A meme in hibernation

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Our posts about political language are usually reactions to things that politicians say, or things that pundits say about politicians. But this one is about something that mainstream pundits are not saying. Or more precisely, no longer saying very often.

The "President Me, Myself and I" meme — the false idea that Barack Obama uses first-person singular pronouns unusually, even unprecedentedly, often — seems to have slithered back into the swamp grass and gone dormant. It continues to infest the American Thinker (e.g. recently here), and it occasionally scurries out of the website weeds in places like Forbes, where one John Mariotti recently made a casual reference to the conventional falsehood in promoting his forthcoming book:

No other presidents in history have made so many speeches, appeared on television so many times, and used the pronouns “I” and “my” so many times.

But this sort of thing is not now regularly featured in the Op-Ed pieces of mainstream gasbags like George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Stanley Fish, as it was a few years ago.

As the 2012 presidential campaign goes forward, however, I predict that this meme will emerge from hibernation.

This is not to say that analyzing politician's word counts, and even their pronoun counts, is worthless or uninteresting. I'll post shortly on some interesting work by Jean Véronis related to the Observatoire des Discours ("Discourse Observatory") that he set up for Le Monde to analyze the current French presidential campaign.

The problem with the business about Obama's pronoun usage is that the pundits who have carried on about it hardly ever actually count anything, and make no relevant comparisons in the few cases where they do. Instead, they make unsupported assertions that turn out to be trivially false as a matter of mere fact.

If you find it hard to believe (as I do) that mainstream publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post would publish falsehoods about facts that can trivially be checked by counting words in the public record, please take a look at some of these links:

"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count" (6/23/2011)
"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)



10 Comments

  1. Martin Staffa said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    Hi,
    about time this meme resurfaces. Last year, I wrote a term paper about the pronouns of Bush and Obama, using a fairly extensive corpus. No suprise, their pronoun usage is not very different.

    http://narretz.de/en/content/presidential-pronouns-bush-and-obama

  2. circadianwolf said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    "If you find it hard to believe (as I do) that mainstream publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post would publish falsehoods about facts that can trivially be checked"

    http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/should-the-times-be-a-truth-vigilante/

    [(myl) That link goes to an article that raises the question "whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about". What's under discussion here, however, is "facts" that are asserted by regular (as well as occasional) columnists for publications like NYT, WaPo, U.S. News, etc. ]

  3. D.O. said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    Somehow right-of-center authors decided that Mr. Obama is just a pompous, narcissistic empty space. And each time he says "I" it reinforces their preconception. Actual counts do not matter; real, down to earth self-made person has a right to say I as often as they want, but this Harvard liberal turned Chicago gangster should just shut up.
    The other side, of course, thought that Mr. Bush is no more than village idiot pumped upwards by oil money and treated his utterances likewise.

  4. Alan Gunn said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    "If you find it hard to believe (as I do) that mainstream publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post would publish falsehoods about facts that can trivially be checked"
    Do any papers check syndicated columns for accuracy? If they did, you'd expect to see a column in one paper that differed from the same day's column in others, and I never have. Also, isn't it likely that the columnists insist that their columns be published as written? I've never seen one of those contracts, but the uniformity of columns seems like pretty good evidence that the papers that publish them aren't allowed to tinker with what they say.

  5. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

    If a syndicated column arrives in advance of publication date, an editor can raise a question about factual assertions.

    I've done this with a nationally syndicated advice columnist and the column was corrected before publication.

    I never edited the editorial page, but my assumption is that if a New York Times editor raised a question, the columnist would be more inclined to consider it than if some editor from a small rural paper questioned something that had already appeared in the New York Times or Washington Post.

    Some papers edit syndicated material, some don't. There was a national flap over a Mitch Albom column that very few editors changed, even though it needed it.

    Here's Albom's column about the gaffe:
    http://mitchalbom.com/d/journalism/4320/i-owe-you-apology-sundays-column-here-it

    And here's another view:
    http://www.poynter.org/uncategorized/39821/portrait-of-the-columnist-as-a-pampered-athlete/

    And here's the lowly editor who fixed it:
    http://apse.dallasnews.com/news/2005/041205albom2.html

    Of course, Albom's column was easier to fix and didn't need feedback from the writer. A column that is entirely built around assertions that aren't supported by facts is not so easy for a copy editor to fix and move into the layout queue.

    More readers could complain about those unfounded assertions, too, and some do in online comments.

  6. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    If the papers aren't willing to verify the accuracy of their star columnists (and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that they aren't) then they should not perhaps consider another line of business. (Fred Vultee could make a career out of cataloguing Detroit Free Press Mitch Albom's crimes against fact.)

    Most of these columnists, AUIU — even the syndicated ones, — have a "home" newspaper for which they actually work and which is responsible for getting the proofread text to the syndicator prior to publication.

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    Damn, I need a personal copyeditor! Should say "Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom" above. Also "AIUI" sted "AUIU" and delete extraneous comma in second graf.

  8. The idiots and I: Barack Obama’s pronouns are not particularly personal – The Star-Ledger | The Real Unemployment Statistics said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    [...] Obama certainly has his flaws, but overuse of the first person is not among them, as Mark Liberman notes here: [...]

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

    May 15, 2012 @ 3:21 am

    [...] Mark Liberman has published about 17 Language Log posts on this topic since early June 2009 (this post includes a list up to 31 March 2012; Will's latest and most extreme assertion is discussed [...]

  10. [links] Link salad is going to drive its daddy to drinking | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    [...] A meme in hibernation — [T]he false idea that Barack Obama uses first-person singular pronouns unusually, even unprecedentedly, often — seems to have slithered back into the swamp grass and gone dormant. [...] The problem with the business about Obama's pronoun usage is that the pundits who have carried on about it hardly ever actually count anything, and make no relevant comparisons in the few cases where they do. Instead, they make unsupported assertions that turn out to be trivially false as a matter of mere fact. Wow. Conservatives making unsupported assertions which turn out to be false? Inconceivable. (Except on a daily basis, of course.) [...]

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