More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence

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As a public figure, you're in trouble when the media are less interested in what you have to say than in how you say it. This is now the sad situation of Caroline Kennedy, whose filled pauses seem to be getting more press than any other aspect of her bid for Hillary Clinton's senate seat.

A sample of the stories: "How Many Times Can Caroline Kennedy Say 'You Know' in Under a Minute?", Gawker, 12/27/2008; "Say goodnight, Caroline: How JFK's daughter flubbed the audition to become the next Senator Kennedy", NY Daily News, 12/28/2008; "Caroline Kennedy roasted over lacklustre press debut" AFP, 12/30/2008; "Kennedy's 'you knows' become political fodder", AP, 12/31/2008.

Critical stories are coming from right-leaning news outlets like the Daily News — Michael Saul, "Caroline Kennedy no whiz with words", 12/29/2008:

Caroline Kennedy, you know, might need, you know, a speech coach, um, if she, you know, wants, um, to be a senator.

Um, you know?

Kennedy, who gave a flurry of media interviews on Friday and Saturday, revealed some cringing verbal tics that showed her inexperience as a speaker, experts told the Daily News.

In a 30-minute session with The News on Saturday, Kennedy punctuated her answers with "you know" more than 200 times. "Um" was fairly constant, too.

Transcripts of her interviews with other media outlets showed the same problem. She said "you know" at least 130 times to The New York Times and more than 80 times on New York 1.

But a slightly more sympathetic version of the same stuff is also coming from outlets like the New York Times, which talks about it by talking about others talking about it — Michael Barbaro, "The Mayor, You Know, Says He Can Sympathize", NYT, 12/30/2008

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he feels Caroline Kennedy’s linguistic pain.

In her pursuit of a Senate seat, Ms. Kennedy has raised eyebrows with her penchant for what are known, informally in language circles, as filler words.

Ms. Kennedy has liberally sprinkled her interviews with “you know” and “um,” as can be seen in transcripts posted on newspaper Web sites. [..]

“If there is anyone who understands the pain and suffering from having the press criticize how you speak, it is me,” the mayor said during a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. “But as I told my oldest daughter when she said, ‘They are laughing at you,’ the only ways I know how to make it better is to go out there and do it every day.”

I doubt that in objective terms, Ms. Kennedy is any more disfluent in unscripted talk than (say) Ron Paul ("Remnants", 10/31/2008), John McCain ("'Babbling points' from all over", 9/30/2008), or  Bill Clinton ("Trends in presidential disfluency", 11/26/2005). And I'm pretty sure that she is less disfluent than Senator Ted Kennedy often was. But Howie Carr's radio show excoriated him for decades as "the wizard of uhs", without this being picked up by the rest of the media as newsworthy:

The show also features other contests in which prizes – usually of low expense – are given out. In the "Celebrity Death Pool," callers choose which celebrity they believe will die next. In the "Wizard of Uhs" segment, Carr plays a clip, usually thirty seconds or so in duration, of the senior Massachusetts Senator, Ted Kennedy. Listeners have to count the number of uhs that Kennedy says.

In fact, Barack Obama's speech is sometimes liberally sprinkled with uhs and false starts, and his rate of producing such dysfluencies can rival anything that Ms. Kennedy has given the media to talk about. If I were counting, I'd start with conversational interviews involving difficult questions, like his exchanges with Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum. For example:

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RW: This is a tough question. What would be, looking over your life — everybody's got weaknesses, nobody's perfect — would be the greatest moral failure in your life, and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?
BO: Well, i- i- i- in my own life I'd- I'd break it up in stages, when uh I had a difficult youth. Uh my father wasn't in the house, uh I've written about this, uh there- uh uh you know there were times where uh I've experimented with drugs, and I drank, uh yeah in my teenage years, and wh- what I trace this to is uh a certain selfishness on my part, I- I was so obsessed with me, and you know the- the reasons that I might be dissatisfied, that I- I- w- I couldn't focus on other people. And uh y- you know I think the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it's not about me, it's about
RW: I like that. I like that. {laughs} [audience applauds]
BO: it's about- absolutely, so- so- but- but look, you know, th- the uh wh- when I uh wh- when I find myself um taking the wrong step, I think a lot of the times it's because I'm trying to protect myself, instead of trying to do God's work.

However, it seems to me that the focus on Ms. Kennedy's filled pauses and run-on sentences is not completely unfair, though it's based on misleading measures.

For one thing, a "you know" is a more disruptive disfluency than an "uh" or a false start, especially in transcripts, where it's less likely to be edited out, and more likely to confuse readers if it's left in. But the most important question, in my opinion, is not how many of which filled pauses were produced per unit time, or any other measure of fluency. Rather, the key issue is whether the underlying discourse has a coherent logical or narrative structure, as opposed to presenting a sequence of loose associative connections, or a jumble of talking points.  Coherence is a lot harder to quantify than fluency is — not that we have a useful measure of degree of that! — and  coherence and fluency are not always (or even usually) correlated.  (For some further discussion, see "Bebop language", 11/16/2008; "Speaking (in)coherently", 11/20/2008. )

Barack Obama's answer to Rick Warren's question seems lucid and to the point, despite the 10 uhs and 20-odd false starts and four you knows and so on. I believe that this is because Obama is  giving a thoughtful and coherent answer, and in that context, his disfluencies at worst seem superficial, and at best give us some additional clues to the way that his thoughts are unfolding. The disfluent presentation also increases our confidence that he's thinking as he speaks, rather than just reciting an answer learned by rote — although in fact the content is clearly a prepared answer, at least in the sense that it's material that he's written about in the past. (The video increases the sense of coherence, because his gestures and facial expressions provide addition punctuation.)

Caroline Kennedy's audio clips give a very different impression, and not (in my opinion) because of the density of disfluencies.

In fairness to her, we're rarely given the questions that she's answering; and in some cases, as I've documented, the audio clips are spliced together from different contexts. None of us is likely to come out very well in unedited transcripts of out-of-context clips spliced together from fragments of one-on-one interviews conducted in a diner ("Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008). It's likely that Ms. Kennedy would seem more coherent if we could hear (and see!) whole question-and-answer sequences; and it's even possible that lack of context and dishonest editing are almost entirely responsible for the bad impression that she gives.

All the same, the clips do give the impression of a jumble of talking points, and in that context, her disfluencies come across as a sign of underlying incoherence, rather than an informal punctuation of a basically coherent message.

Here are two typical passages. These cover a similar set of ideas and phrase-fragments, which seem to have been prepared in advance to answer some question like why she's putting herself forward, or why the governor should pick her.

1. From her interview with the NY Daily News:

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um well I think you know this is a special you know unique moment in terms of our- our history and our country, and you know- and it's in- and um and in my own personal life, um and I think uh in terms of you know I've- I've grown up here, I've lived here all my life, um I love New York, I love the city, you know, this is my home state, and um you know I think there's an economic crisis going on, there's um you know people are hurting, they're losing their jobs, they're losing their homes, and um and you know and I think New York is losing a powerful advocate in Hilary Clinton, and so um you know I- I s- I feel like you know this is something that I always you know thought about in the past, and you it's maybe it's one day in the distant future something that I might uh be interested in, when my kids are grown, and uh things like that, and now, you know, it's like well here's an opportunity um I've been involved in the Barack Obama campaign for the last year, I I- helped uh run the vice presidential selection process, um you know I think that this is a moment where we need people who ((that)) nobody can sit this one out, we need people to go uh and bring their like experience and talents and resources that they may have, and you know Hillary Clinton, you know, is a big loss for our state, so if I could, you know, shine a light on the problems here, and work with others, you know, and ((you know really space in on goals set while I'm in Washington)), you know to really deliver for New York, that's you know I thought well I should throw my hat in the ring. And obviously this is the governor's decision, and you know this is his process, so uh there are lots of other people he can choose from, and so but I felt like you know you know if I felt like I had something to add, or some- something to contribute, I should at least step forward.

2. From her interview with the AP:

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you know I think really um this is sort of a unique moment both in our- you know in our country's history and in- in you know my own life, and um you know we are facing you know unbelievable uh challenges, our economy, you know, health care, uh people are losing their jobs here in New York obviously, um uh particularly you know families are hurting, education is tough, and so um you know and for me I've grown up here, I've lived here all my life, I love New York, and um you know and- and going into politics is something that people have asked me about for ever, even when I'd first just thought ((of)) it in my own mind, you know I got- you know people come up to me on the street, on the subway, just this morning, walking over here, on the subway, and um you know they're like you know "go for it", you know "we're rooting for you", somebody dropped off two hundred signs in my husband's office two weeks ago, um and so you know I felt well OK I really ought to take this seriously, this is really an incredible opportunity, and um and you know there are issues that I really care about that are going to come up now. I- I come into this thinking I'd have to work twice as hard as anybody else, and this is- nobody's entitled to anything, and certainly not- certainly not me. And um there are many qualified people in this, and so um you know I- I am an unconventional choice, I understand that, I haven't pursued the traditional path, but I think that um you know in our public life today you know we're starting to see that there are many ways into to public life and public service, and it's not um as you know all our institutions are less um hierarchical than they used to be, and so you know I think that you know I bring you know my life experience to this, and you know that includes um you know being a mother, um you know I understand sort of those choices that women make, it includes you know being a lawyer, I've written seven best-selling books, you know, two on the constitution, um you know anthologies about American history and values, political courage, you know, and I've really tried to encourage people to go into public service,


1 Comment »

  1. Allison said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    So is the question then whether or not the coverage of her "dis"fluency out of proportion to her actual "dis"fluency? Sounds like a strong possibility. My guess would be if this is so it's for an non-linguistically related reason.

    My impression from my admittedly casual observation of the way her candidacy has been covered has been generally negative, commenting most strongly on her lack of qualification. I'm not sure whether or not she's qualified, but I get the sense that even though nepotism is alive and well in America, no one really wants it thrown in one's face. I feel like everyone's saying, "Who does she think she is? A Kennedy? Oh. Well, she's not enough like those other Kennedys for it to count…and here are the ways."

    I'm not sure whether or not Caroline Kennedy is a qualified candidate for the US Senate. I have a hard time being too hard on her, considering the others she might keep company with in that august body. But her media coverage does seem to suggest some resentment.

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