Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier

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Ron Fournier, "Is Obama More Interested in Progress or Politics?", National Journal, 1/20/2015:

Count how many times Obama uses the words "I," "me," and "my." Compare that number to how often he says, "You," "we," "our." If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed.

This leads naturally to a different question: "Is Ron Fournier More Interested in Analysis or in Bullshit?" (where I mean "bullshit" in the technical philosophical sense, of course).

If Ron Fournier had spent a minute or two looking into the facts of the matter, he would have discovered these plots, presented in "The evolution of SOTU pronouns", 1/28/2014:

They show that

  • ALL presidents since WWII have used substantially more first-person-plural pronouns than first-person-singular pronouns in the SOTU messages;
  • Adding second-person pronouns makes the disproportion even larger;
  • Obama is pretty much in the middle of the pack on all the relevant measures.

He would also have found this table, in a blog post by Eric Ostermeier, "Obama's SOTU: Uniting the Country…through Pronouns?", 1/31/2011:

I'm therefore willing to place a substantial wager with Ron Fournier as to the outcome of his pronoun count. But I'm betting that he won't take the bet, because his column exemplifies Harry Frankfurt's analysis of "the bullshitter":

Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

By suggesting that tonight's SOTU address might conceivably fail that pronoun-ratio test (because Obama, as Everyone Knows, is the greatest narcissist blah blah), Mr. Fournier is reprising a sub-theme of the Great Obama Pronoun Fantasy, variants of which seem to draw pundits like flies to rotting meat. An earlier version of the we-me sub-meme was promoted a few years ago by Stanley Fish, discussed in "Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009, where I offered this table:

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

For those with a perverse interest in our more distinguished purveyors of Bos taurus feces, here some other posts on similar topics:

"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009
"Obama's Imperial 'I': Spreading the meme", 6/8/2009
"Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009
"Royal baloney", 6/9/2009
"Another pack member heard from", 6/9/2009
"I again", 7/13/2009
"'I' is a camera", 7/18/2009
"What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010
""A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator"", 8/9/2010
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2009
"Recommended reading", 5/3/2011
"Presidential pronouns, one more time", 5/22/2011
"Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count", 6/23/2011
"Republican self-referentiality", 6/27/2011
"A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012
"Another lie from George Will", 5/7/2012
"Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012
"First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition", 1/11/2014
"Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer", 9/16/2014
"Colbert on Krauthammer", 9/24/2014
"Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited", 10/21/2014

Update — the "remarks as prepared for delivery" version of the speech pretty closely matches the pronoun rates of Obama's previous SOTUs: in 6567 words, there are

  • 97 first-person singular pronouns, for a rate of 1.48%;
  • 34 second-person pronouns, for a rate of 0.52%;
  • 312 first-person plural pronouns, for a rate of 4.75%.

More specifically:

I 71
me 9
my  16
mine  1
we  175
us  28
our  108
ours  1
you  25
 your  9

So Fournier's bizarrely careless enumeration (I, me, my vs. you, we, our) adds up as

71+9+16 = 96 = 1.46%
25+175+108 = 308 = 4.96%

…and so by Fournier's metric, Obama succeeds by a factor of 308/96 = 3.2 to 1.

Update #2 — Applying the same scripts to Senator Joni Ernst's SOTU rebuttal, we get 1245 words with 22 first-person singular pronouns (1.77%), 19 second-person pronouns (1.53%), and 55 first-person plural pronouns (4.42%). In terms of Fourier's careless enumeration, we have

I+me+my = 14+4+4 = 22 = 1.77%
you+we+our = 14+25+14 = 53 = 4.265

So Senator Ernst also "succeeds" by Fournier's (meaningless) metric, though not as strongly as President Obama did:

53/22 = 2.41
308/96 = 3.21




  1. Obama and I, Me, My, You, We, Our | The Penn Ave Post said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

    […] by Mark Thoma Mark Liberman at Language Log tries to set the record straight — yet again: Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier: Ron Fournier, "Is Obama More Interested in Progress or Politics?", National Journal, […]

  2. Theophylact said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    Using "Ron Fournier" and "bullshit" in the same sentence is a bit redundant, don't you think?

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    The unfairness of his suggested count—he leaves out "your" and "us"—is the cherry on top.

  4. Lance said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    There's a lot of other bullshit in the article, too–I winced when I read

    Does he sound like a college professor—dismissive, dour, arrogant, and argumentative?

    I mean, I'm sorry you had a bad college experience, Mr. Fournier, but very few of my college professors were any of those things, and I'd like to think that when I was teaching I was never dismissive or dour. (I have no illusions about my arrogance…) Having just watched Jon Stewart last night criticize Mike Huckabee's attempt to divide the nation into "Bubbas"–good honest folk what live in the red states–and "bubbles"–insulated Harvard professors–this rhetoric in which Fournier tries to automatically set up "professor = bad" seemed transparently partisan to me.

    Mind you, it also makes me wonder what his metric would be, because every president's State of the Union is full of inspiration and optimism, and I fear that his way of telling that someone is "dismissive, dour, arrogant, and argumentative" is that they talk like Obama.

  5. Obama's State of the Union Pronouns Are Both Banal and Irrelevant - said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 4:59 am

    […] incomparable linguistics blog Langu​age Log has devoted a number of posts to tearing this idea down, not because Language Log is mostly written by fellow academics/godless liberals, but because it […]

  6. AB said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 5:53 am

    The problem with this kind of argument is you can't win. Claims are pressed with great pomposity and indignation. But if you try to argue the facts they will only say, "Oh stop being so pedantic, so literal-minded, the pronouns are just a colourful example, my general point clearly stands". And what can one say? Who would be stupid enough to think that counting parts of speech was the way to a man's soul?
    Answer not a bulshitter according to his bullshit, lest thou also be like unto him…

  7. Cathal Coleman said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 6:53 am

    Language Log – surely the heading is the first thing that should come under scrutiny, and surely it should read:

    Is Obama more interested in progress than politics?

  8. richardelguru said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 7:03 am

    So a Fournier transform is soooo much less useful than a Fourier transform??

  9. richardelguru said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 7:06 am

    @ Cathal
    Or one could just add "Obviously the first", though that does make it a bit long…

  10. Gene Callahan said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    It doesn't appear to me that Fournier actually makes any claim about Obama's use of the first person. He simply gives a metric for judging the talk… a metric by which the talk succeeded. (FYI, I had never heard of the guy before this post, and certainly am not "on his side" or anything of the sort.)

    [(myl) Though not nearly as famous as George Will or Peggy Noonan, Ron Fournier was an important person — Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press until 2010.

    My exegesis of the Fournier's strange pronoun-counting metric is that he's depending on his core audience knowing about Obama's reputation for over-use of I-talk, so this bit of bullshit is parasitic on the long history of Obama-pronoun bullshit.]

  11. D.O. said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    There is a progress of sorts, though. Previous FPSP BSers were people of whom I heard before they came under LL scrutiny. Mr. Fournier, contrariwise, is a new name and I am looking forward to forgetting it ASAP.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 11:18 am

    My eye was caught by the statement that "If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed." Failed at what? How is the proportion of singular to plural pronouns an indicator of "failure"?

    Of course, since the whole article is bullshit, this question isn't really that interesting.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    There's a good rebuttal of Fournier's previous article on Obama at Mischiefs of Faction.

    I was led there by Jonathan Bernstein, who had an occasional 'Oy, Fournier' column, in which he'd wearily correct Ron's latest bullshit, on his personal blog before he moved to Bloomberg View.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    I'm actually not sure I agree with myl that Fournier's bogus proposed metric assumes his audience has been primed by exposure to previous specifically pronoun-driven claims about the President. I think it would be sufficient for the audience only to have been primed for arguments that he's generally egotistical or narcissistic or self-regarding or whatever (which is of course an inherently plausible claim about virtually anyone in politics, even if you focus on it more in politicians you dislike or disagree with). I think one reason this keeps popping up is that for whatever reasons* it has a certain superficial appeal to people who know absolutely nothing relevant about the subject and also have no empirical sense of baseline rates/pronouns of pronoun usage that would enable them to gauge whether such-and-such rate or pattern is out of the ordinary. And that's quite a lot of people (probably overlapping with e.g. the population that finds the claim "there's no 'I' in 'team'" vaguely inspirational rather than a total non sequitur).

    (FWIW, add me to the list of people who can't recall having heard of Fournier previously.)

    *As with peevology, I imagine one could do a scholarly study about bullshit claims about language that might illuminate the implicit folk-linguistics believed in by the non-specialist masses, which might account for why some bullshit claims seem intuitively plausible to the unsophisticated while others (which wouldn't seem any more bogus to a specialist than the first set) might not.

  15. Guy said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    Isn't unfair to judge bullshitting on non-bullshitting terms? Rather than asking whether the content is "true" or "founded in reality" shouldn't we simply judge it on whether it effectively propagates a sentiment? It sure makes it seem there's some agreement out there that Obama is a narcissist, and that that agreement is a Respectable Opinion, and so doesn't it achieve its purpose?

  16. High Broderism, Once Influential Conservative Democrat Edition - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    […] enjoy this analysis of Galston's middlebrow equivalent Ron […]

  17. Jakub Wilk said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

    The control character (U+0018) between "promoted" and "a few" breaks the Atom feed. :-(

    [(myl) Fixed, I think.]

  18. Morning Constitutional – Thursday, 22 January 2015 | Verities and Vagaries said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 9:12 am

    […] On one of the silliest (and stupidest) criticisms of Obama's State of the Union address. […]

  19. Jim Brown said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    Word count without context is somewhat meaningless.
    "I won the war" "We made a mistake"
    is a lot different than
    "We won the war" "I made a mistake"
    even thought the word count is the same.

    [(myl) True enough — see "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009, for extensive discussion. But what's REALLY meaningless is repeatedly making false and unsupported assertions about pronoun counts. The counts would not be very informative if they were true, but given that the facts are the opposite, with the authors never lifting a finger to determine what the (easily ascertainable) facts actually are, the claims become, in a strictly technical and philosophical sense, bullshit.]

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