[I'm following up on this morning's post "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme".]
Stanley Fish ("Yes I can", NYT 6/7/2009) cited the "naked I" of the president's recent rhetoric, allegedly representing a change from the pronominal personality that he displayed during the presidential campaign. But I showed this morning that Obama's recent presidential speeches in fact use first-person singular pronouns at roughly the same rate as his campaign speeches did, or perhaps a little bit less often, judging on the basis of the specific eight speeches that Fish cites. I also showed that overall, Obama's rate of first-person singular pronoun usage is distinctly lower than that of his two predecessors, not (as you might expect from all the fuss) higher.
Fish also cites Obama's inaugural address for its extensive use of the "royal we". So just for fun, having a few minutes to spare, I added a few lines to the script that I used to count pronouns in the cited speeches, and dumped the inaugural addresses of the previous two presidents into the pile of texts that I ran it on.
Here's the result:
|1st singular||1st plural||1stPlural/1stSingular ratio|
|WJ Clinton 1 (1993)||0.93%||7.70%||6.1|
|WJ Clinton 2 (1997)||0.37%||6.10%||16.5|
|GW Bush 1 (2001)||0.94%||6.96%||7.4|
|GW Bush 2 (2005)||0.48%||4.41%||9.2|
|BH Obama 1 (2009)||0.21%||6.48%||31.2|
So the ratio of 1st plural to 1st singular pronouns in Obama's inaugural address was unusually high — but this was not because he used the 1st plural a lot (the rate was right in the middle of the previous four inaugurals) but because his use of 1st singular pronouns was unusually low, less than a fourth of the rate of the first inaugurals of his two predecessors.
Fish's piece claims that in Obama's inaugural address,
The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. […] [W]hen he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”
But as far as I can see from a quick read, the majority of the 1st-person plural pronouns in this speech are inclusive ("We the people") rather than exclusive ("We the Democrats" or "We the White House" or "We the government"), and some are ambiguous.
If we (and by that I mean you as well as me) were going to continue fact-checking Fish, we'd look at the counts of inclusive, exclusive, and ambiguous uses of 1st-plural pronouns in the last five inaugurals, and see whether Obama's stands out in any way. I don't have time for that now, because rather than just changing a line in a program, I'd have to judge each of 615 pronouns. I'd be willing to place a modest wager on the outcome, though.
[Update: more discussion of the first-person plural pronouns in Obama's inaugural can be found here. ]