I again

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Last month, it was Barack Obama whose (allegedly) imperial ego was said to be signaled by (fictitious) overuse of first-person singular pronouns. (Follow the link for discussion of columns on the topic by Terence Jeffrey, George F. Will, Stanley Fish, and Mary Kate Cary.) A few days ago, Peggy Noonan's devastating attack on Sarah Palin ("A Farewell to Harms", WSJ, 7/11/2009) presented a similar argument:

She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough. Her presentation up to the end has been scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence. "I'm not wired that way," "I'm not a quitter," "I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm.

This characterization of Gov. Palin as excessively self-oriented is hardly new, as you can discover by searching the web for {Palin diva}. But is her rate of reference to self, at least as crudely quantified by the count of first-person pronouns, evidence of excessive ego-involvement, compared to politicians of the past?

I'd say that the evidence is at best equivocal. Since last month's flurry of pronominal punditry left me with a handy little script for counting things, I compared Gov. Palin's July 3 resignation speech against three somewhat-similar speeches —

  • Richard Nixon's 1962 concession in the California governor's context (the famous "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more") speech;
  • the 1968 speech in which Lyndon Johnson announced that he wouldn't run again;
  • Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation speech.

I looked at two crude measures of ego-involvement: the rate of first-person-singular pronouns, where a higher rate suggests more ego-involvement; and the ratio of first-person-plural pronouns to first-person-singular pronouns, where a higher ratio suggests less ego-involvement.

Speech Total words 1st sing. forms Percent 1st sing. 1st plur. forms Plur/Sing ratio
RN 1962 Concession 2480 152 6.1% 26 0.17
LBJ 1968 Won't Run 4129 83 2.0% 114 1.37
RN Resignation 1974 1806 83 4.6% 40 0.48
Palin 2009 Won't Run 3100 124 4.0% 101 0.81

By these measures, Palin is more ego-involved than LBJ, but less than Nixon.

We expect prepared speeches to have a lower rate of first-singular pronouns than extemporaneous speeches — but Nixon's 1974 resignation still weighs in at 4.6%. As discussed here, George H.W. Bush's first press conference exhibited a rate of 5.5%, and George W. Bush's first two press conferences came in at 4.5%. So the rate of 4.0% in Sarah Palin's press conference is actually rather low, given that the topic was in fact her own status and plans.

For a speech that's epically "scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence", you should take a look at Richard Nixon's 1962 concession speech. I couldn't find a transcript on the net, so I bought the .pdf from the NYT's archive, and transcribed it into html form here. An .mp3 of the audio — apparently minus a bit at the beginning — is here. [Update: Ben Zimmer, whose Google Fu is strong, points out another html copy here, apparently also derived from the NYT transcript.]

Note that Nixon says in several ways that he's not complaining about the press, while complaining about the press — these days, politicians generally omit the protestations and get right to the complaints. And I found it interesting that it was so important to him to insist that he never attacked his opponent's patriotism or "heart" or other "personal considerations".

(If you listen to the audio while reading the transcript, you'll see the usual editing of disfluencies, but also some puzzling larger divergences, which I'll analyze and comment on in a later post. I also invite you to observe that the Richard Nixon of 1962 was a frequent uptalker — again, I'll discuss this in more detail later.)


  1. Posts about Barack Obama as of July 13, 2009 » The Daily Parr said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    […] article for the “Washington Post”, the Sunday on the website of the newspaper was published. I again – languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 07/13/2009 Last month, it was Barack Obama whose (allegedly) imperial […]

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    I think you've commented on this before, but it seems that politicians just can't win. In apology speeches, there's the constant harping on "passives" and avoidance of first person. In most other contexts, there's this insistence on the overuse of first person.

  3. Jim Roberts said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    I think the repetition of "I'm" is a reference to the last unique sentence where the writer talks about Sarah being, "self-referential to the point of self-reverence." It's not just that Sarah talks about herself, but that she does so simplistically and, based on the examples that follow, always with a positive spin and seemingly devoid of humility.

  4. HECK said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    I wonder in what way would the complaining pundits like the politicians to refer to themselves—in the third person?

    [(myl) I think the idea is that it's a Good Thing if the overall amount of self-reference is low — except, as Ryan observes above, that inadequate active-voice acceptance of first-person fault may also be seen as a problem. ]

  5. Faldone said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Okay, good. Appreciate you all being here. And I just want to say hi to Alaska.

    Did you count the elided I in the sentence that starts with "Appreciate"?

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Note that both of the original statements (trusting in wikiaccuracy . . .) by Wm. T. Sherman that get frequently paraphrased as "if nominated, I will not accept" etc. would get a perfect score for ego-involvement.


    I guess it's only fair to include all first-person-singular pronouns regardless of case (it was, after all, the Me Decade, not the I Decade), but surely as Nixonisms go "sock it to me" doesn't comfortably fit in the same category of self-involvement as "I am not a crook."

  7. Faldone said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Or as Pogo put it, "If nominated I will not run. If elected I will not serve. If I serve I promise I won't like it."

  8. Karl Hagen said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    Other than gut instinct, what's the evidence for assuming that greater use of first-person pronouns actually indicates excessive ego involvement? The absolute rate of first-person pronouns will obviously vary a lot depending on the context, but even controlling for context, is it really the case that those who say I more often are really more ego-involved?

    It wouldn't be surprising if it were the case, but I can easily imagine that natural variability in the rate of pronoun use would mean that the two variables were not correlated in any statistically significant way. it would be nice to see a study that looks at the correlation between the frequency of first-person reference and scores on standard tests of narcissism. Is there anything published along those lines?

    [(myl) The best person to comment on this is Jamie Pennebaker. Pending his contribution, I'll quote relevant observations from a summary page on his web site:

    …As people get older, they tend to refer to themselves less…
    …The higher the social class, the less likely one uses 1st person singular pronouns…
    …When people tell the truth, they are more like to use 1st person singular pronouns….
    … Dominance in a conversation. […] Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer “I” words. …
    … In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people become more self-less (less use of “I”) and more oriented towards others (increased use of “we”)….
    … Public figures speaking in press conferenecs and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide. …

    These claims are documented in various of his publications. I'd especially recommend Chung and Pennebaker, "The psychological function of function words", in K. Fiedler (Ed.), Social communication: Frontiers of social psychology (pp 343-359), 2007.

    In general, the effects seem to be pretty reliable, although as always you should be careful not to interpret generic plurals as describing an essential property of the referenced class as a whole, since the percent of variance accounted for in these studies is in general fairly small (though quite good by the standards of social psychological research). ]

  9. Emily said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    @Karl: Good point. This seems like a case of "linguification": phrasing what's apparently a claim about narcissism(and lots of armchair psychologists have diagnosed Palin with, among other things, narcissistic personality disorder) as one about overuse of first-person pronouns.

    It also reminds me of a claim I read several years ago in a biography of Fred Rogers("Mr. Rogers" of children's TV), combined with what seems an oddly subtle expression of moral outrage at rock music: while the most commonly used word in a sample of popular songs was "I", the most commonly used word on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was "you", and supposedly this demonstrated his unique method of making the (possibly insecure) children in his intended audience feel involved, instead of putting his big ego on display like a rock star would. I found this claim a bit odd– wouldn't the word "you" also be more common than "I" in a barrage of insults?

  10. Emily said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    Just clearing up a couple of mistakes I made in my previous post: the book I had in mind wasn't a biography per se, but a collection of essays about Rogers and his show, entitled Mister Rogers' neighborhood : children, television, and Fred Rogers, published 1996. The claim is in an essay by David Bianculli called "The Myth, the Man, the Legend"; it attributes the figures for "I" in "most popular music"(no particular singers or bands named) to "sociologists who track such things"(none of them named either) and does not, as I implied, directly claim that Rogers really uses "you" most frequently. Here's what Bianculli says:
    Were a concordance of the music of Fred Rogers to be compiled, it's a good bet the word used more than any other would be "you." He always has, and presumably always will, put the viewer first.

  11. Updates on Bruno, Sarah Palin, The Ugly American, Public Enemies, Shouting, and Friedrich Nietzsche | ducksanddrakes said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    […] the first person singular, which made the prose seem narcissistic. At Language Log, Mark Liberman took it upon himself to quantify the instances of first person usage in the speech, and then compared the results with […]

  12. Faldone said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 7:22 am

    …As people get older, they tend to refer to themselves less…
    …The higher the social class, the less likely one uses 1st person singular pronouns…
    …When people tell the truth, they are more like to use 1st person singular pronouns….
    … Dominance in a conversation. […] Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer “I” words. …
    … In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people become more self-less (less use of “I”) and more oriented towards others (increased use of “we”)….
    … Public figures speaking in press conferenecs and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide. …

    Maybe I'm not reading this carefully enough, but where's the correlation between narcissism and increased use of first person singular pronouns?

    [(myl) Perhaps there isn't any. We'll have to wait to hear from Jamie (who has promised to send in a guest post) to learn the answer.

    From the recent Wong and Pennebaker review article:

    Based on the above findings, what does the use of first person singular reflect? At its most basic level, the use of the word “I” suggests that the speaker is briefly paying attention to the self. Too much attention to the self is associated with highly negative emotional states such as depression.

    I don't know of any research on the relationship of pronoun use to "narcissism", as measured presumably by the NPI or some such test instrument — maybe there hasn't been any, or maybe the results have been negative (or maybe I just don't know). But I wouldn't be surprised to see negative results — the questions on the NPI seem to deal with how someone pays attention to themselves, not whether they do, e.g. "I prefer to blend in with the crowd" vs. "I like to be the center of attention".

    Wong and Pennebaker also note a study that found "Japanese texts used first person singular pronouns at a higher rate than did American texts", and they suggest that this may be because "focus on the self is required to achieve collectivistic values such as harmony, empathy, and self-criticism to please the ingroup".

    My problem with Will, Fish, Noonan and the others was that their comments on pronoun use were fact-free (well, Fish quoted some examples), and their implicit claims about the relative frequency of pronoun use by Obama and Palin turned out to be wrong. It might also be that the (implicit or explicit) claims about the pop-psychological interpretation of rates or first-person-pronoun use are wrong as well. ]

  13. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    The first person pronoun, like the passive tense, seems to suffer a confounding of its form with substance.

  14. Tim said,

    July 15, 2009 @ 4:13 am

    I guess I'm a little late to this post, and I'm going to go slightly off-topic here, but it sounds to me like Nixon says "you don't have Nixon to kick around anymore", rather than "you won't…". A Google search reveals that I'm clearly not the first one to hear that, but it is far more commonly quoted as "won't".

    Oh, well. Not the first famous line to be consistently misquoted for decades.

  15. Molly Rogers said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 12:50 am

    I am also off topic. I would be interested in a study of the use of the third person to refer to oneself. I see this quite often in academics and politicians in Italy, and it may be encouraged by the Italian language. "Your professor …" and "The Prime Minister" are two references to the self which reflect a gigantic "imperial ego", more so, in my opinion, than the first person "I".

    [(myl) See Arnold Zwicky's posts on illeism, e.g. here and here, along with the Wikipedia site.]

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