Another pack member heard from

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Mary Kate Cary ("Barack Obama Journeys From 'Yes We Can' to the Imperial 'I'", U.S. News and World Report, 6/9/2009) joins the media chorus:

"The Great I Am." That's what Dorothy Walker Bush, the matriarch of the Bush family, used to call it when one of her children used too many "I's" in a sentence. Casting it in biblical terms, she'd tell them, "Nobody likes The Great I Am. Don't be talking about yourself." […]

I tell you all this because I've noticed lately that President Obama used to be that way, too. […]

But lately he's moved from the second person to the first person. Apparently I'm not the only one who's picked up on it. Stanley Fish blogs in the New York Times that [… etc. …]

George Will's column earlier this week points out that the president has become "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun," as evidenced in the GM takeover speech. Terence Jeffrey of CSN wrote a similar piece about the same speech titled "I, Barack," talking about the economic implications of the switch from "we" to "I" […]

As pointed out at tedious length in a series of earlier posts, the only trouble with this theory is that Barack Obama uses "The Great I Am" at a significantly lower rate, in comparable speeches and press interactions, than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush did.

Since Ms. Cary — identified as "a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush" — brings up the elder Bush as a paragon of I-lessness, let's do another comparison of Inaugural Addresses:

Document Word count 1st sing. count 1st sing. percent
GHW Bush Inaugural (1989) 2291 39 1.7%
BH Obama Inaugural (2009) 2409 5 0.2%

So, in point of fact, Obama's inaugural address used the first-person singular 8 times less often, in percentage terms, than Bush 41's inaugural did.

OK, how about their first press conferences, which are more informal and thus likely to have a higher rate of first-singular pronoun uses?

Document Word count 1st sing. count 1st sing. percent
GHW Bush (1/27/1989) 4600 252 5.48%
BH Obama (2/9/2009) 7775 206 2.65%

So in this setting, Obama used The Great I Am less than half as often as Bush 41, in percentage terms.

Oh, and in that GM takeover speech that Cary (following the rest of the pack) singles out, Obama used first-singular pronouns at a rate of merely 1.7%. Compare George H.W. Bush's Radio Address to the Nation on the Economy (2/22/1992), where first-person singular pronouns achieved the rate of 4.5%, more than two and a half times more frequent.

I try not to think badly of others, really I do. But people like Cary, Will, Fish, and Jeffrey make it hard to maintain the pretense that members of our punditocracy are either rational or honest. I wonder who'll brainlessly replicate the meme next?


  1. Kate said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    You'd think one of HW's former speechwriters would have a better sense of relative presidential first-person-pronoun usage; of course, you'd have to be terribly naive to assume this knowledge would then accurately inform said speechwriter's opinions on the topic.

    [(myl) The most charitable assumption is that each of these four pundits actually did experience his or her own impression of excessive first-person singular pronoun use on the part of president Obama. Since Obama's rates of first-singular pronoun use are, as a mere matter of fact, significantly lower than those of the previous three presidents in similar circumstances, this must mean that his uses of 'I', 'me', etc. are three or four times more salient (to these pundits) than uses by the other presidents. Various explanations for this effect are possible, ranging from some difference in how Obama says these words (which I find implausible, having looked), to partisan animus (likely for Jeffrey, Will, and Cary), to residual racism (possible for all four).

    A less charitable assumption would be that an "Obama's Imperial I" meme, having started for whatever random reason, has swept through the dinner parties and other social gatherings where such people get their opinions, and is now resonating in the media's echo chamber. ]

  2. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    "Apparently I'm not the only one who's picked up on it."

    This is either thunderously disingenuous or embarrassingly self unaware. Does a bird in a flock that wheels and turns almost simultaneously think that it's acting independently or being creative?

  3. Rubrick said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    We shake our head in despair.

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    Mary Kate Cary also seems to believe that "we" is a second person pronoun.
    I blame the linguists.

    [(myl) We certainly have a great deal to answer for. ]

  5. Katherine said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    Is there no media standards authority that can be complained to? Surely the media in the US aren't allowed to talk blatant lies?

    [(myl) They can talk and write as they please, within very broad limits — and a good thing, too. ]

  6. fev said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    Nope. No media standards authority, at least for print media. (You do have recourse if you glimpse a fleeting second of breast during the Super Bowl halftime, if that helps.)

    As Walter Lippmann put it 90 years ago: "If I lie in a lawsuit involving my neighbor's cow, I can go to jail. But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible."

    The linguists may or may not have a lot to answer for. In this particular case, though, I'd say they are holding the line pretty well, and it'd be sort of nice if journalism sent some reinforcements.

  7. Mary Kate Cary said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    May I jump in here to defend myself? Upon reading Stanley Fish's blog this morning in the NYT, I saw Mark's comment to check his post dated June 7, which I did. Mark's June 7 analysis of George Will's column and Obama's use of the word "I" did not mention Bush 41 — only Bush 43, Clinton and Obama. So it was not helpful to me. It was only after my piece was posted that you did an analysis of Bush 41 — which I appreciate, but unfortunately it came too late for my daily deadline.

    My point was simply to point out that I spent many hours as a speechwriter trying to write speeches without the word "I," which I thought reflected 41's humility. It seemed to me that Obama had gotten away from his previously selfless language in that one particular GM speech. That's all. I don't think making that point makes me irrational or dishonest, as you suggest, "thunderously disingenuous," "embarrassingly self unaware," a teller of "blatant lies" or "racist," as your readers called me. Good grief.

    Your reader was right that I mistakenly said "we" is second person — of course I know it's not — and I blame my lack of morning coffee! I'll run a correction tomorrow. Thanks for pointing it out.

    [(myl) Thanks for the explanation. And and I think, on reflection, that I should have worked harder to avoid making this personal.

    Many people, including me, have been bothered for years by the tendency of journalists to "pile on" in repeating themes that become stereotypically associated with particular politicians. This seems to us at best a distraction from the real issues, especially if the factual basis is slim or even non-existent.

    An overlapping irritant is what we perceive as culpable carelessness with facts, in cases where facts are easy to check.

    So when you became the fourth pundit in three days to repeat the "I, Barack Obama" meme, joining Jeffrey, Will, and Fish in drawing conclusions from an alleged pattern that seems to be the opposite of the truth, it pushed both of these buttons. But of course the journalistic history behind this has nothing to do with you as an individual, and it was wrong of me to turn a general annoyance with media behavior into a particular condemnation of you. ]

  8. Mark F. said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

    This is a case of linguification.

    There really is something distinctive about Obama's GM Chapter 11 remarks. In the first three paragraphs, he repeatedly takes individual responsibility for the way Federal dollars are spent on GM, and for the rules that are to be set for GM. He doesn't talk about consultation with his advisers, and (as the initial conservative commentator said) he doesn't mention Congress. And he doesn't say "I think." Just compare this:

    From the beginning, I made it clear that I would not put any more tax dollars on the line if it meant perpetuating the bad business decisions that had led these companies to seek help in the first place. I refused to let these companies become permanent wards of the state, kept afloat on an endless supply of taxpayer money. In other words, I refused to kick the can down the road.

    with this, from a March 30 announcement on the auto industry:

    And that's why the federal government provided General Motors and Chrysler with emergency loans to prevent their sudden collapse at the end of last year — only on the condition that they would develop plans to restructure. In keeping with that agreement, each company has submitted a plan to restructure. But after careful analysis, we've determined that neither goes far enough to warrant the substantial new investments that these companies are requesting.

    My sense is that these samples are fairly representative of the two speeches, but full transcripts can be found here and here if you want to see for yourself. You can also compare George W. Bush's March 19, 2003 "War Message", which seems to go to less effort to emphasize Bush's individual authority.

    I don't know why Obama chose to make such a show of decisiveness on that particular speech, but I think it was a conscious decision. And I can see non-racist reasons why people on the left and right might want to call critical attention to that emphasis of executive power.

    But casting it in terms of the first person singular pronoun is pure linguification. (Although in a lot of cases of that particular rhetorical device, people know that what they say isn't literally true, as in the "Doesn't know the meaning of the word X" cliche. In this case, I bet the writers think their claims about pronouns are literally true.)

    Finally, despite defending these pundits, I'm not otherwise terribly sympathetic to the views of any of them. Just for the record.

  9. Ryan said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    You're right, making an unfounded assertion that Obama uses too many Is isn't "thunderously disingenuous," nor "embarrassingly self unaware." But that line about not being the only one to notice certainly fits Mark P's bill.

  10. fev said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    It's neither irrational nor dishonest to watch a speech and wonder whether "Obama had gotten away from his previously selfless language." It does seem both irrational and dishonest to proclaim that point in public without doing the rudimentary sort of counting that might bear it out or disprove it.

    Well, maybe not irrational, in that lying is demonstrably a valuable element of American political discourse, and it seems to work. But certainly dishonest.

  11. seriously said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    No, Ms. Cary, you may not "jump in to defend yourself" if you're going to dance lightly around the truth and then claim hurt feelings when someone suggests you are being dishonest. You assert "It seemed to me that Obama had gotten away from his previously selfless language in that one particular GM speech. That's all." But that's not all, or at least it's not all you said. Instead, you say things like "lately he's moved…" and "I'm not the only one who's picked up on it" and cite other people like Stanley Fish and George Will and Terrence Jeffrey who have made observations similar to yours. The implication is very strong that President Obama is doing this all the time (why else would so many distinguished observers notice it?) rather than "in one particular…speech." You're "that's all" in your post here on LL seems awfully slippery to me. And when you are caught making a simple mistake, you say "of course I know it's not — and I blame my lack of morning coffee!" I guess that's an attempt to be cute. I don't know about these things. I've never been employed to write speeches (carefully avoiding the word "I") for the leader of the Free World. I'm only a high school teacher–and not even an English teacher at that, I teach science–who tries to impart a respect for clarity of thought, appreciation for evidence, and honest admission of error as an occasion for greater learning. I bet you had some teachers like me. I bet they're a little disappointed.

  12. Tom said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:36 am

    Maybe someone who's not me should check if there's less "we" and more "I" than there was last August. My suspicion is that there is and my opinion is that that's a good thing. "We" is great when you're trying to inspire and gain votes, but when you're the Captain in a storm, some "I" is in order. If there's not more "I", these boobs are wrong. If there is, they're wrong in more boobiful ways.

    And . . . I think Ms. Cary (Ms. Kate Cary?) CAN jump in and defend herself, just not very well.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:29 am

    Isn't deadline pressure wonderful? "Gotta write something… doesn't hafta be good…"

  14. peter said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:52 am

    So, let me see if I got this right: Mary Kate Cary makes an easily-falsifiable claim, and when called on it, defends herself by saying that other people had not done the analysis needed to test her claim by the time she needed to submit her copy.

    In other words, "The dog didn't finish my homework in time."

  15. Tom said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:11 am

    Not to beat a dead columnist (if only. . . ), but Cary cited a guy she knew was wrong and her defense was that nobody had demonstrated she was also likely wrong in exactly the same way, so "screw it, I haven't had any coffee"? Perhaps Peter's hilarious sum-up should be amended to "the dog corrected my friend's homework (whom I was copying from), and since it didn't preemptively [redundantly?] tell me I was doing mine wrong, I just went with it".

  16. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    When I saw this latest post of Mark's this morning (it's not morning in America, but it's morning where I am, in Edinburgh) I was thinking that I could hardly believe the columnists of the world were carrying on writing pieces about a non-fact (the exact opposite of the truth) and none of them knew that Mark was running shell scripts on speech transcripts and humiliating them day after day. But when I looked at the comments area, I found that at last one of the columnists has indeed discovered her humiliation, and has (sort of) admitted her lack of factuality or even truthiness. But where are George Will and Stanley Fish? George Will has a staff. Does no one on his staff read Language Log? I think it's more likely a policy: never acknowledge, never explain, never retract, never admit. Just plough on and write more unchecked garbage.

    [(myl) Bucky Katt explains, in this morning's Get Fuzzy:


  17. Mark P said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    Ryan, I think you missed my point, which was directed at the quote I used at the very beginning of my comment. I wasn't talking about the Obama "I" meme, but about the piling on. I think it is disingenuous at best to say, "Apparently I'm not the only one who's picked up on it." As they say, "Duh!"

  18. Ryan said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    Mark P, isn't that what I was saying? I meant to point out that she lumped your criticisms in with other criticisms she received, regardless of what any specific criticism was about, or whether she had answered it.

  19. Mark P said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Ryan, sorry, I embarrassingly misread your comment.

  20. ray said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    I think Mark F has nailed what's really going on here. It's not misuse or overuse or even inappropriate use of the word "I" that has everyone worked up (Will, Fish, etc.). I think it's that Pres O seems to like to tell his life story rather frequently, requiring the strong and heavy use of the pronoun, and then also pointedly (as Mark F notes) references his own, personal authority in decisionmaking. All of this makes even the casual listener think, "Huh. This guy seems to referencing himself rather often."

    Now, before professional writers go writing essays about how often the guy actually says, "I," they really ought do some counting, I suppose. And if they're gonna critique the number of self-referential sentences, I guess that calls for some counting, too. In other words, don't go saying "He uses the word 'I' too much," if what you really mean is, "I think this man talks about himself too much."

    [(myl) It might be true that president Obama "talks about himself too much", but it would be nice to see some real evidence, comparing how often he talks about himself to the practices of others in similar situations. (Unless you think that all presidents, or all politicians, or all human beings talk about themselves too much, in which case this would be a very different discussion.)

    Mark F. noted that in the GM speech, there's a passage in the beginning where Obama describes the recent history of the auto bailout using first-person singular pronouns ("I made it clear … I refused … I decided" ) rather than first-person plural pronouns ("we made it clear", "we refused", "we decided") or impersonal constructions ("it was made clear", "this was refused", "it was decided").

    But a trivial search of (for example) the archives of the American Presidency Project at UCSB, using the very same phrases — "I made it clear", "I refused", "I decided" — shows that use of such phrases U.S. presidents is common. Generalizing the searches to other verbs of course will turn up even more.

    So what is being claimed here? Mark F says that

    There really is something distinctive about Obama's GM Chapter 11 remarks. In the first three paragraphs, he repeatedly takes individual responsibility for the way Federal dollars are spent on GM, and for the rules that are to be set for GM. He doesn't talk about consultation with his advisers, and (as the initial conservative commentator said) he doesn't mention Congress. And he doesn't say "I think."

    I disagree that there is anything especially distinctive about the role of presidential self-reference in this speech, beyond the nature of the events being discussed, which involved an unusual sort of presidential decision-making. If you look over the hits from searches like those linked above, I claim that you'll find plenty of cases where previous presidents speak in a similar fashion. You'll also find plenty of cases where they use first-person plural or impersonal modes of expression as well — and typically they use a mixture of these modes of expression, as Obama does in the GM speech taken as a whole. So if you want to claim that Obama "talks about himself too much" or "pointedly references his own personal authority in decision-making" — either because he always has, as you seem to be saying, or because the presidency has changed him, as Fish claims — you need to be able to provide some better evidence. ]

  21. Franz Bebop said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    It actually doesn't matter whether Stanley Fish, George Will, et al. are correct. In fact, it's even better if their assertions are false.

    The purpose of a kerfluffle like this is to distract attention from whatever serious policies the Democratic president is pursuing, and instead to focus attention on something personal, silly and irrelevant.

    Thus, it's more effective if the observations are demonstrably false — it will cause lots of people to spend precious media time dissecting the accusation, carefully counting pronouns, rather than counting the billions of dollars of bailout money flowing into private hands. That's the perverse part of it. If Prof. Lieberman is successful at drawing attention to the mistake, nevertheless, he plays right into the hands of right wing pundits, because he is still keeping attention focused away from policy.

    Linguists are pronoun-counters by profession, so there is no shame in it for them. But for the rest of us, the right response to this topic is to forcefully ask, "Who the hell cares? Why is anyone wasting time with this ridiculous ankle-biting?"

    [(myl) "Ignore the fools" is certainly an attractive strategy. But this can lead to a relentless press focus on imaginary sins and character flaws, and a flood of essentially contentless bad press that gradually re-defines a public figure and to undermines his or her stature and credibility. So "fact-check the fools" and "ridicule the fools" are alternative strategies, which may sometimes help keep these pack-journalism memes in check.

    (I don't mean this as a form of partisan activity — I gave similar arguments for defending George W. Bush from what I saw as irrelevant attacks.)

    In terms of direct impact on public opinion, the few thousand people who read Language Log posts are a negligible quantity. However, we can hope that the word spreads far enough, though echoes like this, this, and this, to persuade some journalists not to pile on.]

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    There are some participants in public discourse, e.g. stand-up comics and editorial cartoonists, who are expected to use a caricatured feature or two to represent various politicians by synecdoche, and I suppose we don't even care that much if the underlying premise is empirically well-grounded. Was Jimmy Carter really toothier than the other pols of his day in some empirically verifiable way? Was Richard Nixon really unusually afflicted with five o'clock shadow? Does it matter? It seems as if we keep expecting op-ed columnists to be working in a different type of genre than comedians and cartoonists, such that they should be held to a different standard in terms of the relationship of their work to empirical investigation, yet we keep getting disappointed by the results. Maybe it's not their fault but ours, and we should adjust our expectations (or our understanding as to the genre being worked in).

  23. Bobbie said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    It will be he's and I's responsibility … to secure the nation …

    Spoken by George W Bush in a nominating speech —January, 2005

  24. Mark F. said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    I actually disagree with ray's view that Obama in general is more prone to reference his own personal authority than other presidents. I think just that one speech looks that way, and commentators are pointing to it and claiming a trend.

  25. Sara Lee said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    "Casting it in biblical terms, she'd tell them, 'Nobody likes The Great I Am.'"

    I think in biblical terms nobody *doesn't* like The Great I Am – not if they know what's good for them.

  26. Michael Johnson said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    Mary Kate Cary's defense of herself is really the opposite of a defense. It's already been pointed out by Tom that she admitted to knowing Fish and Will were factually wrong, and at the same time still used them as corroborators in her article.

    Second, she talks about *herself* removing "I"s from speeches *she* was writing for Bush the First which she "thought" reflected his humility. So her self-admitted train of reasoning was:

    "I took "I"s out of Bush 41's speeches because he seemed humble to me. Nobody has yet analyzed the data to show that Obama's speechwriters take the "I"s out of Obama's speeches at the same rate. Therefore they don't. Therefore he's not humble, and this is part of a trend (which I know not to exist)"

    Is that the best she's got?

  27. Eli Rabett said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    May I respectfully point out that when the Mary Kates come trying to get absolution, the absolutely worst thing is to try and be nice to them. The time to be nice to them is when an apology appears in their next column. Maybe the kindest thing to say is, OK, you admit you were wrong here in this rather small forum, we might consider forgiving you when you do it in your next newspaper column. myl blew it big time, she is going to cut your nice comment out and use it as a sword to defend herself.

  28. Eric said,

    June 21, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

    Restart the meme train. Barack's most recent published work has a 4.8% first-person singular rate; however, the work I speak of is a Father's Day article in Parade, answering the question "What does fatherhood mean to you?" Now we'll have to dredge up published Presidential puff pieces for comparative basis.

  29. Civil Liberties and President Barack W. Bush? | Lawrence S. Miller | My Personal Insights said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    […] Another pack member heard from ( var addthis_pub = 'lawrencesmiller'; var addthis_language = 'en';var addthis_options = 'email, favorites, digg, delicious, myspace, google, facebook, reddit, live, more'; […]

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