August 20, 2013

Like I said...

That's a phrase used by Obama spokesperson Josh Earnest, fending off a question about U.S. involvement in the David Miranda incident, a phrase I quoted and then repeated in a post earlier today, titled "Juxtaposition highlights the politics of distraction." The commenter Bob Ellison — who seems to have missed that I was repeating Earnest's spoken words — criticized my writing:
[D]on't ever say "like I said" (or "as I said"), or "as I have written before", or "I have commented on this numerous times, but...". If you made an impression the first time, you'll only diminish the impression when you keep hammering on it. And most of us haven't read everything you've written.

Lots of online writers make these mistakes.
Ahem! I responded:
The phrase "Like I said" wasn't written, so you need to adapt your advice for speakers.

To me — and this is the reason I repeated it — Earnest had a tell. He was answering a NEW question, so beginning the answer with "Like I said" was a way to say: You're just asking the same question, so I'm going to give you the same answer. It wasn't the same question, and even his first answer was evasive. "Like I said" was, to my ear, a red flag that he had talking points, he intended to deliver them, and the questions would not be taken seriously.
Commenter Ellison repositioned:
"You need to adapt your advice for speakers."

Good point, and it picks at another sore spot: why do people speak differently than they write? I do... I curse more orally than on the keyboard, and I say "um" and "well" a lot more, but these are just faults. I don't deliberately talk differently, I think, unless I'm talking to someone I really dislike.

I say "it is I" and "had it been she." Those get weird looks.

Shouldn't writing be as smooth as speaking, mostly? Not everyone can do it. I can't.
I think he meant to say Shouldn't speaking be as smooth as writing?, but, in any case, consider this passage from Janet Malcolm's great book "The Journalist and the Murderer":
When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign tongue. What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech — that Molière’s M. Jourdain was mistaken: we do not, after all, speak in prose — is something like what the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies revealed about animal locomotion. Muybridge’s fast camera caught and froze positions never before seen, and demonstrated that artists throughout art history had been “wrong” in their renderings of horses (among other animals) in motion. Contemporary artists, at first upset by Muybridge’s discoveries, soon regained their equanimity, and continued to render what the eye, rather than the camera, sees. Similarly, novelists of our tape-recorder era have continued to write dialogue in English rather than in tape-recorderese, and most journalists who work with a tape recorder use the transcript of an extended interview merely as an aid to memory—as a sort of second chance at note-taking—rather than as a text for quotation. The transcript is not a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak. The tape recorder has opened up a sort of underwater world of linguistic phenomena whose Cousteaus are as yet unknown to the general public.
Now, I think some people do speak in unbroken, well-structured sentences that are free of grammatical errors that could be transcribed directly into excellent writing, but I don't think those stuck listening to them are very happy with it. We need the backtracking and disfluencies to feel comfortable.

Similarly, most good writers "hear" their words and think about them as if they were speech — it feels speech-like as you go along — but it's actually different from speech.

I'd tend to be suspicious of anyone who seemed to be trying too hard to speak like writing or to write like speaking. I'd wonder what's up? What's the motivation? A speaker who strains to sound like writing might have an inferiority complex or a pompous, arrogant nature. A writer who affects an overly speech-like style may be padding or talking down to us.

22 comments:

Will Cate said...

Here in the south, the oft-repeated expression is "Like I say" -- which actually sounds more like "lackuh say" -- which means, essentially, "as I have been known to say in the past, at one time or another."

Brent said...

I have known numerous pastors - some of whom are nationally recognized speakers (featured in the New York Times, Piers Morgan, et al.) - who speak just as they write - very fluently. I believe it is because their thought process has been trained to communicate efficiently and effectively in pretty much every circumstance.

One pastor I have personally known for almost 40 years. He is often called at the last minute for interviews or to give his opinion on current events for radio or cable news shows. I have watched over the years as has fine-tuned his ability to speak in complete sentences with clear, often memorable points.

But then again, I think pastors - at least regularly speaking pastors, may be the exception to the rule.

Revenant said...

"Like I said" always carries with it a subtext of "if you'd been paying attention, you would already know this".

One of the many nice things about online writing is that if you've already said something, you can just link to it.

R. Chatt said...

Here's a video of a great writer and speaker, Ayn Rand,
a rare intellectual display. William F. Buckley was interesting to listen to as well to read.
I bet Mark Twain was fantastic as a speaker as well as Oscar Wilde.

Ron said...

People also forget how much speech varies from writing by changes in vocal inflection. To some extent, speech is a form of musical performance which we perceive differently than the written word.

Wasn't the Iliad originally sung by a group in order to aid its memorization? But even that got too complex and it then had to be written down...

Ann Althouse said...

"Here's a video of a great writer and speaker, Ayn Rand,
a rare intellectual display."

In that video, she comes across as freaky and inhuman. She belongs in writing (and yet I don't think her writing, as writing, is very good). As a speaker, she's incredibly off-putting. What's with her shifty eyes and her blunt, curt statements.

Come on!

You think that's effective speech?!!!!

Titus said...

Of course Miranda is hugely hot.

Bob Ellison said...

You are mistaken.

Ann Althouse said...

"You are mistaken."

About what?

Ann Althouse said...

Do you know what the word "mistake" means?

You used it above in "Lots of online writers make these mistakes."

I really don't purport to know what you are saying, but you raise questions that make me want to provide insight.

You seem to want to become better at expressing yourself. Maybe I'm mistaken in attempting to help.

Bob Ellison said...

I do not always express my thoughts well. This is a problem we all face.

The discussion is interesting. Do you know what the word "mistake" means?

Ann Althouse said...

You didn't answer my question.

David said...

"What's with her shifty eyes and her blunt, curt statements."

Exceedingly uncomfortable with the medium, the format, the lights, all the people in the shadows and impatient with having to do the whole damn thing over. (That was Take 2. Imagine what a disaster Take 1 was.)

Plus empathy does not seem to have been her strong suit under any circumstance.

I tried to read her books as a teenager. Impossible. Fifty years later I have the same reaction.

tim maguire said...

In no particular order:

"As I said before" can be a jerky "you asked that already," but, as mentioned above, can be a much kinder, "I did not just think of this now" and/or "I know I said this already, but I want to say it again anyway."

I'm an editor by trade and a writer by hobby. I often settle grammar questions with the observation that the rules for speaking are different, and more relaxed, than the rules for writing. A written statement is constructed, then sent out into the world. There is an opportunity to proofread and a thoughtful person is expected to take advantage of that opportunity. But when you speak, you are still thinking, still forming your statement as you make it. The mouth stumbles, a word change or a detail change might require a different tense or sentence construction but the statement would be hard to follow if we were constantly going back to rewrite as we spoke. So we don't.

Blog comments fall somewhere in between as they are written, but the immediacy and low stakes don't usually encourage or require careful rewrites. Criticizing an argument in a blog's comment section by pointing out a spelling error is (usually) despicable.

You can get some clue of the reporter's opinion of the person they are quoting from whether or not they clean up the quote. If it reads smooth, they at least have respect for the person. If it's full of umm's and uhhh's and it meanders, then the reporter is mocking the person.

Uncle Pavian said...

"Don't ever say..."
If the usage is that disturbing, maybe this person should get his and/or her own blog. It's not about grammar. It's about who gets to decide what is allowed to be said.

Richard Dolan said...

Strange that on this blog by a lawprof no one has focused on the transcription of speech in the courtroom, where the focus is on a verbatim record. (You can see an excellent example in the transcripts posted on the SCOTUS website shortl after each oral argument.) The objective in that setting is both clarity and persuasiveness; in appellate arguments, an additional desideratum is conciseness, since your allotted time is so short.

Speech isn't just spoken prose because it has so many additional ways to achieve the speaker's objectives. Prose is a two-dimensional medium; all it has to work with are words. As every trial lawyer knows, a gesture, a tone of voice, an expression can be far more effective than mere words. When you transcribe it, all of those dimensions -- they often work because of the lacunae that they introduce into the stream of spoken words, breaking it up, adding emphases and inviting responses that never appear on a trascript. It's also why acting is more than an exercise in reading the script -- the skill is in all that that actor adds to the words on the page, bringing them to life -- aphrase is both telling and accurate.

veni vidi vici said...

Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress when he was head of the Federal Reserve was always exemplary speech. He was so deliberate and well thought-out, and spoke in a structured manner as one reading text aloud, even when not reading prepared remarks. Perhaps the motivation was partly to lull the dum-dum congressional/senate inquisitors to a stupor but I'm guessing he's one of the rare folks who actually *is* as intelligent as he sounds, and can't disguise it.

From Inwood said...



Random thoughts. You know as if I were speaking.

Criticizing an argument in a blog's comment section by pointing out a spelling error is (usually) despicable.

Well, yes, except if the writer was engaged in pointing out what he/she sees as your intellectual deficiencies.

In informal writing, the Principle of Proportionality should apply. People are not going to be as careful as they would in formal writing. And ordinary readers are not going to read e-mails or even blogs with a mental “blue pencil”. But obviously an informal note with a ton of misspellings & illiteracies, having no punctuation, all in either upper or lower case, is off putting. So, Gower’s grammar rule would apply to spelling & type face as well as grammar/syntax even in an informal e-mail: avoid “lapses from what for the time being is regarded as correct [which] irritate the educated reader and distract his attention, and so make him the less likely to be affected precisely as you wish”.

R Dolan:

As every trial lawyer knows, a gesture, a tone of voice, an expression can be far more effective than mere words. When you transcribe it, all of those dimensions -- they often work because of the lacunae that they introduce into the stream of spoken words, breaking it up, adding emphases and inviting responses that never appear on a trascript. Note spelling error — OK I’m “despicable” according to Tim M.

But I note said misspelling not to snark but because it confirms your larger point. Immediately after Bush’s inauguration, my wife’s former editor started sending us “The Bushism of The Day” something from a person who obviously didn’t accept the results of Election 2000. Now W was often Mr. Malaprop — as is The Anointed One at present, mixing up “affected/effected” the other day, tho his defenders would say, a la Hil, “what difference does it make?”— but when I watched Bush talk it didn’t seem problematic & I pointed that out to said editor. She gave me the “one in his position should strive for perfection” answer. I asked her why she had never been swayed by Bill Buckley, but she ignored me. In my senior year in college, the occupant of the “thought” column in the school paper used to do this with Ike, making him sound like an uncouth rube. I asked him if he thought that Ike had ever said “OK, we invade Burgundy.” He wouldn’t answer either.

As V. D. Hanson notes

[T]hose on the left are moralists, smarter people who pass up their own personal agendas to help the community. They think of society, not self, and so when they err, they do it under stress, in accidental fashion, and with no lasting significance — not like their selfish Neanderthal cousin conservatives, for whom transgression is a valuable window into their flawed souls. Bushisms became a media pastime, but no one suggests that a president who says Cinco de Quatro, or 57 states, or references the “Austrian” language is a Dan Quayle wrestling with potato.

BTW, as you know, stenos in depositions often later type witnesses’ ramblings such as “I don’t know nuttin’” as “I don’t know anything” & no one complains. And athletes are given a pass when they use the “MF” phrase.

Ann Althouse said...

"Strange that on this blog by a lawprof no one has focused on the transcription of speech in the courtroom..."

Why is that strange? You think because I'm a law professor, I should drag in material related to law wherever that could be a digression?

Obviously, there's lots of transcribed speech around, not just in material from trials and hearings, but also in all sorts of TV and radio shows that are transcribed.

So, we are getting more used to exact transcriptions, including every boring backtracking, often miswritten and then laughed about, like "Is our children learning?" (For: "Is... Are children learning?")

Beldar said...

Courtroom advocates do indeed need, and much benefit from, an ability to speak in complete sentences that are clear both when first heard aloud and then when transcribed and read silently.

Nothing I was taught at Texas Law School from 1977-1980 was specifically aimed at polishing or even explaining that particular skill, although some of the extracurricular activities -- mock trial and moot court in particular -- emphasized public speaking more generally.

I first became generally aware of the importance of the skill when I had the opportunity to start reading significant amounts of trial, hearing, and (especially) deposition testimony as a summer clerk after my first year in law school. I was reading transcriptions of speakers who'd developed a keen and instinctive ability to mentally preview what the transcript would look like even while they were speaking.

I learned a whole lot more from reading transcriptions of my own questions or arguments to the bench. I became a ruthless critic of my own vocal clarity-as-transcribed. I'd use a red pen on extra copies of my transcripts to notate and, hopefully, better remember my opaque blunders, my "bizarre syntax, [my] hesitations, [my] circumlocutions, [my] repetitions, [my] contradictions," and to reduce to a minimum "the lacunae in almost every non-sentence," or sentence, that I'd spoken.

This is something akin to what was known as "speaking for dictation," back in the days of steno pads or Dictaphones — all of which are extinct in the modern practice of law. But when it comes to speaking for the record, I don't think there is an app for that yet.

Courtroom lawyers also have to develop a sense for how to use words to illustrate what is happening as one is speaking. Some of this is completely ad hoc. But there are useful ritualized formulations -- for example, "I hand you now what the court reporter has marked for identification as Plaintiff's Exhibit 153; do you recognize this document?"

And indeed, advocates who routinely question witnesses "on the record" can use that running sense of how who's said will be transcribed to help them tactically. For example, my reflexive impulse, whenever a witness says "Uh-huh," is to immediately say "You're saying 'yes,' is that correct?" That's the first-level training I learned in the first two or three years of my practice. But after that, I started getting smarter about it: If a witness says "Uh-huh" but that's not the answer I was expecting, and it's a question to which I'd rather that the transcription on appeal not have a clear affirmative answer, I just let the mumbling go unchallenged. The court reporter might transcribe it as "[inaudible response]" or as "mmm-mmm" or something else that's blurry and vague. And sometimes, when blurry and vague is best for my side, I'm happy with blurry and vague.

My reaction to this post was much like Mr. Dolan's above (8/21/13, 9:27 AM). Nothing from the quoted excerpt from Ms. Malcolm's book should surprise any lawyer who regularly questions witnesses or otherwise speaks "on the record" for transcription. But that's only a subset of practicing lawyers, and my colleagues who do tax advice or estate planning or public offerings have no particular need to hone this particular skill.

Beldar said...

(More from me on this general subject.)

From Inwood said...

Prof A

My wife's former editor thought that she'd found the Bushism of the century when that "Is our" was reported, as if Bush would ever have made a gramatical error of that nature.

I think that that was the time when I stopped trying to reason with her on her crap.

Jimmy Breslin. Remember him?

Breslin’s finest un-moment was “reporting” on, with much of his usual low-rent disdain, remarks of Jeffrey Hart, a real Irish-American Intellectual, alas considered “uncertified” by Those Who Count & declare such certification. Seems Hart, even though he was an Ivy Professor, was, you know, Conservative.

Anyway, when Hart referred to “Jacobins”, illiterate, ill-educated, lazy Breslin guessed he had said “jackal bins” & laughed at Hart in print about such a nonsensical phrase. When this was published, the unsurprising response of Intellectualoids who normally drooled over Breslin was: “Nevermind”. Breslin is now rightly in History’s dustbin. Or in Breslinese (wanna-be Runyonese), Breslin lasted “about as long as the form chart for these things indicated that [he] would”.