Inaugural pronouns

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[I'm following up on this morning's post "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme".]

Stanley Fish ("Yes I can", NYT 6/7/2009) cited the "naked I" of the president's recent rhetoric, allegedly representing a change from the pronominal personality that he displayed during the presidential campaign. But I showed this morning that Obama's recent presidential speeches in fact use first-person singular pronouns at roughly the same rate as his campaign speeches did, or perhaps a little bit less often, judging on the basis of the specific eight speeches that Fish cites. I also showed that overall, Obama's rate of first-person singular pronoun usage is distinctly lower than that of his two predecessors, not (as you might expect from all the fuss) higher.

Fish also cites Obama's inaugural address for its extensive use of the "royal we". So just for fun, having a few minutes to spare, I added a few lines to the script that I used to count pronouns in the cited speeches, and dumped the inaugural addresses of the previous two presidents into the pile of texts that I ran it on.

Here's the result:

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

So the ratio of 1st plural to 1st singular pronouns in Obama's inaugural address was unusually high — but this was not because he used the 1st plural a lot (the rate was  right in the middle of the previous four inaugurals) but because his use of 1st singular pronouns was unusually low, less than a fourth of the rate of the first inaugurals of his two predecessors.

Fish's piece claims that in Obama's inaugural address,

The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. […] [W]hen he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”

But as far as I can see from a quick read,  the majority of the 1st-person plural pronouns in this speech are inclusive ("We the people") rather than exclusive ("We the Democrats" or "We the White House" or "We the government"), and some are ambiguous.

If we (and by that I mean you as well as me) were going to continue fact-checking Fish, we'd look at the counts of inclusive, exclusive, and ambiguous uses of 1st-plural pronouns in the last five inaugurals, and see whether Obama's stands out in any way. I don't have time for that now, because rather than just changing a line in a program, I'd have to judge each of 615 pronouns. I'd be willing to place a modest wager on the outcome, though.

[Update: more discussion of the first-person plural pronouns in Obama's inaugural can be found here. ]


  1. Mark F. said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    Did George W Bush even give any speeches between his first inaugural and 9/11? I can't find any. If he didn't, then it's safe to say his absolute numbers on first person singular pronoun use would be lower.

    [(myl) There are lots of Bush speeches in the interval between 1/20/2001 and 9/11/2001. There are a bunch of radio addresses, for example; and quite a few press conferences, which generally start with a prepared statement. ]

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    I don't know that the inclusive/exclusive distinction for first person plural pronouns as used in syntax/typology (because marked by e.g. inflection in some other languages) can be made to fit here other than as a loose and perhaps contestable metaphor. I would think the distinction works cleanly only if there's a reasonably stable second-person "you" who's being addressed who may or may not be encompassed within a particular instance of "we." But the nature of inaugural addresses involves an "inclusive" conceit in which the speaker will generally be somewhat loathe to refer to at least the domestic U.S.-citizen audience as "you" (a quick scan of the speech suggests that the majority of second-person pronouns refer to foreigners). That said, consider "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." While it's susceptible of other readings (e.g. generic 4th of July bafflegab about the wonder of free elections and peaceful transfers of power), it doesn't seem too cynical to read that as a proclamation that the speaker was the candidate of "hope" who defeated the candidate of "fear" in the election just past, which is not the sort of usage inclined to make those who voted for the defeated candidate feel particularly "included." But inclusion/exclusion in that sense is going to be a matter of points along a continuum, not a binary choice with occasional ambiguity.

    [(myl) Yes, I basically agree. ]

  3. Ed Cormany said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    two points about the reference of 'we' in these examples:

    1) in the phrases like "we will build the roads and bridges…", on one literal interpretation, Obama himself is not actually included in 'we'. (unless he decides to don a hard hat and join a construction crew).

    2) my understanding of the royal 'we' is that the plural morphology is just mechanically inserted in the place of the singular, and that the royal 'we' is actually interpreted as singular in the semantics. of course it can sound quite unnatural, even humorous (see the Animaniacs sketch "how many people you got in there?").

    that said, some of the uses of 'we' in the inaugural can't be the royal 'we', since they can't be interpreted as singular, because singular subjects are incompatible with the verb:

    On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear…
    *On this day, I gather because I have chosen hope over fear…

  4. Bryn LaFollette said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    @J. W. Brewer:

    I don't know that the inclusive/exclusive distinction for first person plural pronouns as used in syntax/typology (because marked by e.g. inflection in some other languages) can be made to fit here other than as a loose and perhaps contestable metaphor.

    Inclusive/exclusive interpretation of the first person plural pronoun in English, or any other language which doesn't overtly make this distinction morphologically, isn't "a loose and perhaps contestable metaphor". It is a binary semantic judgement made based on information in the common ground of the discourse. Just because a language doesn't make an overt morphological expression of a particular type of semantic information doesn't mean that is suddenly "loose" or "metaphor[ical]", it's just not clearly unambiguous. Fish is making a clear argument for one of two interpretations of "we": the exclusive vs inclusive. He's able to make his argument because in English the interpretation is ambiguous (but even if we describe this as semantically vague in the technical sense, it still doesn't leave more than two possible interpretations in the mechanics of the discource). Semantically speaking, the broader philosophical question of how "included" a listener feels when they hear Obama using "We" isn't going to be affected even if Obama were delivering this speech in a language with overt inclusive first person plural pronouns (Indonesian, for example). That would be more of an issue for the field of Pragmatics if anything other than Philosophy, but still isn't unanalyzable. Likewise the measure of stability in a "reasonably stable second-person "you" who's being addressed", isn't something that would be relevant to Semantics in my experience, as the roles of any discourse event are pretty distinctly defined. Maybe one could consider the (in)definiteness of the addressee, but even this wouldn't affect the inclusive/exclusive set distinction.

    As an analogy of this, in Japanese one doesn't typically specify plurality at all, this doesn't mean that when speaking the user doesn't have a clear sense of the number of the nominals they're describing, it just means it's unspecified and so can be ambiguous if not enough additional information is present in the common ground.

  5. Bobbie said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    Then there's the classic quip from Mark Twain: "Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial 'we'."

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    I wonder if there's a general tendency in various languages to use a plural form as a marker of respect. I'm thinking of German with the plural 3rd person Sie for the respectful 2nd person and the (sadly vanishing) plural 2nd person Ihr for a more intimate, but still respectful, 2nd person. Then there's the Hebrew Elohim, plural but with a singular masculine 3rd person verb. Once in a while you'll hear y'all used in Southern US English when the speaker thinks that singular you would be a little too direct.

  7. Melissa said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    It would be interesting to compare George H.W. Bush as well, since he was famously reticent to use the word "I," leading to the odd locutions ("Not gonna do it.") that impressionists like Dana Carvey exploited.

    [(myl) It's worth noting that we're talking about speeches here, which for the past few decades have mostly or entirely been written by people other than the politicians who deliver them. In one of the earlier posts in this series, I did look at the Q&A parts of press conferences; but in prepared speeches, the Bush 41's famous empty subjects would not have come up. ]

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