Another pundit who can't (or won't) count

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… and is careless with grammatical terminology. Thomas Lifson, "Obama's troop withdrawal speech: when politics trumps victory", 6/23/2011:

Notably absent from the speech was any mention of General Petraeus or any of his other military advisors. The reasonable inference is that his military advice counseled against the withdrawal. Notably present was the personal pronoun, which was used about 3 dozen times. Obama is now openly mocked as "President Me, Myself, and I."

What's under discussion is President Obama's 6/22/2011 speech on Afghanistan.

The complaint is that "the personal pronoun … was used about 3 dozen times".  Given the subsequent reference to "President Me, Myself, and I", the phrase "the personal pronoun" is presumably being used here to refer to the first-person singular pronouns I, me, my, myself, mine, and not to the full set of actual personal pronouns, which would also include you, your, yours, yourself, he, him, his, himself, she, her, hers, herself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves, they, them, their, theirs, themselves.

How does the claim of "about 3 dozen times" stack up against the facts?

The text published by the New York Times contains, in its 2,048 words, the following first person singular pronouns:

13 I
1 my

for a grand total of 14, which is rather far away from "3 dozen". In percentage terms, 14 is about 0.68% of 2048, which is about what we expect for presidential policy speeches. For example, it's exactly the mean of the four pre-Obama inaugural addresses – W.J. Clinton's were 0.93% and 0.37%, for a mean of 0.65%, while G.W. Bush's were 0.94% and 0.48%, for a mean of 0.71%. And President G.W. Bush's speech announcing the invasion of Afghanistan had 11 first-person-singular pronouns in 973 words, for a rate of 1.13%.

Other counts of "personal pronouns" (in the literal rather than the punditorial sense) in President Obama's speech yesterday include

69 we
58 our
5 us
10 their
5 they
2 them
2 his
1 he

Adding these all up, we get 152, which added to 14 gives us 166, which is almost 14 dozen. But it doesn't make sense for Mr. Lifson to complain about these other pronouns in reference to his replication of the  FPSP meme in the form of the "President Me, Myself and I" jibe.

Let me paraphrase what I wrote a couple of days ago in reference to Craig Shirley and Bill Pascoe:

Does Thomas Lifson think that 14 is "about 3 dozen"? If you asked him in those terms, I doubt that he would say "yes".

On the evidence of the cited blog post, which makes a striking quantitative claim about an easily checked matter of fact, does Mr. Lifson care about the truth or falsehood of his assertions? Apparently not, which means that this instance of his work can be assigned to the technical category of bullshit.

Given this extreme and pervasive carelessness about a trivial-to-check matter of fact, it's hard to avoid the conclusion reached by John McIntyre at You Don't Say:

I do not reflexively assert that every criticism of President Obama is based in racism, and I think that accusing anyone of racist attitudes is something not to be done casually. But I grew up hearing racist remarks and racist attitudes, and when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is “That boy is getting uppity.”

[Since the comments indicate that a surprising number of intelligent readers don't understand what John is talking about, I'll add here a response that I directed to JW Brewer below, in response to his question

[I]s there a pre-existing stereotype about American black speech patterns (leaving aside the fact that by and large Pres. Obama doesn't exhibit them) that involves overuse of first-person pronouns and is thus being invoked here? I don't claim to be an expert on stereotypes in that area, but that's a new one on me.

John McIntyre's point is NOT that there's a general stereotype of self-importance and excessive self-reference among blacks, but rather that there's a specific and well-known traditional response to members of low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations of self-effacement (and, for that matter, to caste-related expectations about speech patterns).

There have been many sociological analyses of this reaction, e.g. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 1949:

The sensitivity to any assertive move on the part of the Negro is immediately recorded in threatening judgments of his behavior of the type we already know; he is said to be "uppity" or "getting out of his place". […]

Negroes who do not exhibit [subservient behavior] are "getting out of their place," are "uppity," are "getting above themselves," …

According to the OED, uppity means " Above oneself, self-important, ‘jumped-up’; arrogant, haughty, pert, putting on airs". It's certainly plausible to see all the stuff about how Obama "frequently toots his own horn by overdoing the personal pronouns 'I' and 'me'," applied to self-references well below the quantitative norm for other national politicians, as exactly this kind of reaction to a violation of caste-related expectations.

John said, in effect, "I've seen a lot of ducks, and this looks like a duck to me". That doesn't prove anything, but it's a plausible reaction to what otherwise appears to be a bizarre collective hallucination.

(John has commented further here.)]


Past LLOG posts on related subjects:

"Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011
"Presidential pronouns, one more time", 5/22/2011
"Recommended reading", 5/3/2011
""A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator"", 8/9/2010
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010
"Them there I's", 2/11/2010
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2010
"What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009
"'I' is a camera", 7/18/2009
"I again", 7/13/2009
"Another pack member heard from", 6/9/2009
"Royal Baloney", 6/9/2009
"Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009
"Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme", 6/8/2009
"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009

Update — It's possible that in saying "about 3 dozen times" Mr. Lifson just meant "lots of times". But if so, he's still demonstating carelessness about the truth or falsehood of an easily checked matter of fact: the bullshit factor in that case is not the difference between 36 and 13, but rather the difference between the proportion of first-singular pronouns in President Obama's Afghanistan speech and in President G.W. Bush's Afghanistan speech, namely 0.68% vs. 1.13%.

Update #2 – Two more replications of the meme. "Obama Mentions Himself 13 times in Afghan Speech", Fox Nation (noted by fev in the comments below). And John Hayward at Human Events weighs in with the usual "creepy over-emphasis" (I like that phrase, I think I'll use it in the future to describe the inevitable howling from the rest of the pack) on the entirely imaginary excess of first-person-singular pronouns:

As usual with an Obama speech, there was a creepy over-emphasis on the personal pronoun – all the stuff 'I' have done, 'I' have said in the past, and 'I' will not tolerate.

Update #3 – Some other examples of "creepy over-emphasis" on Obama's imaginary excess of first-person-singular pronons, which I missed when they came out.

William Genseert, "Racism, Injustice, and the Left", American Thinker 6/19/2011:

Barack Obama has become the "I, Me and My President," with his serial usage of first-person pronouns and his incessant hogging of credit for the few things that occasionally go right, while continuously blaming others for his own failings.  Pointing this out has nothing to do with the person doing the pointing, but everything to do with Obama himself and his innate sense of self-worth.

"Mark Levin: Obama Makes Weiner’s Wiener About Himself", 6/14/2011:

In an appearance on the Tuesday broadcast of "Imus in the Morning" on the Fox Business Network, Levin noted the use of personal pronouns …

(Apparently "personal pronouns" has become the standard way for certain people to refer to first-person-singular pronouns.)

Cal Thomas, "Obama: An American idol in Europe", syndicated column 5/30/2011:

In his parliamentary speech, which began with herald trumpets announcing his arrival (appropriate since President Obama frequently toots his own horn by overdoing the personal pronouns "I" and "me"), the president spoke favorably of Adam Smith, the patron saint of economic conservatives.

I guess it's obligatory for me to count the FPSPs in the cited speech to Parliament: in 4286 words there were 8 I's (0.19%) and 10 first-person-singular pronouns in total (0.23%). There were 212 first-person-plural pronouns (we, our, us, etc.).

As a point of comparison, in the 2691 words of Ronald Reagan's (eloquent and justly celebrated) 1987 "Tear Down This Wall" speech in Germany, there were 37 I's (1.37%) and 50 first-person-singular pronouns in all (1.86%), compared to only 40 first-person-plural pronouns in total.

(This means, alas, that Ronald Reagan — as revealed in this speech's pronouns, at least — was not the kind of leader that Craig Shirley and Bill Pascoe think the American people want: he used "I" and "me" more than "we" and "us", 40 to 29.)

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50 Comments

  1. GeorgeW said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    It is possible that Lifson more severely criticized GWB for using 4.98 dozen personal pronouns in his Afghanistan speech. But, I doubt it.

  2. fev said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    Fox and I both counted 13 "I" pronouns; but either way, Obama's gotten more modest since the killing of Bin Laden. It could be that Kenyan Muslim socialists are trained to carefully disguise their true sentiments!

    Footnote: That's barely twice as many times as he said "our troops" or "our men and women in uniform."

    [(myl) Oops -- scribal error on my part -- my program also counts 13 "I' pronouns. Still 0.68%.

    Do you have a link for Fox's report on pronoun counts? What did they say about the count?]

  3. fev said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    Haven't seen anything yet on Fox itself, but there was a one-sentence item on "The Fox Nation":

    http://nation.foxnews.com/politics/2011/06/23/obama-mentions-himself-13-times-afghan-speech

    Apparently, once you've said "Obama" and "I", you've said it all.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    What does McIntyre hear in his head when Shirley and Pascoe make bogus claims about Huntsman's pronoun use?

    [(myl) You'd have to ask him.

    But I would point out that they start by saying that Huntsman is the GOP's Obama, and then make the bogus pronoun-use claim as an argument for the analogy.]

  5. Jason said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    Lifson must have made this argument 3 dozen times already!

  6. Alan Gunn said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    I'm inclined to think that attributing foolish misstatements to racism without evidence is somewhat more disgusting than simply making foolish misstatements. Are there any prominent politicians who have not had columnists say absurdly inaccurate things about them? This stuff about the President over-using first-person pronouns has been repeated so often that it's hardly cause for wonder when pundits repeat it; partisan punditry, on both sides, consists largely of repackaging stereotypes.

    [(myl) Your disgust aside, do you have any other explanation to offer for why this (empirically false) "stereotype", as you put it, has been so widely applied by people who don't like Barack Obama, when previously (as far as I know) it has never been mentioned in the case of any other national politician?

    When a meme like this one takes hold of the punditocracy's imagination, without any rational basis in fact, it's natural to look for an explanation in irrational areas. I and others have suggested that the widespread denigration of George W. Bush's intelligence and linguistic ability was to a large extent due to anti-southern and anti-Texan stereotypes. Do you think that this attempt at explanation (which might be right or wrong) was also "more disgusting than simply making foolish misstatements" (as the purveyors of "Bushisms" so often did). If not, why not?]

  7. Rebecca said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    I'm not discounting racism as a factor among pundits or others, but I have noticed what I think is a different pattern for this meme among non-pundits:

    Having grown up in a very red part of the country, I have a number of high school fb acquaintances who are extremely conservative and highly anti-Obama. When Obama either does or is alleged to have done something they dislike, they rag on him for that. When he does something they basically agree with (like getting bin Laden), they rag on him for taking too much credit, and trot out the pronoun-meme as part of that. I don't think it started as just a way to criticize when all else fails, but it's a convenient go-to in those cases, and that may be part of what gives it legs.

    That said, I have other reasons to suspect that racism might be part of why at least some of them are so thoroughly anti-Obama to begin with.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

    Well, is there a pre-existing stereotype about American black speech patterns (leaving aside the fact that by and large Pres. Obama doesn't exhibit them) that involves overuse of first-person pronouns and is thus being invoked here? I don't claim to be an expert on stereotypes in that area, but that's a new one on me. The criticism I infer from the allegations of such pronoun overuse (a criticism which is implausible even if the pronoun stats were not bogus, as has been previously discussed) is that the politician in question is unusually egocentric/vain/self-absorbed. Not "uppity."

    [(myl) You're looking at the problem from the wrong angle. See here for discussion.]

    It's a fair point that previous politicians have certainly been thought egocentric/vain/self-absorbed by their opponents and (perhaps – I haven't checked) this particular bogus pronoun-use claim hasn't been made against them. But I think the most parsimonious explanation is that "good lines" (in the sense of rhetorically successful, regardless of truth) get invented at particular times for often random/contingent reasons and then get adopted/recycled. I see no particular reason to think that if the pronoun-abuse meme had been devised 15 years earlier with Clinton as the target it would not have caught on or would have been squelched by actual fact-checking, especially in those pre-Language-Log days. Mary McCarthy came up with the famous (although presumably not entirely accurate, if fact-checked via corpus linguistics) crack about everything Lillian Hellman said being a lie including "and" and "the" whenever she came up with it for whatever reason she came up with it. It was a good line, that others could and did repeat and/or adapt to other targets. Is it plausible to say, but aha, Hellman was Jewish and neither McCarthy nor anyone else had previously said the same thing about an allegedly untruthful Gentile, although it would presumably have been no less obvious or more unfair a claim to have made about numerous such potential targets, and therefore . . . Therefore what?

    [(myl) But similar obviously-hyperbolic accusations of lying were and are commonplace. Thus Edith Wharton in her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence described Mrs. Thorley Rushworth's behavior towards her husband as "A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in every touch and every look ; a lie in every caress and every quarrel ; a lie in every word and in every silence." Searching newspaper archives, we find plenty of pre-Hellman accusations like "Why, every word of it was a lie". Hellman's only innovation was to add the obviously hyper-hyperbolic "including 'and' and 'the'". No one in their right mind would subject such claims to quantitative evaluation at the lexical level, though there is an obvious qualitative claim about truthfulness.]

  9. Kylopod said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    As I've pointed out before, one of the really dumb things about this line of argument is that presidents don't write most of their own speeches. That's what their speechwriters are for. So not only is I-counting a dubious method of measuring anyone's egocentricity, it's doubly absurd when you're psychoanalyzing the president for words that may not even be his own.

    What's ironic about all this is that one of the most popular anti-Obama memes on the right is the idea that Obama relies heavily on his teleprompter (which in fact he does–as does every modern president). So on the one hand, he's an overly scripted president (despite the fact that he sat far an unprecedented 152 interviews in his first year in office), and on the other the words that come out of his mouth provide deep clues to the inner workings of his mind.

  10. Alan Gunn said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    Well, as to anti-southern and anti-Texan stereotypes, I wouldn't consider them nearly so bad as racism. In a sense, all use of stereotypes reflects laziness and, often, stupidity, but some are worse than others. So accusing someone of anti-Texan bias doesn't seem nearly so serious as accusing someone of racism. (Maybe this is partly because I've been known to say unkind things about Texas when discussing things like teaching "creation science" in the public schools. I used to live in Texas and didn't like it much.) Anyway,the "anti-southern, anti-Texan" argument didn't seem persuasive; I figured the nonsense about Bush was anti-Republican, or anti-conservative, just as the "too many I's" story is anti-Democrat or anti-liberal.

    McIntyre was right about one thing: accusations of racism should not be made without evidence. His then proceeding to make one without evidence seems to me to show more about him than about his target.

  11. John McIntyre said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

    I would be more impressed with Mr. Gunn's distaste for ad hominem argument if he had not just made one.

  12. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    @myl:

    This means, alas, that Ronald Reagan — as revealed in this speech's pronouns, at least — was not the kind of leader that Craig Shirley and Bill Pascoe think the American people want: he used "I" and "me" more than "we" and "us", 40 to 29.

    Thinking of RR's presidency being highly regarded by many (the speech began a process that lead to USSR fall four years later), perhaps the prescriptive rule should be this:

    To qualify for WH executive greatness, in your speeches try to use 1st person singular pronouns about 38% more often than 1st person plural [LL readers can count, but: 38% of 29~11=40-29, using my TI-89, or 38*29=(40-2)*(30-1)=1200-60-40+2=1102].

  13. Alan Gunn said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    "I would be more impressed with Mr. Gunn's distaste for ad hominem argument if he had not just made one."

    What is "ad hominem" about saying that accusing someone of racism without evidence is bad?

  14. Axl said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    Has Obama's public use of 1st person singular pronouns declined since this meme took hold? Is the meme affecting his speechwriters?

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    The tu quoques seem unfortunate, as, unlike the pundits in question, Mr. McIntyre is someone with demonstrated interest in empirically-based observations about language usage. This would thus have been an excellent opportunity for him to flesh out the empirical basis for this particular observation. Setting aside the rhetorical style of his original comment quoted by myl and construing it charitably, it's not so much that there's no evidentiary basis, it's that the evidentiary basis is implicit and inaccessible. Rather than simply telling his audience that his subjective reaction was to be reminded of how overt racists used to talk in the Bad Old Days, he could explicate why he had that reaction and/or point to data tending to support the reaction. This would be consistent with a recurrent theme on LL that introspective judgments about questions of language usage can be unreliable and ought to be confirmed against other data. Was it a stereotype in the Kentucky of Mr. McIntyre's youth that "uppity" blacks had distinctive patterns of first-person pronoun use? Perhaps there is a searchable corpus of Amos n Andy scripts (or similar texts reflecting stereotypical attitudes of the era) which would show how pronoun use differed among the cast to signal which stereotypical stock character was which? Something that would get us past the point where A's words are perceived by B to have a subtext that C doesn't perceive and there is no way to judge between B and C other than to say everyone's entitled to his opinion.

  16. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    I'd be willing to bet that Pres. Obama's speechwriters turn out a speech in the next few weeks without a single first-person pronoun in it. It would make a nice backspin talking point.

  17. J Lee said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    Mr Brewer was indeed too magnanimous in his first post, condescending to entertain the possibility that such a variation would go unnoticed despite Black English's utter entrenchment among Standard speakers.!

  18. Bobbie said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

    myl said …"the widespread denigration of George W. Bush's intelligence and linguistic ability was to a large extent due to anti-southern and anti-Texan stereotypes. " I say, a lot of the denigration of his intelligence was due to the things he said that were not considered intelligent, such as neologisms, mispronunciations, and incorrect statements. W often sounded rather stupid.

  19. Kylopod said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

    I'd be willing to bet that Pres. Obama's speechwriters turn out a speech in the next few weeks without a single first-person pronoun in it.

    Trouble is, if he does that, it's likely to use the dreaded passive voice (or something the critics can construe as the passive voice), which will prove he's a girly president. Obama and his speechwriters aren't foolish enough to play such a fixed game. (Or are they?)

  20. John McIntyre said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

    It is time to go, rather than inflict more of this on the readers of Language Log.

    If I expand on the comments to which Mr. Gunn et al. take exception, I will do so at my blog, and they are free to pursue me there and comment.

  21. Kylopod said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

    And just for the record, American Thinker is (ironically) one of the dumbest conservative websites I've ever had the misfortune to stumble across. I appreciate these LL posts, but it's kind of like squashing a beetle.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

    Certainly not an exact parallel to most of the recent stuff, but as a partial meme-antecedent, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/07/03/127543/-Frameshop-%7CMe,-Myself-and-I is left-wing political commentary from 2005 somewhat pejoratively characterizing the "frame" of a speech by then-Pres. Bush as "me, myself, and I" based apparently on the frequency of first-person pronouns in a short excerpt. I assume the term "frame" is supposed to be Lakoffian; it conveys a sort of Pop-Language-Science aura. Methodologically, the piece suffers from the common defect of failing to dig up prior speeches given by other Presidents in similar circumstances to get a baseline rate of first-person pronoun usage.

  23. J Lee said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 12:30 am

    does Mr McIntyre, in urging me to consider myl's reply, mean to suggest that accusations of racism have not been a pernicious and unrelenting presence since before Pres Obama was even elected, despite the laughably consistent pattern of exposed hoaxes? somehow 'well, what's your explanation, then?' does not seem to me justification for an outlandish one; it's obvious that the pundits are, as you said, replicating the meme for its own sake rather than suggesting Pres Obama has an inherited narcissistic personality disorder that influences his policies.

  24. JMM said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 1:44 am

    As long as we are totally off the topic anyway (fell free to remove this at will), what really always bothered me about George W. was his accent. His parents spoke with northeastern (upper class? Connecticut?) accents, he spent most of his early years in DC and Connecticut, and junior high was in an Urban area (Houston), at an upper class school. Then he went to Phillips for most of high school, then off to Yale. Though I know he spent a part of his elementary school years in Midland, Tx. that accent is way too strong. I have relatives in Midland!

    I grew up I Dallas and went to Texas schools and universities (except for two high school years up north, in Oklahoma), all my grand parents were from east Texas and near by. I do still have upland southern elements in my idiolect, but it is nothing close to GWB's. Even when I was twenty it was nothing like that, and I could differentiate pin and pen in a pinch. Most of my cousins, who grew up in rural areas, are nothing like that, and none are as educated or wealthy as the Bushes.

    [Since this isn't a politics blog I won't ask why a Bush isn't considered "an elite", by the wingnuts, while someone with real accomplishments that comes from the middle class is.]

    [(myl) There are two quite different sets of questions here. One is why President George W. Bush ended with a Texas accent, and why this accent didn't diminish more when he entered national politics. The other question is why politically-opposed journalists and others reacted to this accent in the way that they did.

    The answer to the first question seems basically to be that W lived in Texas from the age of 2 through the start of high school; and people (in America, anyhow) generally adopt the accents of their childhood peers and not their parents; and W entered business and politics in Texas, which would have reinforced his regional identity.

    The answer to the second question is pretty simple: there's a long-standing association, among outsiders, between such accents and stereotypes of provincialism, stupidity, laziness, and ignorance.]

  25. linda seebach said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    Beyond just counting I/me vs. we/us, it's necessary to consider what the rest of the sentence says. "I believe . . " is less arrogant, not more, than "we believe . . ." where the "we" is some unspecified group — "we Americans," perhaps — and the speaker is claiming that all or most of them agree with him.

    Editorial pages say"we," but we tried (at least at the ones I worked for) to avoid using it for any group larger than ourselves who were writing there..

    When I was living in China, I noticed that in answering questions about the U.S., I tended to say "Americans" when I was reporting an opinion I don't share but believe to be broadly representative, and "we" when I was expressing views I believe to be in the majority.

    [(myl) This is an important point, discussed at length (for example) here. But the writers being criticized here are making obviously-false factual claims about simple pronoun counts. If they were making a more subtle argument, about counts of different categories of first-person references, we could take a look at that. In the absence of such an argument, I'm not interested in doing the analysis, because it's irrelevant to the current discussion, and I'm not convinced that we'd learn anything by it anyhow.

    The question under discussion is not how Obama talks (or how his speechwriters write), but rather how to explain the bizarre fantasies that literally dozens of commentators are spinning about how they perceive him as talking.

    The first line of explanation is undeniable: these are people who are careless with the truth and subject to pack-mentality thinking. It's puzzling to me that no one has bothered mounting a defense against these serious charges, while there are howls of outrage at the observation that the pack's reaction is similar to traditional anger at members of low-status groups who get "above themselves".]

  26. GeorgeW said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 5:59 am

    J. W. Brewer: "Well, is there a pre-existing stereotype about American black speech patterns (leaving aside the fact that by and large Pres. Obama doesn't exhibit them) that involves overuse of first-person pronouns and is thus being invoked here?"

    Fought, in "Language and Ethnicity," mentions a form of exaggerated boasting that is part of the African-American culture (think Muhammad Ali). However, this is performed in specific contexts and for fun. No one would engage in this style in formal, serious speeches. Further, Obama was not raised in this cultural milieu.

  27. Mark Liberman said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    J.W. Brewer: Well, is there a pre-existing stereotype about American black speech patterns (leaving aside the fact that by and large Pres. Obama doesn't exhibit them) that involves overuse of first-person pronouns and is thus being invoked here? I don't claim to be an expert on stereotypes in that area, but that's a new one on me. The criticism I infer from the allegations of such pronoun overuse (a criticism which is implausible even if the pronoun stats were not bogus, as has been previously discussed) is that the politician in question is unusually egocentric/vain/self-absorbed. Not "uppity."

    JW, you are being uncharacteristically obtuse here.

    John McIntyre's point is NOT that there's a general stereotype of self-importance and excessive self-reference among blacks, but rather that there's a specific and well-known traditional response to members of low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations of self-effacement (and, for that matter, to caste-related expectations about speech patterns).

    There have been many sociological analyses of this reaction, e.g. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 1949:

    The sensitivity to any assertive move on the part of the Negro is immediately recorded in threatening judgments of his behavior of the type we already know; he is said to be "uppity" or "getting out of his place". [...]

    Negroes who do not exhibit [subservient behavior] are "getting out of their place," are "uppity," are "getting above themselves," …

    According to the OED, uppity means " Above oneself, self-important, ‘jumped-up’; arrogant, haughty, pert, putting on airs". It's certainly plausible to see all the stuff about how Obama "frequently toots his own horn by overdoing the personal pronouns 'I' and 'me'," applied to self-references well below the norm for other politicians in quantitative terms, as exactly this kind of reaction to a violation of caste-related expectations.

    John said, in effect, "I've seen lots of ducks, and this looks like a duck to me". That doesn't prove anything, but it's a plausible reaction to what otherwise appears to be a bizarre collective hallucination.

  28. GeorgeW said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 6:12 am

    (An addition to my comment above at 5:59)

    It occurs to me that many white people do not understand that this form of A-A exaggerated bragging is limited to playful contexts and generalize it as characteristic of A-As in general. This could motivate this ego meme about Obama.

  29. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    @JMM
    http://howlandbolton.com/images/moseyingforDummies.jpg

  30. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    What strikes me about this discussion is the certainty with which racism as a possible cause for this particular criticism of Obama is dismissed. This is, in my experience, a common phenomenon, and another example that springs to mind was a similar reaction to Geoff Pullum's suggestion that the willingness to believe the 'Eskimos have x words for snow' nonsense might be, in part, accounted for by an unconscious racism, where Eskimos are seen as primitive and 'other'.

    What seems to happen is: that a phenomenon is observed that seems to have no rational explanation; a number of explanations are offered (such as, in this case, anti-Democrat hype, dislike of anyone who sounds superior, racism, and so on); all are considered as possible EXCEPT racism. Hmm…

  31. Jim said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    The only person I know of who has commented to my face about Obama's "high" personal pronoun count is also the only person I know of who joked that they were going to replace "Hail to the Chief" with the theme to the Jefferson's at Obama's inauguration. Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but there you have it.

  32. Alan Gunn said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    "What seems to happen is: that a phenomenon is observed that seems to have no rational explanation; a number of explanations are offered (such as, in this case, anti-Democrat hype, dislike of anyone who sounds superior, racism, and so on); all are considered as possible EXCEPT racism. Hmm…"

    Who has said that racism isn't "considered as possible"? Sure, it's possible, as are a lot of less nasty explanations. So why insist that the vilest possible explanation is the right one? Is it your habit to attribute the worst possible motive to any puzzling behavior?

    Over the years, Language Log has discussed journalists' willingness to repeat a good many absurd stories which are either unsupported by evidence or easily disproved by a five-minute search: Eskimos have X words for snow, women use three times as many words than men, British cows have regional accents, such-and-such a language has no word for time (or soup, or whatever), and so on. This stream of stories suggests to me that a good many journalists are lazy and poorly educated people who put whatever catchy nonsense tales they hear into their pieces rather than doing real thinking. Then along comes a journalist who passes along another silly story, but this time it's about the President, and suddenly this behavior is so inexplicable that racism must be the explanation. Well, it isn't inexplicable to me: it looks like just one more example of a journalist too lazy to check a story that supports his position. I could be wrong, but wouldn't it be nice to have actual evidence before accusing someone of having a particularly nasty mindset?

  33. Gabe Doyle said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

    I looked through some of Google News's archives and found that complaints about Presidents' personal pronoun usage levels do go back further than Obama. I'm going to try to pop in some links, though I imagine that might get this comment relegated as spam.

    Evans and Novak claimed George Bush was treating Iraq as a apersonal vendetta based on his using "I" in 1990. Max Lerner notes a full-page ad in the New York Times assailing Nixon's overuse of "I" in <a href="http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eapVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=M-EDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3159,4268981&dq=president+personal+pronouns&hl=en1970. William Buckley took LBJ to task for it in 1965. And here it is, complete with a word count, used against Teddy Roosevelt back in 1912: "In his speech in Nashua the other day he used the word I 231 times and a man who can't make an address without using the personal pronoun that number of times, must have something wrong with his vocabulary."

    I found a couple other less interesting examples for LBJ, FDR (quite a few for him), George W. Bush, and Adlai Stevenson. I think that the obsession with it is new to Obama, but there is a thread of it extending back a hundred years.

  34. James said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    So why insist that the vilest possible explanation is the right one?

    I'm just curious: do you actually believe that someone in this thread has insisted that the vilest possible explanation is the right one, or was that just a rhetorical trick?

  35. Alan Gunn said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    @James:

    This is McIntyre's conclusion, from the original post:

    when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is “That boy is getting uppity.”

    No other explanation suggested. So, yes, he seems to me to be saying that racism is what causes people to repeat this silly story. Seems clear enough to me. Certainly a lot clearer than the silly claim that anyone here has said that racism can't possibly be the explanation.

  36. James said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Sorry, you call that insisting that the vilest explanation is the right one?

    There is no insistence there. He's just offering his opinion.
    I think you're making a huge deal out of nothing here.

  37. Alan Gunn said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    So it's OK to say, without evidence, that you think somebody is a racist as long as you don't "insist" that he is? If it makes you happy, consider my sentence edited to read "… so why pick the vilest explanation as the only one to offer?"

  38. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    Wow. Someone's wrong on the Internet again?

  39. Phil Jennings said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    My father, a decent man born in Georgia in 1921, married a North Dakota woman and raised me in a culture that did not imagine much beyond Norwegian versus German, and Lutheran versus Catholic. We watched Cronkite, encountered civil rights issues at a great distance, and Dad claimed that he was not racist, but "if a Negro got uppetty…".

    If it was possible then, it is more than possible now, that people can be racists while denying in all sincerity that they are racist. The human capacity for self-delusion is phenomenal. I believe my father would have strenuously denied what I could see even as a pre-politicized teenager. The good in him far outweighed this and North Dakota provided few challenges except in how we treated Native Americans, rarely seen in Edgeley. Nevertheless, I am inclined to view modern-day "righteous denials" with skepticism.

    Bringing this back to a linguistics theme, I have never heard the word "uppetty" used, save in the context of African-American behaviour. No uppetty Indians, no uppetty Mexicans, and certainly no uppetty Swedes.

    [(myl) COCA has the following immediately-following collocates for "uppity" (along with a long tail of things like "primate", "wog", "attitude", etc.):

    blacks/black/nigger/colored 26
    woman/women/wimmen/skank/female 15
    homosexual/homosexuals 2
    mexican 1
    chinese 1
    judiciary 1
    teachers 1
    computer 1

    So isolated examples aside, it's basically blacks and women.

    As a result of the reality that you "could see even as a pre-politicized teenager", the word has largely (though not entirely) been abandoned as a way of talking negatively about people who don't know their place, and is now, more often than not, used as a term of prideful self-reference by people who think of themselves as legitimately rebellious.]

  40. CT said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    Have you ever read "The Ritual Process" by Victor Turner? Not linguistics but anthropology. His ideas of liminality and communitas might in part account for the expectations of caste speech patterns in this case. Turner theorized about social status, liminality, and senses of community of equals which might be applicable to this discussion.

  41. Allienne Goddard said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    Uh, just because one might consider being a racist, or perhaps merely the accusation, "vile" does not imply that there are few racists about. I assume that practically everyone here is educated and reflective enough to understand that nobody grows up as a privileged member of a racist society without absorbing racists views. One must actually devote energy and effort to first recognizing these racist views and then replacing them with a more accurate individual evaluation of individuals, and the majority have neither the time nor the inclination to go through the trouble. What is difficult is to determine is whether racism itself actually motivates any particular criticism by and particular individual.

    I have no doubt that there exist individuals who believe Obama to be narcissistic as a result of some particular non-racist impetus, but there are surely those who see him as "uppity" because they are disturbed to see a blackish man in the White House. Personally, I hate Obama because I think he is smart and decent enough to know that what he is doing is evil (i.e. death warrants for American citizens, starting illegal wars, kowtowing to the economic elite, ignoring the rule of law, etc. ad nauseum).

  42. Preston said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    It's just anti-Democrat sentiment from conservative critics, criticism that would exist regardless of Obama's race. To attribute it to racism is an attempt to dismiss the criticism by attacking the messenger. Obama has previously been criticized for perceived narcisissm based on past speeches, particularly during his first election campaign.

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 12:19 am

    There have been studies of brain scans showing people's different reactions to pictures of people of their own race and other races (popularized here and here, for example). Probably some here know the history of these studies and can evaluate them better than I can.

    I wonder whether these studies are valid and can be made quantitative enough to look for correlations. If so, one could see whether belief that Obama overuses FPS (or other absurdities) correlates with controlled or uncontrolled negative reactions on seeing pictures of black people, or with difficulty in matching positive words with pictures of black people, or some such—though I can see difficulties in getting a sufficiently big and representative sample. If it could work, the answer would interest me, for one.

  44. James said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 5:43 am

    So it's OK to say, without evidence, that you think somebody is a racist as long as you don't "insist" that he is?

    There's no general answer to that question, I would say.

    Okay, so indeed, it was just a rhetorical trick.

    Another trick is your repetition of "without evidence." We have established now that the reason for believing that the repeated false charges about Obama are racist is that racism would explain what otherwise makes no sense. This is called inference to the best explanation. You may certainly dispute whether the proffered explanation is best, but saying "without evidence" obscures the original argument.

  45. Alan Gunn said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    "We have established now that the reason for believing that the repeated false charges about Obama are racist is that racism would explain what otherwise makes no sense. This is called inference to the best explanation. You may certainly dispute whether the proffered explanation is best, but saying "without evidence" obscures the original argument."

    That doesn't work. Several explanations for this regrettable but common journalistic practice have been offered: laziness, stupidity, partisan fervor. There is no evidence–absolutely none–that racism rather than one of the others applies in this case. Consider someone being tried for a race-motivated hate crime, in which evidence of racism would be admissible. I doubt that evidence that this person had passed on a false but widely believed story about the President would be admissible, though I admit to not having a case squarely in point.

  46. Dakota said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    How can anyone possibly know another person's motives, except by what they say and what they do.

    As far as why no one used "pronoun" counts against Clinton, they had Monica. No need to drop the r-bomb. It's probably all they can think of to use against Obama. They're gonna try something; it's not like they're exactly political allies.

    Crying racism every time someone disagrees with a black person devalues the word. So when a bone fide case of racism does come up, no one will take it seriously because the word has become nothing more than yet another political tool.

  47. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    As I suggested some few comments above: "What seems to happen is: that a phenomenon is observed that seems to have no rational explanation; a number of explanations are offered (such as, in this case, anti-Democrat hype, dislike of anyone who sounds superior, racism, and so on); all are considered as possible EXCEPT racism."

    Thanks to Alan Gunn and Dakota for making my point so well: "Several explanations for this regrettable but common journalistic practice have been offered: laziness, stupidity, partisan fervor. There is no evidence–absolutely none–that racism rather than one of the others applies in this case." and "Crying racism every time someone disagrees with a black person devalues the word."

    There is at least as much evidence of racism as there is of laziness, stupidity and partisan fervor, surely? As for "crying racism", nice way to dismiss someone's claim. Seems that the only genuine instances of racism are the ones that no one complains of.

  48. Graeme said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    Rather fits two instinctive reactions doesn't it? 1. First black President, so some whites find it harder to identify with him and expect or prefer 'we' to 'I'; 2. the anti-intellectual, college professor meme is at play.

    But it is all a bit subtle for an Australian onlooker. Here, we have a Foreign Minister who openly jokes that his Prime Minister has turned The Lodge (our White House) into 'Boganville', because she speaks in nasalized tones and lives with her self-described boyfriend, a hairdresser by trade). That she is our first female national leader couldn't have anything to do with it…

    (ps. If you can't google 'bogan' it's somewhat downmarket from 'NASCAR family').

  49. Alan Gunn said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    "There is at least as much evidence of racism as there is of laziness, stupidity and partisan fervor, surely?"

    Yes: There is no evidence to enable any sensible person to make an informed judgment about which of these (or other) possibilities it is. So there is as much evidence–none at all–for the racism explanation as for any other. So why pick racism as the winner?

    [(myl) But no one has "picked racism as the winner". In more than a dozen tedious explorations of this tedious meme, I've twice (I think) quoted and linked to others who raise the issue as a possibility. In this case, I quoted John McIntyre's observation that this aspect of the anti-Obama fervour reminds him of his childhood experience of remarks about uppity negroes. This caused a firestorm of vituperation, most of which I've deleted since it was contentless name-calling. Methinks you folks protest too much.]

    I suppose a reading of this person's other writings might turn up clues, but nobody who has claimed that this guy is a racist has done that, or even suggested that it be done. Your standard seems to be, if you've heard that the President says "I" excessively you should research that claim before repeating it, but you needn't do any research before announcing that you think the person making the claim is a racist. Which is the more serious charge: using "I" too often or being a racist? Does it make sense to say that serious charges needn't be researched but failure to research minor ones is irrational?

    Suppose that all you knew about someone is that he voted against President Obama. It is, of course, possible that he did that because of racism, but there are many other possible reasons. Would a fair-minded person conclude, on the basis of this one piece of "evidence," that the voter was a racist and announce that conclusion in a blog post?

    Every day, journalists write and say absurd things that could easily be checked, but they don't bother. Year after year, when Tom Brokaw anchored the NBC evening news show he would say, on a day when the stock market had declined some after a day or more of big gains that the decline was due to "profit taking." This explanation is nonsense, which has long been known to be wrong, yet he'd repeat this crazy claim several times a year. Did people write columns denouncing him as an anti-capitalist or some such for repeating a stupid and false story about the markets? Of course not, because there was nothing else to support that claim. Other examples abound. Even the "I, me" story has been told, repeatedly, about politicians, by journalists favoring either side. Then people start repeating it about President Obama, and it becomes grounds for calling them, or at least one of them, racists. This is a serious accusation, which should not be made lightly.

  50. John McIntyre said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    I have posted on this subject at the blog: http://bsun.md/k0Ux18

    I invite Mr. Gunn to express his vehemence there.

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