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?