On Professor Speak

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4 Responses

  1. Lawrence Cunningham says:


    I agree, as I wrote about “so” on this blog this time last year, http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2009/09/so.html, months before the references in NYT and Prawblawg. It was inspired by Dave Hoffman’s kindred post about linguistic clutter, and provoked criticism over at the Faculty Lounge blog: http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/09/so-the-sequal.html. There’s apparently too much to say about this topic yet little evidence the litter is being cleaned up.


  2. Jessie Allen says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. While I’m not going to defend saying “so” in order to sound smart, I do think there’s a function for verbal place holders and the various equivalents of “uhm.” First of all it gives you time to think. Secondly it lets others know that is what you’re doing. Both of those things seem okay to me for a law professor in a classroom. To the extent they’re not okay in court it’s because as an advocate you’re supposed to be maintaining the fiction that there’s nothing to think about — you’re position is so clearly right that there’s no room or need for further rumination. You’ve got all the answers. It’s way different for teachers — or, for that matter, for most people in most situations. Maybe the strange speech is the lawyer’s ultra cleaned up, spare, no tics style. Incidentally, I will admit that as an appellate lawyer I occasionally deliberately through in an “uhm” or a “so” before responding to a judge’s question — sometimes to give the impression that I was thinking about an answer that I had memorized days before.

  3. Matt says:

    Two thoughts: First, people pick up the verbal tics and habits of those around them mostly subconsciously, so people need not be doing this to “sound smart”. They are often enough not “doing” it in an active sense at all.

    Secondly, as to qualifiers like “sort of” and others, they seem to me to have a clear place in academic speech that they would not have in an oral argument. The two activities are just quite different. An academic or scholar doesn’t, or shouldn’t, want to claim any more than she can strongly support. An advocate will often, with good reason, do more than this. If I saw an academic making an argument or a presentation in the same way that a lawyer in court did I’d find it very off-putting and probably inappropriate. In academic or scholarly work the qualified and careful is, I think, more often the right choice.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    In a classroom setting, saying “right?” actually can have a purpose: It can be a query that prompts students to either express understanding or continued confusion. It shouldn’t be overused, but it can have a purpose if used sporadically. (To be clear, I don’t use it myself, but I can see it can have a purpose.)