking too.
6.15.2006 3:14pm
Aaron:
Except Judge Reihhardt. That dude like, rocks!
6.15.2006 3:16pm
Aaron:
Except Judge Reinhardt. That dude like, rocks!
6.15.2006 3:16pm
thewagon:
I agree that legalese is not per se confusing. Any confusion on the part of laypersons, in my experience, stems from simply not knowing the meaning of particular terms of art, or not having thought through the full implications of whatever "simple" wording they would prefer.
6.15.2006 3:19pm
mageen (mail):
Ahem. Retired English teacher here. 1.) Young students (K-12)actually do know better and especially when entering my classroom, know that they had best "abandon hope" regarding such grammar. Quite frankly, as a teacher listening to all of this when traversing a school building or campus, one can easily conclude that this is the oral equivalent of monkeys flinging their feces in order to make a simian point. 2.) By the time law students have experienced undergraduate school, the LSAT, and other entrance requirements, those who are sincerely interested in a career in law will converse intelligently.
6.15.2006 3:27pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Cat: that's hilarious. A linguistics made that stupid, prescriptivist error?

Everyone: Please, please, please stop confusing "like" the verb of quotation (or "be like," as conjugated)

"And then I was like X, and he was like Y, and then they were like Z, ..."

with "like" the verbal tic.

One conjugates, one doesn't. One goes before the quotation, the other needn't.

One is part of speech, the other is an interjection into speech.

One definitely has meaning, the other almost certainly does not mean "sort of" or "roughly."

Also see "be all" and "be" as verbs of quotation.

Further discussion on that topic should be had on a linguistics blog, not in a blawg thread about verbal tics, which are not the same as nonstandard verbs of quotation.
6.15.2006 3:35pm
Seamus (mail):

Even in those instances, however, the contract language has usually morphed into something complicated after hard lessons learned when previous attempts to keep something simple merely left it vague.



As my legal writing professor told us, contract language has to be the way it is because it is aimed, not at people who want to understand it, but to people (i.e., folks who have buyer's remorse and are trying to wiggle out of a deal) who deliberately want to misunderstand it
6.15.2006 3:35pm
Brian Cook (mail) (www):
I used to have a problem with "um" and "uh" in common speech, but was completely unaware of it. When I was 14 or 15, I was sitting with my father watching the Sunday morning political shows. He had pointed out my "um" problem a few days earlier, and I'd pretty much blown him off. On this Sunday, however, he gave me a task--he told me to pay attention to the talking heads, and tell him how distracting it was for them to insert "um" "er" "uh" "like" etc. into their speech.

It blew me away. He then explained to me that in that case it is often indicative of someone trying to hold onto the floor of debate without interrupting--but that it still makes them sound ridiculous, and really weakens whatever argument they may be making.

So how did I fix it? Being informed of the problem was the first important step. I then went through the four stages of learning--which I think is the only way to combat this problem:

Unconscious incompetence--this is when you're screwing up without knowing it, or without admitting it to yourself. You're saying "um" every fourth word and have no idea.

Conscious incompetence--this is once you've acknowledged the problem. You are still making the mistake, but every time you do you want to slap yourself in the forehead.

Conscious competence--this is once you've begun to correct the mistake. You come close to letting an "um" slip often, and mess up every now and then, but you are actively working to correct the problem.

Unconscious competence--this is the end goal. You've corrected the error and no longer need to focus on it so much. The bad habit became good behavior through effort, and has now translated into good habit.

If students are made aware of this, I think the problem would improve.
6.15.2006 3:38pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I was abused as a child by parents who forced me to speak correctly, when we moved to California I adopted the Jeff Spicoli dialect that was in vogue, then had to abandon it years later in medical school. Some of the acts that got me dope slapped:
1: Asking "How Come?" instead of "Why?"
2: Asking where something or somebody was "At"
3: Saying "Huh??"
4: Saying "You Know" or "Like" more than once
6.15.2006 3:43pm
U.Va. 2L (no longer a 1L) (mail):
"How come" and "where's X at" were Spicoli dialect at one time? That's still how everyone talks back home in Ohio.
6.15.2006 4:07pm
Stephen Carter (mail):
May I weigh in as one who has taught in the law school classroom now for about a quarter of a century?

Verbal tics change over time. The "like" and "y'know" tics are distracting and should be discouraged. They serve a purpose, but not a positive one. The purpose is to hold the floor while thinking. I prefer that students (and, for that matter, politicians, lawyers, and others who hold forth) gather their thoughts before opening their mouths. When a person knows precisely what he wants to say, he is less likely to utter the tics, or the fricative "uh", or the more wordy "kind of thing" that was common in an earlier generation. In short, we should train our students to think before speaking.

Naturally, that means that professors should set an example in our own speech. But, like, y'know, not everybody's into that kind of thing?
6.15.2006 4:51pm
Jeek:
What I want to know is how to stop everyone on the internet from using "loose" when they mean "lose"...
6.15.2006 4:52pm
moon (mail) (www):
At least in the classroom setting, were a professor inclined to correct tics (or habits), the power-dynamic would run appropriately. As a law student, I found that a very able and accomplished professor in a small classroom setting (where each student spoke proportionally more frequently than s/he would have expected to in a larger class) made commenting a most miserable experience by nodding patronizingly and punctuating the student's every second clause with "mm-hmmm," in this sing-songy parody of a Kindergarten teacher encouraging a shy student. Although I have encountered similar tics in others, I've never found it so distracting. A fairly able, and fairly indefatigable speaker left to my own devices, I lost count of how many times her odd intrusions derailed my sentence or my entire thought.

I spent a great deal of energy considering whether to point out the difficulty her tic (or habit) caused me, perhaps by anonymous letter or email from an untraceable account. At the last, I erred on the side of silence, considering it somewhat impolite, if not outright risky, to bring something to her attention that surely had afflicted her throughout a substantial career in which she had in fact argued before SCOTUS. I did enjoy imagining the thought of her urging along a lengthy question from, say, Justice Stevens, with her staccato hmphs of assent, but I suspect she was more circumspect of speech when before that body. Would that she had been so conscious of how she sounded in the classroom. I and other students who shared my exasperation surely would have had more positive experiences.
6.15.2006 5:10pm
royal_coachman:
Here's something I've used once in a while in the classroom to remind students to remove some casual conversational mannerisms from their speech:

It works when I ask a question along the lines of, "Now, what would Smith's lawyer say/argue/point to, etc.," and the student responds with a "like" and "y'know" and "kinda" laced answer.

I say: "I asked a bad question. Because you're right, that's exactly what Smith would say. Now, what would Smith's lawyer say?"

It gets a laugh, particularly from the responding student, gives the student a chance to articulate something that is presumably now more thought out, and serves as a gentle reminder about how we're trying to converse. I've never had a student embarrassed by this. In fact, to a person, they enjoyed it, and enjoyed the second chance to answer.
6.15.2006 5:49pm
John R. Mayne (mail):
The key is to let people know they're doing it.

I had a high school speech teacher that would keep tallies of "you knows" or "like" or any other verbal holding words and show the students. In a prior class, she had a student with a foam bat whomp the offending student on each improper filler.

This is one way in which the verbal fillers are totally different than stuttering; whomping stutterers with foam bats results in more stuttering. ["Curing Stuttering: Foam Bats Don't Work" - Wood Bat Institute Quarterly, Fall 1988.]

As for me, one deposition transcript with 120 "OK"s in it got me to stop doing that. Well, I slowed down, anyway; I'm self-aware of the problem and normally avoid it, although occasionally I relapse briefly.

This particular problem is curable - I've cured it in myself and helped some others cure it. It just requires mental effort and a desire to do so. And if that doesn't work, a friend with a foam bat can help.

--JRM
6.15.2006 5:50pm
Jennifer (mail) (www):
So we all agree the "like" and "you know" can be really annoying. What does one do when one's very dear friend says "you know" constantly? I am set on edge every time I talk to this friend because it is a constant barrage of "you know." Is there a way to point this out politely without hurting feelings? Or is it all too embarassing for the person being corrected?
6.15.2006 5:51pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I cringe a little at this Valley Speak use of "like," but there's another area where I feel increasingly like an old fuddy-duddy—the failure to properly use "like" vs. "such as." I have recently done a bit of proofreading of books by a younger history professor. A recurring irritation to me while doing this was his use of "like" (which implies similarity, but not identity) where he clearly should have used "such as" (giving an example).

See here for a discussion of this issue:
Steve has recordings of many great saxophonists such as Ben Webster and Lee Konitz. Steve wants to be a great jazz saxophonist like Ben Webster and Lee Konitz.
In the first sentence, "such as" identifies two examples of "great saxophonists." In the second sentence, "like" indicates that Steve wants to be similar to these great saxophonists.
6.15.2006 5:53pm
amliebsch:
Older people may not have this tic, but they have their own: beginning every sentence with "well."

Based on my limited observations, it seems to also be a common verbal tic among computer geeks, engineers, and mathematicians to start way too many sentences with "so," e.g.: "So, Lumberg asked me to work on Saturday..." or "so, did you get that memo about the TPS report cover sheets?" Can anyone confirm this?
6.15.2006 6:08pm
g-rant:
I want to reiterate what Eh Nonymous said. There's lots of different uses for "like". Similarly, "you know" has different uses, as a filler, making sure the listener is stil engaged, etc. However, in stuffy, formal oratory most all of these uses are taboo. In most formal or nearly formal registers its use is similarly restricted.

There are two issues. First of all, some students simply don't have much experience in such formal situations and thus don't have command of more formal speech registers. This is compounded for those in speech communities where Standard American English is not the norm (e.g. many African Americans). Secondly, the American education system doesn't emphasize the teaching of formal oration, despite the fact it is expected in presentations and certain professions.
6.15.2006 7:17pm
ed:
When a person knows precisely what he wants to say, he is less likely to utter the tics, or the fricative "uh", or the more wordy "kind of thing" that was common in an earlier generation.

Everyone seems to assume something like this, but I'm not sure on what basis. Presumably extrapolation from our own perceived experience, but our perception of these kinds of things is notoriously unreliable (given that most of us don't even notice them most of the time, much less perceive their cause). Sure, I know that sometimes I feel like I'm using ummms and uhhhs to stall for time, but do I really know that explains all, or even most, them, when I don't even notice I'm using them in the first place?

The fact that we all use language doesn't make us all experts on it, any more than the fact that we all have hearts makes us cardiologists. Nobody would make the latter mistake, but everyone seems to make the former. I find this rather puzzling.

There's actually quite a bit of research on "disfluencies" by, um, actual linguists, which suggest that the situation is considerably more complex, and that these things in fact serve a communicative function.

By the way, "uh" is not a fricative.
6.15.2006 7:25pm
non_Lawyer:
Not sure about the "so" problem, but I have noticed our IT guys love to answer questions with "more than likely" inserted somewhere into the sentence, which I take as a subtle way to give them wiggle room regarding their answers.
6.15.2006 7:27pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Beginning a conversation with a phrase like, "So, [name], ...", serves to allow the listener to engage his attention before any substantive information is imparted by the speaker. This can reduce the need for repetition and increase understanding, and is much like a person speaking on a voice-activated microphone beginning every utterance with "Aaaahh" to ensure the microphone is active before using actual words.

It might indicate discourtesy or insecurity, as it implies that you don't trust the target of your speech to be listening carefully, but that says nothing about its utility.
6.15.2006 7:59pm
BobVDV (mail):

As for me, one deposition transcript with 120 "OK"s in it got me to stop doing that. Well, I slowed down, anyway; I'm self-aware of the problem and normally avoid it, although occasionally I relapse briefly.


In my case, it was a transcript in which every one of my questions began with "And".

Speaking of transcripts, I vividly recall an oral argument where U.S. District Judge Richard ("Firm Gavel and Short Temper") Matsch asked me "Do you have anything ELSE, Counselor?" where his emphasis of "ELSE" meant that there was little else that could convince him. Unlike, for example "do you have ANYTHING else, Counselor", where ANYTHING implies a pleading tone looking for something, or anything, that could rescue my losing argument.

I had to smile, knowing how innocuous his "anything ELSE?" would appear on the transcript on appeal all in lower case, while recognizing how devastating it was in the courtroom.
6.15.2006 8:19pm
skyywise (mail):
One of my favorite examples of the use of "like" as excessive and imprecise is from the movie Traffic. There is a scene where the teen girls asks her beau, "Is this, like, freebasing herion?". The boy confidently replies, "Not like. Is."
6.15.2006 8:29pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I can never remember, is it "shitted" or "shat"?
6.15.2006 9:08pm
jimbino (mail):
No American nowadays can resist saying "in terms of" when he means "with regard to" or "in view of" or godknows what else. People should be forced to listen to themselves.
6.15.2006 10:31pm
sbw (mail) (www):
I'd think they'd be very hard to control, precisely because they're unconscious

Nope. Attack 'em early and often, before they become hard to control.

They happen because people do not learn in school that language -- grammar, logic, rhetoric (the first three of the seven liberal arts) -- is the vehicle for thought. After all, who cares to be a flabby thinker?

Please, find a copy of Richard Mitchell's Less than Words Can Say or read it on the web.
Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.
6.16.2006 9:54am
jallgor (mail):
Eh Nonymous: I think you are wrong about "like" as a verb of quotation (if I was reading your post correctly which I am not sure I was).
I think "like" as a precursor to a quote or paraphrase almost certainly does mean "sort of" or "roughly" or at least dervies from that. When someone says "I was all like xyz" sometimes they are paraphrasing an actual utterance but sometimes what comes after the "like" is an explanation of an emotion or what the person was thinking. Like implies that it didn't realy go dow that way but something similar happened. The similarity be pretty attenuated. I have had conversations where someone said something like this to me: "so this guy is all in my face and I was like, hey f-you buddy" and, depending on the speaker, I know the "like" in that sentence means they didn't actually say "f-you" they were just thinking it but sometimes I am not sure. Maybe they just gave the guy a look. I think the use of "like" as a verb of quotation really derives from the use of the word like as a word of comparison. As in my example, I think it can tend to create confusion about what actually occurred when telling a story and should be avoided if possible.

Does anyone else share my pet peeve about lawyers who use the phrase "to the extent that" when they really mean "if."
6.16.2006 12:31pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Remind them that "whatever" is NOT an appropriate response to a hostile question during oral argument. Especially in the US Supremes.
6.16.2006 12:42pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
A lot of those tics are filler, and, as suggested above, used to hold the floor. I grew up in a family of five boys, and even now in my 50s, I still see us using them very heavily in family gatherings, where one boy wants to keep control of the conversation before another hijacks it elsewhere.

It can be overcome though. One way is to join Toastmasters. When I belonged to a club in Phoenix, someone was assigned a small bell to ring a speaker inserted "um"s, and the like. I had them expand that when I spoke to include "like", "well", and other filler. It worked wonders. You very quickly became conscious of your use of filler.

My father, in his 80s, still gives me a hard time with filler words. For example, if I use "you know", his response is inevitably something like "no I don't know, or you wouldn't be telling me this". If his reaction to my speech is any indication, it has gotten worse in the five years since I moved away from Phoneix and that Toastmasters club.
6.16.2006 12:50pm
JGR (mail):
Allan Bloom - whose name became virtually synonymous with educational standards after he published 'The Closing of The American Mind' - was ironically notorious for his verbal tics in conversation, primarily a long strain of "ah"s - "If-ah-you read - ah -Plato's Republic -ah- you would -ah see -ah..."
This was a deep annoyance to many of his colleagues not because it was regarded as a speech impediment (I don't think it is in the medical sense) but because it was recognized as a psychological need to never be interrupted and always be the center of the conversation. Essentially, he was always composing his thoughts while he was speaking but couldn't be silent until then.
As commenters above have noted, there are several different phenomena that fall under this general discussion. Use of words like "like" to avoid being interrupted while still commanding attention is only one aspect of its usage.
6.16.2006 1:34pm
U.Va. 0L (mail):

Based on my limited observations, it seems to also be a common verbal tic among computer geeks, engineers, and mathematicians to start way too many sentences with "so," e.g.: "So, Lumberg asked me to work on Saturday..." or "so, did you get that memo about the TPS report cover sheets?" Can anyone confirm this?


Guilty as charged. Interesting observation. I'll have to keep an eye out to see if my colleagues also speak/write that way. It doesn't seem to serve much purpose. I wonder why I write/speak with "so" tossed in? I also tend to like writing in ways such as "Despite the fact that ____, ..." or "Nevertheless, ..." etc.
6.16.2006 3:54pm
Howard257 (mail):
How revealing the use of "he" in this context is, especially when the majority of law students today are female.

I guess the new rules of PC call for exclusive use of female pronouns in reference to positions of authority and expertise, and male pronouns exclusively only in a pejorative sense.
6.16.2006 6:36pm
Kev (mail) (www):
The thing is, though, that speaking formally isn't always appropriate. There are a lot of groups in which talking like a lawyer is just going to make you a misfit. It's like wearing a suit to the beach or singing Bob Dylan like an opera singer.


Amen to that! I had a girlfriend in college who tried to sing Earth, Wind &Fire like an opera singer. We all made fun of her for doing so...

I worked in radio in college, and "counting uh's" was a common teaching device. I trotted that one out a lot when the professor was asking for responses to someone's mini-lesson in front of the class. Some of the people who were caught doing this were a little annoyed, but they also improved the next time they did a presentation.
6.17.2006 7:15am
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
I can only imagine the monetary recovery against any Title II public entity, instrumentality (law firms/lawyers) or individual under the Americans With Disabilities Act who would perpetrate the following classical case of stereotypical discrimination/ retaliation directed toward people who might well have language/communication disabilities:

"I'd think they'd be very hard to control, precisely because they're unconscious

Nope. Attack 'em early and often, before they become hard to control.

They happen because people do not learn in school that language -- grammar, logic, rhetoric (the first three of the seven liberal arts) -- is the vehicle for thought. After all, who cares to be a flabby thinker?

Please, find a copy of Richard Mitchell's Less than Words Can Say or read it on the web.
Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought."
6.18.2006 6:07pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
P.S., a very good example of why the 50 States' State Bars must require mandatory CLEs or MCLEs in the federal anti-discrimination mandates of Title II of the Americans With DIsbailities Act.
6.18.2006 6:09pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
And another classic example of where Title II of the ADA might protect people with language/communications disabilities requiring removal of communication barriers (It really amazes me that the writer of the following comments does not realize stutters, autistics, and people with frontal lobe head injuries protected under Title II of the ADA covering educational institutions actually hold Juris Doctor degrees, law licenses, and that perhaps the "ums," "uhs," "likes," and imperfect grammer occur because of organic brain impairments that, while they may be perceived as "annoying," do not disqualify such disabled people from meeting the essential functions of their profession):

"Ahem. Retired English teacher here. 1.) Young students (K-12)actually do know better and especially when entering my classroom, know that they had best "abandon hope" regarding such grammar. Quite frankly, as a teacher listening to all of this when traversing a school building or campus, one can easily conclude that this is the oral equivalent of monkeys flinging their feces in order to make a simian point. 2.) By the time law students have experienced undergraduate school, the LSAT, and other entrance requirements, those who are sincerely interested in a career in law will converse intelligently."
6.18.2006 6:17pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
In the following classic case, not only would the suggestion given incur a Title II, ADA discrimination and Title V, ADA retaliation claim, but if in Florida, a Florida Statutes, Sec. 415.1111 abuse cause of action (a suggestion not materially different than Ovar Lovaas circa 1965 performing electroshock on the barefeet of autistics to force them to reader fasters, which NEVER worked due to the different brain structure of autistics from neurotypicals):

"There was a student in my contracts section who made those little finger quotes a lot while speaking. The professor assured him that if he did that again, he would break his fingers.

I do not think I saw the guy do it again."


"
6.18.2006 6:28pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
In the time I have been absent from commenting on this board to point out how disabled see things from a very different perspective than most *normal" non-disabled people, I can see a lot of insensitivity and lack of tolerance toward people with disabilities going on. People should be ashamed.

I do want to point out the anecdotal evidence on this thread that the above-intolerant attitudes are actually having a disparate exclusionary impact and treatment effect on the disabled as a class:

1. "I still don't see lawyers my age lapsing into these speech patterns in court."

"I find that most lawyers of all ages use verbal ticks less than the general population but probably no less than other professionals or successful executives. ... I think most law students are smart enough to learn to follow suit if they want to succeed."

My answer for the reason why -- because lawyers who are permitted to become licensed are still very homogoneous in terms of comprising 50 State Bars filled with non-disabled Bar members, and virtually NO language-communication disabled Bar members. However, the past effects of discirmination do not justify cause to maintain the status quo, but rather serve as cause for affirmative action until a critical core of the disabled are represented among the membership of the 50 States' Bars.

2. "Poor oral expression is not unique to the young among us, they just do it differently. Like bad fashion." My response -- the way this comment equates "poor pral ecpression" with the quality of "bad," demonstrates how disabled people with language-communication disabilities get caught up in "bad moral character" and "lack of fitness" Bar admission denials by reason of their disabilities in violation of Title II of the ADA. People who have communication barriers are not presumtively "bad." Nor it is appropriate terminology to refer to their communications as "poor," rather than "impaired." (An analogy, if needed to understand the concept, is we do not called African Americans by the "N__" word anymore. It is inappropriate).

3. "You use the tic as a little filler while you are deciding which real words come next. The problem of eliminating the filler is that you may still need that time and...end up...sounding...like...Shatner. I once had...a professor who...frequently...would pause in his...sentences as he decided just...the right word or maybe what...concept he wanted to explain next. That can look less silly in the transcript, but it is about as annoying as 'like.'" This comment comes closer to recognizing that people who have language-communication barriers in the form of tics may have much slower ability to process information that *normal* non-disabled people. Thus, the use of the 'filler-word' tics, a form of self-accommodation by the disabled person to gather thoughts. Bar examiners rountinely give extra-time accommodations for written formats, so what is the big deal if a disabled person requires extra-time to gather his or her thoughts when speaking orally? To remind everyone, congress already balanced such issues when the ADA was enacted, requiring *normal* non-disabled people to tolerate such "annoyances" as part of this Nation's federal anti-discrimination mandate. Men also tolerate the fact women can no longer be groped in exchange for job promotion. It is a part of daily life.

And Jason's comments are very insightful and helpful, except "It also comes with learning that it's perfectly OK to pause for a beat or two in the middle of a sentence to figure out what you're saying -- that you don't need to fill that pause with noise." This does not always work. When my husband, a lawyer, does not fill his pauses with stuttering tics in court, federal judges sometimes limit his cross-examinations to 2 1/2 minutes, thereby prejudicing his sid of the case.

4. "Most kids grow out of this stuff, most of the few that don't seem to be involved in some counter-culture/protest mode. I would say that it's more habit than tic, and can and hopefully will be dropped when the student gets into - or out the other side of - college.

As for your sadistic reader, I'll support him for the bench any day - and come in to watch the fun." My reponse is this is a blatant example of ignorance that with most language-communications disabilities, especially developmental disabilities, the disabilities are a lifelong conditon the disabled person does not "outgrow." It is also an example of a call to exclude such disabled people from equality of college educatioal opportunities, and bears a Roman Coliseum-esque type of sadistic hostility and intolerance toward the language-communication disabled not altogether different in kind that people in white robes and pointy hats who used to light crosses on fire in the yards of African American citizens.

5. "I would say that the subject speech patterns are not tics in a psychological or physical sense, but rather are habits which can be broken or controlled if the individual is made aware of them." This lay (non-medical expert) viewpoint is totally rejected by objective medical evidence of people with certain types of neurological disabilities, developmental disabilities, head innjuries, language-communication disabilities. AND "The real problem with the speech habit is that it can be so distracting that the listener never hears the point the person is trying to verbalize." THIS is why Congress passed the ADA and requires the provision of reasonable accommodations and certain auxiliary aids and services necessary for effective communication.

6.

The most improtant thing to remember about all the stereotypes, intolerance, and lack of understanding of (e.g., "not intelligent" attitudes toward) persons with language-comminication disabilities is that even an autistic or stutter with a J.D. or Bar license have the education, skill, and good judgment to remember the rules of substance that really count:

"You may get away with the occasional 'like' and you 'know,' but do not ever refer to an appellate judge as 'Dude.'"


EV, you are a good professor and were a definite credit as a Supreme Court clerk. You asked how some of us regard this subject of people with imperfect language and tics. I hope as a professor, you never fall into the trap of overlooking a truly talented law student who happens to have a language-communication disability (as distinguished from those who do have control over sloppy language), because to do so would be to elevate form over substance and deprive the future of very capable people who will be among the best legal thinkers.
6.18.2006 7:08pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
I'm Mary's husband, David F. Petrano, Esq., Florida Bar 624586. I truly appreciate the comments suggesting breaking fingers of persons with speech impediments will cure matters. As a severe stutterer, I assure you the ruler across the hand (Pittsford N.Y. Central School System 1963)approach did not work for me. Even recently, Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins, M.D. Florida appeared so upset over my suttering she limited me to only 2 1/2 minutes to conduct cross examination in an admiralty case. This approach is equally ineffective as hand beating.
6.18.2006 7:38pm
MichaelMT:
There are people without disability whose poor speech patterns are amenable to correction. I'm certain nobody means to imply that a student who demonstrates disability which can be reasonably accommodated should be denied such accommodation.

However, do the Petranos really mean to suggest that it is discriminatory for a teacher to ask a student to correct bad habits without first inquiring whether the student has a disability rather than a bad habit?
6.19.2006 11:11am
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
To MichaelMT, the Petranos answer the question in the affirmative. That is why Congress had to enact the ADA.
6.20.2006 12:36am
MichaelMT:
Would the Petranos in that case prefer that teachers receive a complete list of their students' disabilities before devising a curriculum, or that they preface any contemplated corrections with "do you have any disabilities I should know about"?
6.20.2006 10:09am