Fact-checking George F. Will

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The opening sentence of George F. Will's latest column ("Have We Got a Deal for You", 6/7/2009):

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

This echoes J.B.S. Haldane's quip that the creator, if he exists, must be inordinately fond of beetles; and Will, like Haldane, is presumably proposing an inference about someone's preferences from his actions, not reporting a direct emotional revelation.

So, since I'm one of those narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that statements can be true or false, and that we should care about the difference, I decided to check. (On Will, not Haldane.)

I took the transcript of Obama's first press conference (from 2/9/2009), and found that he used  'I' 163 times in 7,775 total words, for a rate of 2.10%. He also used 'me' 8 times and 'my' 35 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 206 in 7,775 words, or a rate of 2.65%.

For comparison, I took George W. Bush's first two solo press conferences as president (from 2/22/2001 and 3/29/2001), and found that W used 'I' 239 times in 6,681 total words, for a rate of 3.58% — a rate 72% higher than Obama's rate. President Bush also used 'me' 26 times, 'my' 31 times, and 'myself' 4 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 300 in 6,681 words, or a rate of  4.49% (59% higher than Obama).

For a third data point, I took William J. Clinton's first two solo press conferences as president (from 1/29/1993 and 3/23/1993), and found that he used 'I' 218 times, 'me' 34 times, 'my' 22 times, and 'myself' once, in 6,935 total words. That's a total of 275 first-person singular pronouns, and a rate of 3.14% for 'I' (51% higher than Obama), and 3.87% for first-person singular pronouns overall (50% higher than Obama).

This comparison suggests that George W. Bush, in his early press conferences, used first-person singular pronouns about 60-70% more often than Barack Obama did, while Bill Clinton, in the comparable events, used first-person singular pronouns about 50% more often than Obama did.

This whole exercise, by the way, took me about 45 minutes from conception to posting.

Now, maybe there's some selection of Obama's interactions where his use of the first person singular pronoun is higher than expected for someone in his circumstances. Alternatively, maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter, who doesn't bother even to ask one of his interns to check whether the  alleged "facts" in his columns are true or false. We report, you decide.

[Update: Simon Spero, in the comments below, notes that Will may have been inspired by a recent column ("I, Barack Obama") by Terence Jeffrey, which does actually count pronouns in an Obama speech. As Simon points out, though, Jeffrey doesn't compare Obama's rate of I-usage with anyone else's; and in fact, Simon counts 40 first-person singular pronouns in 2376 words, for a rate of  1.7%. When I do it, I get 42 first-person singular pronouns in 2423 words, which is also 1.7%, rounded to one decimal place. Either way,  the rate  is even lower than the rate noted above for Obama, and well under half the rate noted for George W. Bush. ]

[Update #2 -- More here, on Stanley Fish's version of the same concept: "Obama's Imperial 'I': Spreading the meme". And a bit more on presidential first-person plural pronouns here; and a deeper analysis of Fish's "Royal we" view of Obama's inaugural here; and another pundit joins the pack here. ]



38 Comments

  1. parvomagnus said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    This is probably akin to the "words in the same breath" thing, so I doubt that it occurred to George Will to spend even 1/45th as long on the matter as you did, or even that it occurred to him that what he was saying was, potentially, false.

  2. dmv said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    Alternatively, maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter, who doesn't bother even to ask one of his interns to check whether the alleged "facts" in his columns are true or false. We report, you decide.

    All due respect, but… um… duh.

    Will does, however, exemplify Colbertian truthiness. Often.

  3. bulbul said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter
    This reminds me of an old Don Imus routine where he, while referring to someone from the daily news who had criticized him, considered responding "Yeah? Well you're full of shit!", but thought better of it, because "Telling someone from the daily news that they're full of shit is at the very least a redundancy."
    Considering George Will's track record in the science department (cf.), maybe you're right.

  4. MattF said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    You're leaving out the GWDAF (George Will Amplification and Distortion Factor), which is also automatically applied to any data about global warming.

  5. Christopher said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Leaving partisan politics aside here for a moment, It's not clear to me that Will was suggesting that the word "I" appears more times per word in Obama's speeches than Bush. When I read this column, I figured he was referring to Obama's pronunciation of "I," which might seem to some a bit overemphasized and imperious when compared to Bush's.

  6. bulbul said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    So if the charge is "aggravated bulshittery", Will's anti-jeans column should be Exhibit A.

  7. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    To be scrupulously fair to George Will—which is perhaps worth doing mainly for the sport of it—we might consider a couple more possibilities:
    Despite the obvious echo of Haldane's famous beetle comment, perhaps Will's assertion is really not about frequency at all, but rather refers to something more qualitative about how Obama uses 1sg pronouns (possibly something perceptible only to Will himself).
    Perhaps Will does think that Obama's use of I is indeed too frequent, and would respond to your data by acknowledging that Clinton and Bush are also inordinately fond of this pronoun.

  8. bulbul said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    and would respond to your data by acknowledging that Clinton and Bush are also inordinately fond of this pronoun
    Oh I expect he would – in my experience, that's the most common reaction of people of Will's type to any fact-based criticism. "But that's not the point, what I meant was…" Colbertian, indeed.
    The obvious retort would be "Then why did you bring it up?", followed by "And what exactly is so inordinate about Obama's usage of the pronoun?"

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Christopher, Q, and all: I'd be happy with any evidence, of any sort, that the president is "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun". In fact, I suspect that parvomagnus is right, and Will meant this simply as an objective-seeming way to say that Obama is too self-involved or too egotistical. But try rewriting Will's sentence as

    "I," said the president, who is inordinately egocentric, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

    Instead of merely seeming a bit careless with his (perhaps metaphorical) facts, Will now comes across as too arrogant and obnoxious even for an elderly conservative pundit.

    So I think it's worth calling him on the perhaps-factual assertion.

  10. Simon Spero said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    I think George Will is probably inspired by this piece: I, Barack Obama, by Terence Jeffrey.

    The Jeffrey column refers to "Remarks by the President on General Motors Restructuring" on June 1st (transcript on whitehouse.gov, video on youtube).

    The original article notes 34 occurences of I. Checking the counts, there are 31 occurences of I, and 3 occurences of I'm, as well as six of my. Total 1sg count of 40 There are about 2376 words, giving an IQ of about 0.017.
    There are 13 occurences of we, 2 of we're, and 1 we've, as well as 16 occurences ofour. This gives a 1pl count of 32. Most of the occurences of we are exclusive (14:2); most of the occurences of our are inclusive ~(3:13), giving an adjusted IQ of 0.024.

    [(myl) Thanks for the link -- I hadn't seen jeffrey's screed. The first-person singular percentages in the remarks he references are (as you suggest) even lower than in the Obama press conference that I analyzed, and thus even less "inordinate" relative to other comparable discourses.

    If this "inordinately fond of the first-person singular" thing becomes a main-stream media meme -- as apparently is happening -- it will make it just that little bit harder for me to persuade myself that these people have any sense or any values. ]

  11. Conlan said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    Granted, I'm not languageoligist, but isn't Will, in this capacity, writing as a columnist and not a reporter? Is it possible that this is an attempt at a bit of ironic levity? I appreciate the belief that "statements can be true or false, and that we should care about the difference." But, gosh, even as someone who never uses sarcasm or irony in my own conversations, I can't help but imagine that a strict application of this rule would render much of the American population mute.

    [(myl) I note in the same spirit that you are inordinately fond of eating feces while having sexual intercourse with dead relatives. Just a bit of ironic levity there.

    Actually, I don't note any such thing, because such accusations are generally perceived as insulting (no offense intended to the coprophagy and necrophilia communities, of course),and I have no factual basis whatever for believing anything of the sort about you.

    A columnist certainly has the right to claim that a politician uses the pronoun 'I' too much. But I think that readers also have the right to ask whether there's any factual basis for that opinion, and to conclude that the columnist is a bullshitter if it turns out that there isn't. ]

  12. Spectre-7 said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    If that much of what they say is demonstrably false, would it really be such a terrible loss?

  13. Conlan said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    Mark, the difference of course is that one is a statement about liking a pronoun and the other is about liking physical, tangible acts. That alone renders it an inept comparison. But, for the sake of argument, how many times would I have to eat feces to be inordinately fond of it? Maybe I only did once (I'll try anything once), and liked it a lot. Maybe you do every day, but you find it distasteful (but continue under duress or for health reasons). My point is, "being fond of" something is hardly quantifiable. Also, unless I'm mistaken, Will never said Obama "uses the pronoun 'I' too much." If he had, rather than that being your interpretation, you're point would be valid and I'd agree with you. But he didn't say that. That was also far from Terence Jeffrey's point. He noted the frequency for illustration, but the column is clearly more about the context in which "I" was used.

    Maybe a better discussion topic for a language blog would be, "What does it mean to be 'fond' of a word?" Personally I'm inordinately fond of 'discombobulate', but I fear that, by your measurement, it would appear that I too am even more inordinately fond of "I".

    [(myl) If you a secret yen for discombobulate or for pedophilia, it's perfectly in order for you to tell us. But if these feelings never influence your actions in any way, none of the rest of us -- columnists or otherwise -- have any standing to discuss the matter. ]

  14. peter said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    While your analysis is a fine debunking of Will's condescending pronouncement, what it ignores is the intended dialogical purposes of the speech under analysis.

    Here the speech being analyzed is political speech. I believe that political speech is not usually primarily aiming to convey information about the world, although it may do so in order to achieve its primary dialogical purposes. Rather, the primary dialogical purposes of political speech are one or both of: (a) to convey information about actions of the speaker and his/her supporting staff (including past, present, and future intended actions); and/or (b) to inspire (or discourage) listeners or other third parties to execute (or to not execute) certain actions. For both these dialogical purposes, a greater-than-average use (compared to other forms of dialogical speech) of personal pronouns is perfectly appropriate.

    If the primary dialogical purpose of political speech were to merely convey some information about the world (ie, to describe the world, rather than to talk about actions), then Will's apparent dislike of use of personal pronouns might have better justification.

    En passant, Michael Silverstein's little book "Talking Politics" (2003) seems to misunderstand the purposes of political speech profoundly.

  15. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    "…isn't Will, in this capacity, writing as a columnist and not a reporter?"

    I first became consciously aware of this line of reasoning a year or two ago when Lou Dobbs on CNN went through a period of over the top racism, even for him. It took the form of using made-up statistics about Mexican immigrants carrying leprosy. When called on this, the producers gave two defenses: (1) Dobbs was not the one who had made up the numbers. This was done by a right wing hate group. So he was just reporting (the implication being that reporters cannot be expected to report on the accuracy of information). (2) Dobbs's show combines reporting and commentary (apparently seamlessly, such that we civilians cannot tell which is which). The reporting is, of course, rigorously fact-checked, but commentary is not subject to this. The implication is that it is OK to tell lies if you designate (even only in your own mind) these lies as "commentary" rather than "reporting".

    My position is that it is not my responsibility as a consumer of news to keep track of which are the bits presented as truthful, and which are the bits where lying is OK. As a practical matter I have to do this, but I am not going to join in the fantasy that these news organizations are ethical.

  16. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    I'm gobsmacked to learn that a man of Mr. Will's erudition fails to genuflect before The McLandress Dimension by "Marc Epernay" (pseudonym of John Kenneth Galbraith) (1967). The McL. dimension is the average number of words that elapse in a writer's work between instances of the first person. This is diachronically a very stable measure of a writer's lack of interest in the outside world. As one would expect, Prof. Galbraith illustrates his discussion with a treasury of anecdotes.

    The book is inexplicably out of print, but there are plenty of used copies out there at a reasonable price. There's probably a free download for Kindleers, but I haven't found it yet.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 2:29 am

    The (currently only) customer review for The McLandress Dimension on Amazon begins with the wonderful sentence "This collection of short essays was written in 1962 by recently deceased economist John Kenneth Galbraith when he was US Ambassador to India." Didn't we discuss the ambiguous reference points of words like "recently", um, recently?

  18. Karen said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 5:15 am

    My point is, "being fond of" something is hardly quantifiable. Also, unless I'm mistaken, Will never said Obama "uses the pronoun 'I' too much." If he had, rather than that being your interpretation, you're point would be valid and I'd agree with you.

    You're being disingenuous. "Inordinately fond of" does mean "likes too much", and that's exactly what Will was implying.

  19. Andrew said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Clearly, Obama should use the passive voice more often.

  20. barbara jackson said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    Maybe Mr. Will would be happier if Pres. Obama would begin the sentences with a vague "Someone". I have read, and listened to some of the suspect sentences and determined that if he had inserted the word "We" he would have been deemed certifiably schizo and carted off to the ward. I read these sentences much differently than the rightward-leaning word-hack. To me, Mr. Obama's "We" translates to "I take full responsibility – and BLAME – for this action." This is a rather adult move, something we haven't been used to seeing for at least eight years.

  21. Bryn LaFollette said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    My point is, "being fond of" something is hardly quantifiable. Also, unless I'm mistaken, Will never said Obama "uses the pronoun 'I' too much." If he had, rather than that being your interpretation, you're point would be valid and I'd agree with you.

    You're being disingenuous. "Inordinately fond of" does mean "likes too much", and that's exactly what Will was implying.

    I totally agree with Karen on this point, and by extension, Mark's overall approach. Conlan says "the difference of course is that one is a statement about liking a pronoun and the other is about liking physical, tangible acts." If that's the case, and it's "hardly quantifiable" to measure "pronouns" as opposed to "physical, tangible acts" then how did Will ever detemine that Obama is "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun"? What were the grounds for his claim? Mark decided to investigate a particular measure (which in the media, at least, is a fairly wide-spread trope) for gauging "fondness" for something in a speech: counting occurrances. Now, granted this isn't a sound method of measurement, as has been pointed out countless times on Language Log by Mark, but this is seen over and over again as how those associated with the media seem most fond of justifying judgements of such claims (no matter how spurious), so for Mark to run these numbers makes perfect sense in this context.

    Conlan's criticism of this exercise seems to be essentially arguing against even questioning the factuality Will's assertion on the basis that it's somehow unmeasurable or it was made as "a columnist and not a reporter". I'd expect that people would probably question the grounds for the assertion if it had been something like: "[Mother Teresa] who is inordinately fond of [genocide]" or "[Ronald Reagan] who is inordinately fond of [communism]", regardless of how you would quantify a measure of fondness for such things. (I'm not sure how these claims fall in the quantifiability spectrum from "pronoun" to "physical, tangible acts", but why should this even be relevant?) Further, it sounds as if Conlan is arguing that there is no justifyable way to check the factualness of such a claim, and therefore no one can justifiably question it.

  22. Conlan said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    Bryn and the rest, I am indeed arguing that "there is no justifiable way to check the factualness of such a claim" as "so-and-so likes such-and-such". It is an opinion about an opinion. Without defining what it means to be fond of a word, or "like it too much" (does it mean he overuses it, or puts too much emphasis on it when speaking, or has it highlighted in the dictionary?), the whole premise is meaningless. To decide that, because statistics are the only way such a thing can be quantified, it must therefore have been intended that way is a fairly big assumption.

    It seems to me that the conclusion reached by Mark is stronger than the premise upon which it is based. But I will yield to the majority in this forum and comment no further, except to say, in response to Spectre-7's rhetorical question, yes, I believe a language devoid of irony and satire would be a pretty terrible loss.

  23. Spectre-7 said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    My question wasn't strictly rhetorical. I'm the sort of person who employs irony frequently, but I tend to think that if one's attempt at irony appears for all intents and purposes to be a baseless personal attack that is demonstrably false, culture would probably be richer in its absence. Maybe I'm just an old silly head, but I prefer my irony and satire to be somehow detectably different than average, everyday venomous bullshit.

    If obedience to this whim of mine would render the nation mute, it strikes me as a rather harsh indictment of our culture… or perhaps a compliment to the sophistication of our irony. I'm really not quite sure which.

    As for your issues concerning the possible meaning of the term "inordinately fond of", I just can't help but feel you're being intentionally obtuse. The phrase isn't at all uncommon in American English, with the readily identifiable meaning of using too much, or more than the viewer thinks is appropriate. For a quick sampling, try a Google search for "overly fond of adverbs." There are certainly a few hits scattered in there that mean likes too much, but the bulk are obviously condemnations of the sheer quantity being used.

    The phrase is common enough that I have great difficulty imagining that a person such as yourself, who is capable of communicating in complete sentences, could possibly misunderstand it. Who knows… perhaps I just have a weak imagination.

  24. Spectre-7 said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    Whoops. Nix that part about Googling "overly fond of adverbs." Somehow, I don't think a whopping 8 hits really makes my case. Many apologies.

  25. Lloyd said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Wow. I'm baffled by a blog about language having trouble coming to grips with the many possible definitions of "overly fond". Conlon advances a fair and reasoned alternate take and he's called a feces eating pedophile (ironically? satirically?) by the host and has his very point argued back to him unknowingly by Karen and Spectre. By pointing out Conlon's "obtuse" and ingenuine choice in definition, the attempts to prove there can only be one meaning fall flat.

    I understand choosing a meaning that fits the narrative set by the blogger's 45 minutes of reasearch into developing a mathematical formula to obectively determine a person's "fondness" for something. That, I suppose, is inevitable. What I don't understand is why there is such a large emotional investment in defending every little stupid piddly quirk Obama has? Is it not possible that he can be an ego-centric blowhard and still be a good president? We need to grow some thicker skin and learn to laugh at this guy once in awhile in preperation for the times he'll make us cry.

    [(myl) We devoted dozens of posts over the past few years to defending Republicans (like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld) against what we took to be partisan animus disguised as linguistic criticism; I hope this should protect us against the charge of being knee-jerk partisans of Barack Obama.

    But as always, the Language Log marketing department stands ready to refund double your subscription price in case of less than full satisfaction. ]

  26. gweil said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Vacuously counting pronouns really indicates very little about a leader's approach to leadership. "I have asked my advisors…" has 50 % more personal pronouns than "I made it clear that…" but they convey distinctive approaches. One needs simply to see or hear the words of our president to observe the ego and imperious attitude he conveys. This is no common man. This is no humble man.

  27. Chris said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    One needs simply to see or hear the words of our president to observe the ego and imperious attitude he conveys.

    Given certain people's intense resistance to put such a statement on any sort of objective footing whatsoever, I don't suppose it's possible to say anything more to this than "My subjective impressions of President Obama are very different from your subjective impressions of President Obama"; which they are, but that's more or less par for the course for subjective impressions (and, IMO, a decent working definition for subjectivity itself).

  28. me me me « unconquerable gladness said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

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  29. RLC said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Some questions from a (mostly) casual observer.

    First, is there a reason you sampled Obama's first press conference only instead of including his first two press conferences like you did for Bush and Clinton? I'm curious whether it makes a difference. From my own attempt to determine the answer, it looks like the percentage of first-person singular pronouns decreases in Obama's conference #2.

    [(myl) I ran the counts on Obama's first press conference, and on the first press conferences of the previous two presidents. Then I noticed that the word count in their press conferences was less than half the word count of Obama's. (I don't think it's that he's generically wordier, just that there was a lot more going on at the time of his first encounter with the press.) So I added a second press conference from each of the other two, just to get the numbers into the same range. ]

    Second, did you only count "I," "me," and "my"? What about "I'm," "I'd" and "I've"? My (admittedly unscientific) count including those last three words increases the count in that first conference from 205 to 242 (still a lower percentage than Bush or Clinton, but the difference is not as drastic).

    [(myl) I counted all of those -- here are the totals that my program got for all first-person pronouns in that press conference, both singular and plural:

    126 i
    126 we
    41 our
    35 my
    29 we're
    20 i'm
    19 us
    18 we've
    15 i've
    8 me
    3 ourselves
    2 we'll
    1 i'll
    1 i'd

    The total for (forms of 'I') is then 163, and for all the first-person singulars it's 206, not 162 and 205 as I reported -- it looks like I made a mistake in transferring the numbers to the weblog, a mistake that I'll now correct. The percentages are changed only in the second decimal place (e.g. 2.65% rather than 2.64%).

    I'm not sure how to account for the large number of extra forms of 'I' that you found. Perhaps you counted some of the reporters questions as well as Obama's answers? Email me about it and we can figure out offline what happened. ]

  30. More silliness from National Review. « Benton Powers said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

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  31. Ron in NC said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    If you all spent as much time and energy on researching and debating, say, the health care problem, we'd probably have a solution!

    [(myl) I wish. The sad thing about this case is how little effort is required to debunk the "Obama's Imperial I" meme. I've put a total of about three hours into running texts through a script and writing posts about it. There aren't many significant public policy problems that can be solved in that amount of time. ]

  32. Caoimhe Snow said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:44 am

    For fun, it's kinda amusing to look at stuff Will's said that's been transcribed, like this interview, and count the first person pronouns.

    Fun…but also a waste of time.

  33. Rethinking the Editorial Page/George Will’s Mathematical Obama Drama « That Shallow Fellow said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

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    September 8, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

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  36. Does Obama Use the I Word More Than Other Presidents? at B12 Solipsism said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

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  37. Lying About Language - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

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