Chris Christie's pronouns

« previous post | next post »

According to Andrew Rosenthal ("Chris Christie: But Enough About Mitt, Let’s Talk About Me", NYT 8/29/2012):

Gov. Chris Christie is getting rave reviews today for his performance at the National Republican Convention, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he did a huge amount of good for the three most important people in his life – he, himself, and him.

Whether he did any good for Mitt Romney is less certain (and when the cameras cut to Mr. Romney in the audience, the look on his face, at times, suggested that he may have been wondering the same thing.)

The New Jersey governor was, as advertised, energetic, and combative, and played right to the heart of his constituency – err, I mean Mr. Romney’s constituency – on the far right of the Republican Party. But his speech sound more like a stump speech for himself, for re-election or for some federal office, than the keynote speech at the nominating convention for another politician.

By my count, Mr. Christie used the word “Romney” six times in his address. He used the word “I” 30 times, plus a couple of “me’s” and “my’s” tossed in for seasoning.

Poor Governor Christie. He's getting the First Person Singular Pronoun attack, which so many others have directed at Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, among others.  Is it any more deserved in his case?

Well, if you listen to his speech, or read the transcript, you'll find that he doesn't mention the national Republican ticket until about the 16:30 mark of his 24-minute address. That's something that he might fairly be criticized for, given that he's the keynote speaker for a convention whose whole point is to pump up the Romney-Ryan campaign.

But what about those I's and me's and my's? In the official transcript — presumably the "remarks as prepared for delivery" — we find the following:

36 i
12 me
8 my
2 i'm
________
58 total first-person-singular pronouns in 2668 words = 2.17%

Let's compare some of the other speeches recently delivered in Tampa.

Paul Ryan: 73 FPSPs in 3295 words = 2.22%

Rick Santorum: 28 FPSPs in 1258 words = 2.23%

Ann Romney: 64 FPSPs in 2365 words = 2.71%

Mike Huckabee: 45 FPSPs in 1559 words = 2.89%

Clint Eastwood: 56 FPSPs in 1161 words = 4.8%

I'd be the last person to deny that words matter, or that you learn a lot from the statistical properties of word usage. But in fact, Chris Christie's FPSP usage is not out of line with other politicians in similar contexts, and in fact is lower than other major speeches at the Tampa Convention. And he could easily have delivered a rhetorically equivalent speech with even fewer first-person-singular pronouns. He could have started with 16 minutes of boasting in the third person about the accomplishments of his tenure in New Jersey, and hammering on his version of the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats, with hardly an I or me in the mix. That speech would have been just as politically problematic as the one that he delivered, and for exactly the same reasons.

Commenting on first-person pronouns seems to be turning into one of those pundit's tropes, like the cab-driver conversation, that give some shape to a column that the writer is too bored or lazy to support in a more consequential way.

Share:



15 Comments »

  1. ThomasH said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    Clearly this is just sarcasm directed at the silliness of Obama's supposed over use of I.

  2. Andy Averill said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    He used a lot of FPSP's in the first part of his speech because his topic was — himself. It's a time-honored tradition in both parties to let rising stars give a speech where they introduce themselves to the country at large.

    [(myl) The difference in FPSP usage between the two parts of Christie's speech is less than you might think. The portion of the speech before he mentioned the national ticket, which discussed his own background, his record in New Jersey, and some general differences between Republicans and Democrats:

    40 FPSPs in 1787 words = 2.24%

    The portion of the speech after he mentioned the national ticket -- which is mostly focused on contrasting the national ticket with Obama:

    18 FPSPs in 881 words = 2.04%

    In fact, the percentage of I's was slightly higher in the second part (1.48%) than in the first part (1.40%). What's striking, obviously, is that he got 1787/(1787+881) = 67% of the way through his speech before mentioned Romney and Ryan, even indirectly.]

    Obama gave pretty much exactly the same speech in 2004. By my count, he used FPSP's 59 times out of 2275 words = 2.59%.

  3. the other Mark P said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

    And he could easily have delivered a rhetorically equivalent speech with even fewer first-person-singular pronouns.

    Or conversely he could have laden a speech full of FPSP's which was praising Romney to the skies.

    e.g. I support Mitt utterly. I want him as President. To my mind, he is the US's saviour. My heart skips a beat and my mind leaps when I see him.

    6/30 = a nice healthy 5% ego.

  4. the other Mark P said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    Apologies. That little "speech" is of course 20% FPSPs.

  5. Abi said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

    I fully agree with your point that this is a lazy piece of evidence. The specific complaint appears to be not (just) about the overuse of I's and me's, but the relative underuse of Romney. It *is* a bit odd in a celebratory event for Romney, isn't it?

    Andy Averill has already mentioned that there's a lot of FPSPs in the first half. More interesting — to me, at least — is that there is no mention of Romney in that first half.

  6. Boris J. said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    "And he could easily have delivered a rhetorically equivalent speech with even fewer first-person-singular pronouns." What about FPPPs? Why aren't they accounted for, here? Can't they be used to boast, too?

    I can certainly imagine Gov. Christie saying "What we've accomplished in New Jersey since 2010 is very encouraging–our state is in better shape than it has been in years, and that's why we need to keep working hard."

    That's 0% FPSP and 9.4% FPPP, yet Gov. Christie would definitely be promoting his own ideas and actions, because everyone would interpret "we" either as (a) Christie and his team or (b) the entire state of NJ, which implies that he is a very able leader.

    Right?

  7. Pete said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    I'd be the last person to deny that words matter… Hang on…

    So "words matter" means that words do matter. "To deny that words matter" would mean they don't matter. So "the last person to deny that words matter" thinks they do matter.

    Just checking!

  8. Andy Averill said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    myl said: The difference in FPSP usage between the two parts of Christie's speech is less than you might think.

    Abi said: Andy Averill has already mentioned that there's a lot of FPSPs in the first half. More interesting — to me, at least — is that there is no mention of Romney in that first half.

    Again, this is very similar to Obama's 2004 speech, except that he mentioned Kerry a little sooner — after 1012 words out of 2275. In the first part of his speech the ratio of FPSP's is 30/1012 = 2.96%. Second half of the speech, 29/1263 = 2.30%. So by that measure Obama is a little more self-obsessed than Christie.

    However, just mechanically counting pronouns can be misleading. In the second half of the speech, Obama says things where the usage of FPSP is indirect, and therefore not about him:

    It is that fundamental belief — it is that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper — that makes this country work.

    (The transcript of Obama's speech is available here.)

  9. boris said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    It strikes me that the people complaining about first-person pronoun use aren't making things up. There is something that makes them (and others?) hear some such uses more than others. Now, it might be personal bias in some cases, but could it be that there is a better way to quantify them then just a ratio vs total words? Could the location and context matter? I realize that reporters should no better and not just trust their gut when reporting these things, but maybe we should cut them at least *some* slack.

    [(myl) There are certainly many different uses of first-person-singular pronouns -- see "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009, for a sketch of a taxonomy.

    The point of this post, however, was not to deny Andrew Rosenthal's conclusion, for which there is some other evidence, but to object to his evidence, which was lazy, weak, and unconvincing. In other cases, similar sorts of lazy and weak arguments have used to attack other politicians for whose alleged self-involvement no other evidence is given. When journalists present weak and even silly arguments, I'm not inclined to take the view that "surely there must be something behind their conclusions, let's cut them some slack".

    At least Mr. Rosenthal did attempt to count pronouns, even if he (or his interns) got the numbers wrong; that's more than (for example) George Will has done in his columns excoriating Barack Obama for alleged self-obsession.]

  10. boris said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    @myl,
    I don't disagree with you. It's not an excuse, merely a reason. I recall a post here a while ago about a word that was only used twice in an entire book and yet stood out as peculiar. I'm just wondering if something similar is going on with these pronoun claims.

  11. William Steed said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    I'm concerned about anaphora. If you're going to count "I" (and associated words), you should also count Mitt and Mr Romney, but also "he", "him" and "his" referring to him as an antecedent. Basic linguistic knowledge missed in the desire to incorporate technology.

    If a student did this for credit, I might pass it, but barely.

  12. Language statistics | Stats Chat said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    [...] This week's example is the speech by New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie at the Republican National Convention.  A New York Times piece said Gov. Chris Christie is getting rave reviews today for his performance at the National Republican Convention, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he did a huge amount of good for the three most important people in his life – he, himself, and him…. [...]

  13. Lessons Learned From the Republican Presidential Campaign SpeechesPresenting Yourself and more . . . said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    [...] widely reported, he didn’t mention Gov. Romney until 16 minutes into the speech. He used the word “I” 36 times, and “me” 12 times while mentioning the candidate only six [...]

  14. Warum amerikanische Journalisten Obamas Pronomen zählen « USA Erklärt said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    [...] der Anfangs erwähnten Rede des Republikaners Christie finden wir einen Vergleich mit anderen Rednern. Ein Ausschnitt als Beispiel für die entsprechenden [...]

  15. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Lying, Eastwooding, YOLO | Wordnik said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    [...] deliberated on Eastwooding and talking to empty chairs. At Language Log, Mark Liberman tallied Chris Christie’s first person pronouns, and Victor Mair translated Jon Huntsman’s Mandarin statement about Mitt [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment