What is "I" saying?

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Over the past couple of months, there's been a surge of media interest in various politicians' pronoun use. For some of the Language Log coverage, with links to articles by George F. Will, Stanley Fish, and Peggy Noonan (among others), see "Fact-checking George F. Will" (6/7/2009);  "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme" (6/8/2009); "Inaugural pronouns" (6/8/2009); "Another pack member heard from" (6/9/2009); "I again" (7/13/2009); "'I' is a camera" (7/18/2009).

In a comment on one of those posts, Karl Hagen asked:

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?

I responded:

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

Prof. Pennebaker has graciously contributed a guest post on the meaning of "I", which follows.

In the last few months, a number of pundits have been analyzing the language of Barack Obama in an attempt to uncover who he really is.  The words that are attracting the most attention is his use of first person singular pronouns, or I-words.  As Mark Liberman and many others have noted, surprisingly few people have actually counted Obama’s use of 1st person singular pronouns and even fewer have stopped to think what “I” means.

Before reading any further, it might be best if you took a quick 10-item “I-Exam.”  This is a very brief quiz about who uses 1st person singular pronouns more than others.  I’m serious, go to www.utpsyc.org/itest, take the test, check out your feedback.  Then come back.


Welcome back.  You should now have a better sense of the social and psychological meaning of I-words.

A little bit of background might be helpful.  Not surprisingly, first-person singular (FPS) pronouns are used at very high rates in everyday speech.  Across thousands of natural conversations that we have recorded, transcribed, and analyzed, the word “I” is consistently the most frequently used word (averaging 4.73% of all words, compared with 0.56% “me” and 0.69% “my”).

A data set that my students and I have been relying on in the study of Bush, Obama, and others comes from press conferences or press opportunies wherein the person responds to questions posed by the press or, in some occasions, legislators or interested citizens.  In preparing the press conference texts, we strip out prepared remarks that typically occur at the beginning as well as the actual questions.  As presidents, both Obama and Bush have answered questions from the press approximately once per week.

Consistent with Liberman’s analyses of Obama’s and Bush’s inaugural address and other important speeches, Obama uses FPS pronouns at much lower rates than Bush. During the first 6 months of their presidencies, FPS pronouns accounted for 4.35% of Bush’s words and 2.88% of Obama’s.  Bush was significantly higher for all FPS words.

What do I-words mean?

From a psychological perspective, the use of FPS can reflect a number of overlapping processes.

The attention rule. Pronouns can be thought of as markers of attentional focus.  If the speaker is thinking and talking about a friend, expect high rates of third person singular pronouns.  If worried about communists, right wing radio hosts, or university administrators, words such as “they” and “them” will be higher than average.

The word “I” is no different.  If people are self-conscious, their attention flips to themselves briefly but at higher rates than people who are not self-conscious.  For example, people use the word “I” more when completing a questionnaire in front of a mirror than if no mirror is present.  If their attention is drawn to themselves because they are sick, feeling pain, or deeply depressed, they use “I” more.  And, by the same token, if they are deeply immersed in a task, FPS can drop to almost zero.

A common misperception is that I-use is associated with arrogance and dominance.  Studies consistently find the opposite: people higher in the social hierarchy use “I” words less.  The secure boss is surveying her or his kingdom calculating how to get more goodies.  The insecure underlings are trying to control their behaviors so as not to offend the leader.

The ownership rule. Use of FPS can also serve as a territorial marker.  If people want to emphasize their connection with their topic, they may increase their use of I-words.  The use of I-words, then, links their connection of self to their conversational target.  By the same token, people occasionally distance themselves from a target.  Across multiple studies on deceptive communication, the best predictor of lying is a drop in the use of I-words.  For example, if an administrator is asked why large sums of money were spent for office décor, an open speaker might say, “I felt that the funds were being used in the ways the donors had requested.”  The more deceptive might say, “It was felt that the funds…”

The graceful-I versus the sledgehammer-I. Not all I-words are alike. The graceful-I, often associated with the use of hedges, is one where the person is subtly acknowledging multiple perspectives.  Phrases starting with “I think that..”, “I wonder if..”, or “It seems to me that..” are all examples where the person is implicitly or politely making a request or an observation.  “I think it’s cold outside” (as opposed to “It’s cold outside”) is actually saying “I know that there are many views on this matter and I may, in fact, be wrong.  Indeed, when you go outside you might find it a bit warm but I personally felt that it was a bit cold outside. But I don’t want to intrude.”

One can imagine a continuum of I-phrases that range from the ultra-polite graceful-I’s to more reportorial phrases (e.g., “I saw”, “I heard”) to egotistical, controlling sledgehammer I’s.  Sledgehammer-I’s are typically associated with action verbs such as hit, won, stop, or push.  Intuitively, the person who uses graceful-I’s is a person who is trying to withdraw from the action, attempting to be smaller from the listener’s perspective.  The sledgehammer user, on the other hand, is attempting to expand in the psychological environment.

Based on informal counts within natural conversations, the rate of graceful-I’s is quite high whereas the sledgehammer-I’s are low.  Perhaps because of these base rates, we tend to hear and to remember sledgehammer statements more than graceful ones. Indeed, this is why most people’s stereotypes of I-usage are wrong:  they are based on the relatively infrequent sledgehammer-I users.

A good example of the different uses of I-words occurred in the 2004 presidential election. According to a New York Times article at the time, John Kerry’s advisors were working with him to change the way that he spoke.  They felt he used the word “I” too much and that he should use the more inclusive “we” at higher rates.  Without going into detail here, use of “we” in the political world is a reliable marker of being cold, distant, and arrogant.  Our analyses of the speeches, debates, and press conferences up to that time showed Kerry to use I-words at rates far below his opponents (especially Bush) and his We-words far above the others.

Kerry’s handlers did not understand personal pronouns and, in particular, the important distinction between graceful and sledgehammer I-use.  To appreciate the difference in I-use, look at 10 randomly selected uses of I from the third Bush-Kerry presidential debate in 2004:

I have supported or voted for tax cuts over 600 times.
I broke with my party in order to balance the budget
I voted for IRA tax cuts.
When I'm president, I'm sending that back to Congress
I'll make them secure.
I believe it was a failure of presidential leadership
I am a hunter, I'm a gun owner.
I ran one of the largest district attorney's offices in America
I put people behind bars for the rest of their life.
I've broken up organized crime; I know something about prosecuting.
I was hunting in Iowa last year

Actually, I made my intentions — made my views clear.
I did think we ought to extend the assault weapons ban
I believe law-abiding citizens ought to be able to own a gun.
I called the attorney general and the U.S. attorneys and said…
And the prosecutions are up by about 68 percent — I believe — is the number.
To me, that's the best way to secure America.
Mitch McConnell had a minimum-wage plan that I supported
But let me talk about what's really important for the worker
I remember a lady in Houston, Texas, told me
I haven't gotten a flu shot, and I don't intend to because I want to make sure those who are most vulnerable get treated.

Although Bush used the word “I” at much higher rates in the debates and other interactions, virtually everyone assumed that Kerry was the big FPS user.  The misperception is attributable to how the two men used their pronouns.  Bush was the graceful user and Kerry the sledgehammer.  Whereas Bush thought, believed, remembered, intended, talked, and called, Kerry was busy voting, breaking, sending, running, hunting, and making people secure. Oh, and he was a gun owner.

At this point, we don’t yet have a trustworthy psychological profile of the sledgehammer-I user.  An educated guess, however, would be that people adopt sledgehammer pronoun use in settings where they are insecure but want to come across as active, powerful, and confident.  The element of insecurity is central to this framework in that the sledgehammer user simultaneously is emphasizing that an important action was taken but, at the same time, I ME MYSELF caused that action.  It is important that you the listeners know how important I ME MYSELF am.

Who is Obama and what can his I’s tell us?

In an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition on August 8, 2009, Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson were asked about their recent book, The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election.  Johnson, looking back over his distinguished political reporting career studying presidents since Eisenhower, noted that Obama is “the single most self-confident of all the presidents” he has ever seen.

Obama’s use of pronouns supports Johnson’s view.  Since his election, Obama has remained consistent in using relatively few I-words compared to other modern U.S. presidents.  His usage is overwhelmingly gentle-I as opposed to sledgehammer-I.  Contrary to pronouncements by various media experts, Obama is neither “inordinately fond” of FPS (George Will, Washington Post, 6/7/2009) nor exhibiting “the full emergence of a note of … imperial possession” (Stanley Fish, NYT, 6/7/2009).  Instead, Obama’s language suggests self-assurance and, at the same time, an emotional distance.


(Other relevant papers can be downloaded from my Publications page)

Chung, C.K., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007). The psychological functions of function words. In K. Fiedler (Ed.), Social communication (pp. 343-359). New York: Psychology Press.
Pennebaker, J.W., Chung, C.K., Ireland, M., Gonzales, A., & Booth, R.J.  (2007).  The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2007. [Software manual]. Austin, TX: LIWC.net
Pennebaker, J.W., & Lay, T.C.  (2002).  Language use and personality during crises:  Analyses of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s press conferencesJournal of Research in Personality, 36, 271-282.
Pennebaker, J.W., Mehl, M.R., & Niederhoffer, K.G.  (2003).  Psychological aspects of natural language use:  Our words, our selvesAnnual Review of Psychology, 54, 547-577.
Tausczik, Y.R., & Pennebaker, J.W. (in press).  The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis methods. Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

[Above is a guest post by Prof. James W. Pennebaker.]


  1. fs said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    This sentence just caught my eye.

    And, by the same token, if they are deeply immersed in a task, FPS can drop to almost zero.

    FPS is a common abbreviation for "frames per second" of a framed video feed, in particular in realtime computer image/scene rendering. A high amount of activity in a scene, especially "cognitive" activity, might divert a significant portion of a computer's resources away from graphics processing, thus causing the FPS to drop to almost zero. Totally irrelevant, but oddly fitting.

  2. Eli said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    I wonder how "throwaway" uses of I would fit into this framework, or are they simply part of the already mentioned categories? I'm thinking of, for example, the responses "I dunno" or "I don't care" to the question "Where do you want to go eat?", or starting sentences with phrases like "I mean" or "I guess", ("I mean, the lack of evidence is pretty clear…, I guess he said this to her…") which are said quickly as lead-ins to the rest of an utterance.
    My intuition is that these uses are a bit different, almost phatic, from those described in the article. Or are they?

  3. John Walden said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    There's a world of difference, and sledge-hammeriness between the confidence of "I think" with the emphasis on "I" and the diffidence of "I think" with "think" emphasised.

  4. Dan T. said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    Back in the 1960s when competing comic book companies Marvel and DC were battling on the text pages of their respective comics (letter columns, editorial pages, etc.), Marvel referred to DC as "Brand Ecch" (a parody of "Brand X"); DC retaliated by referring to Marvel as "Brand I", which they justified as referring to the high-ego tone of their competitor's announcements and editorials, which supposedly used the word "I" a lot. This might have even been true given Stan Lee's high-personality bombast versus DC's more staid corporate image at the time, but I don't know if anybody has actually counted the uses of "I" in the respective publications.

  5. Clearing the Decks « New Wineskins said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    […] What pronouns may tell us about presidential politicians. (H/T: GED) Sometimes detecting blatant arrogance doesn't require near that much subtlety. […]

  6. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    John Walden's insight applies also to, "I don't think so". Normally, it credits humility, but with full-stops after each word, it archly signals confidence in one's knowledge. The movie Home Alone helped popularize the latter use in the 80's.

  7. A bit off the money for budget “keywords” – Fully (sic) said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    […] the issue of the "I" in budget, I have nothing to add to the comments by linguists Mark Liberman and Jamie Pennebaker on how unenlightening that sort of counting […]

  8. The Grammar Lab | Gender Pronouns in the News said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 4:29 am

    […] should be careful about attributing psychological motivations to the production of specific linguistic features like pronouns. That said, there is clearly […]

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