Them there I's

« previous post | next post »

It's no longer just imperial pontificators like George F. Will and Stanley Fish. The Obama-is-a-narcissist-and-his-use-of-I-proves-it meme has spread like kudzu, wrapping itself around the brainstem of every Fox News sub-editor and provincial pundit in the land. You couldn't kill it with a blowtorch.

Fox News, specifically, has decided to count first-person pronouns in every speech Obama gives. Thus "The I's Have It: Obama Hits 34 I's in Washington D.C.", FOXNews.com, 2/7/2010:

Much attention has been given to President Obama's persistent use of "I" when giving speeches to sell his administration's agenda. Is he taking responsibility — or, as his critics say, is he still in campaign mode? FoxNews.com is tracking the president's speeches all this month and will report back after each to see whether The "I's" Have It.

In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 "'I' references". Using their transcript, I get 3094 words and 40 total first-singular references (22 I, 11 I'm, 3 I've, 2 me, 2 my), for a rate of 1.29 per hundred words. He also used 172 first-person-plural words (83 we, 36 our, 21 we've, 20 we're, 9 us, 2 we'd, 1 ourselves) for a rate of 5.56 per 100 words, and a We/I ratio of 4.3.

But these numbers are uninterpretable without some point of comparison.  Is 1.29%  I-words a lot for a speech of this type? A little? A moderate amount?  Luckily there were a few competing political speeches at about the same time. Perhaps the most widely-covered was Sarah Palin's Feb. 6 speech at the Tea Party Convention. In CNN's transcript (eliminating commentary and question text), I get 118 first-singular pronouns in 6973 words(75 I, 12 my, 12 I'm, 11 me, 6 I'll, 2 I've ), for a rate of 1.69 per hundred, or about 31% more I-fulness than Obama.

Palin also used 247 1st-plural pronouns (107 we 83 our 38 us 9 we've 9 we're 1 we'd), for a rate of 3.54 per 100 words (about 57% less we-fulness than Obama), and a we/I ratio of 2.09 (less than half Obama's ratio).

House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) appeared on Meet The Press on Jan. 31. His remarks comprised 1353 words, including 27 first-singular pronouns, for a rate of 1.996 per 100, which is about 55% more ego-referential than Obama's DNC speech. Rep. Boehner used 70 first-plural pronouns, for a rate of 5.17 (making him almost as we-ful as Obama), but his we/I ratio was significantly lower, at 2.59.

On Feb. 10, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeared on All Things Considered to discuss his budget plan. Based on the WBUR transcript, he used 35 first-person-singular pronouns, for a whopping I-fulness rate of 4.28%.  Ryan's we-word count was just 16, for an anemic we-fulness index of 1.96, and an exceptionally ego-involved we/I ratio of 0.457.

Satire aside, let me emphasize again my conviction that these numbers are meaningless without further context and analysis, except perhaps as an index of pundits' idiocy or malice.  Such proportions vary widely with formality, interactivity, and other obvious factors — and there are several different sorts of I and we, as James Pennebaker explains in his post "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009.  But those who think that such counts and rates are a useful measure for one public figure should be honest enough to try the same metric across the board.

[For a great deal of further commenter discussion about this post, some (though not all) by people who have read it, see The Volokh Conspiracy.]

[And a comparison of pronoun rates in the nomination acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain is here.]



31 Comments

  1. Rubrick said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    It deeply saddens me that this sort of asininity has the power of giant media organizations behind it, whereas the call of "bullshit" takes place in a linguistics blog which the vast majority of people have never heard of.

    If someone's going to rail about Obama's overusing a word or phrase, for god's sake make it "let there be no mistake".

  2. Today's Tom Sawyer said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Your arguments have a point, but the problem is that you are taking a rather selective snapshot of speeches, which although they do a good job of showing the complexities of the issue, actually say nothing more than the snapshot analysis of one data point. A much better comparison would be to see how these different politicians use I/We over a range of speeches. Additionally, you need more controls since your "comparison" is bad because you are comparing a Presidential speech with a paid speaking gig, and two talk show appearances (all of which are such different circumstances that a comparison between them would lead to false indicators). A better comparison would be between President Obama's usage in speeches versus the usage of past presidents in the same type of speeches.

    [(myl) Please read these links, where several apples-to-apples comparisons are made, e.g. here for inaugural addresses, or here for press conferences.]

  3. Faldone said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Next thing you know they'll be claiming that Obama uses a teleprompter, which no president before him has ever done.

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    Fox is probably making an adjustment to reflect the fact that English is not Obama's first language.

  5. Forrest said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    Obama is even more egotistical – and far more diabolical – than it sounds. We need to count all the words which include the letter i in their spelling – these are coded messages of egoism, hidden away so subtly that people won't realize they're being brainwashed.

    Or something like that.

  6. Fernando Colina said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    When I hear Obama speak I get the impression that he talks about himself more than your average politician. He seems to use anecdotes about his youth, or talk about how he feels about something personally in order to connect with his audience. This is perfectly valid rhetorical tool, of course, but it can be abused, and I have the feeling that Obama at least overuses it. This has little to do with the number of self-referential words in his speeches.

    That said, I suspect that there may be some confirmation bias in my observation. I would like to find out if there is a way to confirm it.

  7. Lance said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    Rubrick's comment begs the question of whether Obama overuses "let there be no mistake". The first few Google hits for the phrase are: the title of a 1971 Time Magazine article about a Nixon impersonator; an unrelated-to-Obama article from a mining industry news site; a January blog post about Haiti (that doesn't mention Obama); a thread on alt.bible.prophecy; a 1994 Hunter S. Thompson reflection on the death of Richard Nixon; two different quotes from Gordon Brown….

    Even adding "Obama" to the search gives various discussions of Obama, an Obama speech generator, a quote from Robert Wexler, this thread….even {"let there be no mistake" Obama speech} mostly seems to give generators. Intuitively, it sounds like Obama, but quantitatively, I'd still want to see actual numbers before believing that he overuses it.

  8. Alex said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    *whoosh*

    That is the sound of Today's Tom Sawyer missing the "point".

  9. Adrian Mander said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    I think Rubrick made a mistake: Obama's catchphrase is supposed to be "Let me be clear". That one returns a big list of Obama-related google hits.

  10. Adrian Mander said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    ^^ But note, of course, that many of the hits are pop-linguistics commentary regarding how often Obama uses that phrase.

  11. John said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

    You seem to stubbornly cling to the idea that facts matter.

    Silly man.

  12. Stephen Nicholson said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

    If any of those people really wanted to investigate the claim, I'd suggest comparing the various presidential address to congress. Every president since FDR has made them, and the transcripts should be easily obtainable. Also presidential address to congress would include all the State of the Union speeches plus a few more.

  13. fev said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    Ahem. What took you guys so long?

  14. Ben said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 4:22 am

    In your post above, discounting quoted and other referential I's, you only use 4 first person singular pronouns (2 I's, 1 me, 1 my) out of 569 words, for a staggeringly low I-fulness-quotient of 0.7%.

    But on the flip-side, you didn't use a single 1st person plural pronoun, making your we/I ratio the lowest possible, 0. And using the more ego-centric metric of "I/we ratio" renders you infinitely egotistical.

  15. Dierk said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    Faux News argument if Mr Obama avoided first person pronouns: 'Look, how detached can a man be, he doesn't think of him as part of a whole, that is, us, the citizenry, US Americans; and he clearly avoids any personal responsibility.'

  16. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 6:16 am

    Using too many I's cost these guys their jobs: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8511910.stm

  17. [links] Link salad slept like a spy welded into a sidesaddle diesel tank | jlake.com said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    [...] Them there I's — Language Log on the ridiculous "Obama says 'i' too much" meme on the Right. This one's been percolating for a while, and like most conservative talking points, doesn't stand up to even a shred of first order analysis. Confidential to conservative America: When you guys lap this stuff up, it makes the rest of us wonder how you get out of bed in the morning without tripping over your own feet. Try fixatng on something substantive. Or, you know, real. [...]

  18. Koorbloh said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    Below is the text of a column that appeared in the Boston Globe in November, 2009, by Jeff Jacoby, the house Right-Winger. I preface the actual column with a letter I have just written him. A first letter to Mr. Jacoby, written after the appearance of the column, caused him to put me on his e-mail balcklist: I can not longer contact him using my original e-mail address. A fine development….

    Dear Mr. Jacoby,

    In November, 2009, you published a column criticizing president Obama for his alleged egocentricity, as revealed by his use of pronouns in his speeches. You based your contentions on observations by Stanley Fish, and others. At the time, I sent you some interesting analyzes by respected linguists which showed that your contentions were baseless and false, and depended more on ideology than on what the texts of the speeches actually showed. I asked you to retract in some way your assertions, and of course you did not do so. You are obviously intelligent, spirited, and capable of constructing interesting, provocative, and often thoughtful arguments about issues that concern you, so I remain puzzled by your indifference to having made claims, publicly, about an issue that is so simple to see is false, and, of course, malicious. It is shameful for you to remain a shill.

    In this regard, I'm sending along the latest musings from my linguist pals. You might as well read their stuff. It is much more intelligent and convincing than the musings of Stanley Fish and George Will, who share the unfortunate characteristic of not having the slightest idea what they were talking about.

    Obama’s swelling ego
    By Jeff Jacoby
    Globe Columnist / November 14, 2009

    PRESIDENT OBAMA was too busy to attend the celebrations in Germany this week marking the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. But he did appear by video, delivering a few brief and bloodless remarks about how the wall was “a painful barrier between family and friends’’ that symbolized “a system that denied people the freedoms that should be the right of every human being.’’ He referred to “tyranny,’’ but never identified the tyrants – he never uttered the words “Soviet Union’’ or “communism,’’ for example. He said nothing about the men and women who died trying to cross the wall. Nor did he mention Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan – or even Mikhail Gorbachev.

    He did, however, talk about Barack Obama.

    “Few would have foreseen,’’ declared the president, “that a united Germany would be led by a woman from [the former East German state of] Brandenburg or that their American ally would be led by a man of African descent. But human destiny is what human beings make of it.’’

    As presidential rhetoric goes, this was hardly a match for “Ich bin ein Berliner,’’ still less another “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’’ But as a specimen of presidential narcissism, it is hard to beat. Obama couldn’t be troubled to visit Berlin to commemorate a momentous milestone in the history of human liberty. But he was glad to explain to those who were there why reflections on that milestone should inspire appreciation for the self-made “destiny’’ of his own rise to power.

    Was there ever a president as deeply enamored of himself as Barack Obama?

    The first President Bush, taught from childhood to shun what his mother called “The Great I Am,’’ regularly instructed his speechwriters not to include too many “I’s’’ in his prepared remarks. Reagan maintained that there was no limit to what someone could achieve if he didn’t mind who got the credit. George Washington, one of the most accomplished men of his day, said with characteristic modesty on becoming president that he was “peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.’’

    Obama, on the other hand, positively revels in The Great I Am.

    “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,’’ he told campaign aides when he was running for the White House. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that . . . I’m a better political director than my political director.’’

    At the start of his presidency, Obama seemed to content himself with the royal “we’’ – “We will build the roads and bridges. . . . We will restore science to its rightful place. . . . We will harness the sun and winds,’’ he declaimed at his inauguration.

    But as the literary theorist Stanley Fish points out, “By the time of the address to the Congress on Feb. 24, the royal we [had] flowered into the naked ‘I’: ‘As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress.’ ‘I called for action.’ ‘I pushed for quick action.’ ‘I have told each of my Cabinet.’ ‘I’ve appointed a proven and aggressive inspector general.’ ’I refuse to let that happen.’ ’’ In his speech on the federal takeover of General Motors, Obama likewise found it necessary to use the first-person singular pronoun 34 times. (“Congress’’ he mentioned just once.)

    At this rate, it won’t be long before the president’s ego is so inflated that it will require a ZIP code of its own.

    Then again, how modest would any of us be if we were as magnificent as Obama knows himself to be? “I am well aware,’’ he told the UN General Assembly in September, “of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world.’’

    In 1860, writes Doris Kearns Goodwin in her celebrated biography “Team of Rivals,’’ an author wishing to dedicate his forthcoming work to Abraham Lincoln received this answer: “I give the leave, begging only that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.’’

    Obama has often claimed Lincoln as a role model, but apparently it only goes so far.

    Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com

  19. Faldone said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    I should think the White House would have its own ZIP code.

  20. John said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    The White House's ZIP Code is 20500. Google found it quite easily. ;-) Google also found the observation that the White House is physically in 20006, but it and many other US Government agencies have their own 5-digit codes. Also, the vice-president's office is 20501, FWIW.

  21. David said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    I just compared acceptance speeches by Obama and McCain.
    McCain is more I-oriented.

    See the results here.
    http://play.blogspot.com/2010/02/is-dont-quite-have-it.html

  22. Stats, Polar Bears, and “Truth by Repetition” « Ethics Alarms said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    [...] Fox News and others have even begun counting Obama’s “I”’s. As the blog “Language Log,” explains, the exercise is nonsense, and doesn’t prove a thing. But “President Obama is an arrogant [...]

  23. Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    [...] just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it: In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 [...]

  24. Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing - Fox News Watchdog said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    [...] just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it: In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 [...]

  25. Pete said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    You can be damn sure that were the "we/I" ratio flipped, Fox News et. al. would be attacking the President for "his over-use of 'the royal we'," just as emphatically.

  26. Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing - www.webuda.com - deep web news radio said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    [...] just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it: In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 [...]

  27. Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing - www.site11.com - Deep Web News Radio said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    [...] just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it: In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 [...]

  28. Waldo Jaquith - links for 2010-02-17 said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    [...] Language Log: Them there I's Fox News is tracking how many times President Obama uses the word "I". To what end? They don't know. But Language Log is on the job, to put the numbers in context. In one recent appearance, House Majority Leader John Boehner used the word 55% more often than the president. In a recent speech Sarah Palin used it 31% more often than the president. In accepting their respective nominations, John McCain said "I" 50% more often than Obama. But so what? What does Fox think we should do with this information? (tags: language obama politics) [...]

  29. Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing - www.comxa.com - Deep Web News Radio said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    [...] just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it: In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 [...]

  30. Vocabulinks - Schott's Vocab Blog - NYTimes.com said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    [...] Language Log Mark Liberman drew attention to Fox News's campaign to count the number of times President Obama makes use of first-person pronouns in his speeches: "It's no longer just imperial pontificators like George F. Will and Stanley Fish. The Obama-is-a-narcissist-and-his-use-of-I-proves-it meme has spread like kudzu, wrapping itself around the brainstem of every Fox News sub-editor and provincial pundit in the land. You couldn't kill it with a blowtorch." [...]

  31. Off Week in Washington: February 7 – February 20, 2010 « The Constant Linguist said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    [...] given how recent Republican speeches have stacked up against the DNC speech outlined in that link: this entry from the Language Log, published February 11, has more on [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post