October 17, 2004

Kerry's "sort of" and Bush's "you know."

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg (in the NYT) observes that John Kerry says "sort of" a lot:
Mr. Kerry's fondness for "sort of" may contribute to the perception that he's reluctant to commit himself or fearful of being held to his exact words. But it's also the mark of someone who's aware of how imperfect the fit is between words and things, and of how hard it is to do verbal justice to the corrugations of experience.
So even inarticulate verbal clutter counts for nuance now? I've known some prominent academics who've thrown "sort of" into almost every sentence. To me, "sort of" is exactly the same thing as "like." Take that educated person who is trying to impress you with the subtlety of their thinking, and translate, to yourself, every "sort of" into the teenager's "like," and you'll be even more irritated by his lazy verbal meanderings than you were before.

Nunberg notes that Bush's verbal filler is "you know." I thought Nunberg was going to say that each man's verbal tic represents his fundamental outlook on the world. Kerry has his nuanced vision, while Bush has his certainty. But Nunberg's observation about Bush's "you know" is that it either reaches out to the audience with an acknowledgement of shared knowledge or pushes the audience away by imposing on it the burden of figuring out what it is we all know.

I wish both candidates--and all public speakers--would break their dependence on verbal filler by developing the capacity to pause when they need to think a bit to get to the next useful phrase.

No comments: