"I think __"

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Today's Non Sequitur:

Among politicians, there's an interesting left-right spectrum apparently signaled by this metric — from the 12 Republican and 9 Democratic debates:

Count of "I think" (Per million words)
Clinton 267 4685
 Cruz  39  1194
 Kasich  52  1807
 Sanders  205  4047
 Trump  119  2900

Of course, with this small sample, we need to worry about unexamined covariates, such as those related to personality…



32 Comments

  1. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 7:56 am

    Speaking of politicians speaking, I would like to put in a request for an analysis of whether Cruz said "ring" or "rim."

  2. leoboiko said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:02 am

    "I think" isn't nearly as toxic as the the Not Racist Butt (and its cousins like "not to be a dick, but"…)

  3. Francois Lang said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    @ Richard Hershberger

    Definitely sounds like "ring" to me, but I'll leave that debate to the phoneticians. Anyone know one :-)?

  4. Lazar said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    Yeah, I find myself using "I think" a little too much in my casual writing. But something that bugs me more, even though I do it with some frequency, is starting a correction with "Actually, …". I feel like such a smug jerk when I do that, but I mean, how else are you supposed to introduce a polite contradiction?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    Does that take place in the non-rhotic part of New England? And if so, is there really no [r] in aftah "I think"?

    Lazar: I believe the people who know me will say I shouldn't be offering advice on how to correct people without sounding like a smug jerk.

  6. David Morris said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    Nothin' good comes aftah "Maybe too quiet", neithah!

  7. Robert Coren said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    @Jerry Friedman: Wiley's representation of what is supposed to be a Maine accent (in Flo's and Eddie's speech) doesn't correspond particularly well to the way anyone actually talks.

  8. bks said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 9:58 am

    Nothing good comes after That being said …

  9. Lazar said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    Does that take place in the non-rhotic part of New England? And if so, is there really no [r] in aftah "I think"?

    Not unless she decided to make a deliberate pause between the words. Likewise, a Bostonian wouldn't pahk a cah in Hahvad Yahd even if parking were allowed there.

    Nothing good comes after That being said …

    No offense, but…

  10. Rube said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 11:16 am

    @ Lazar: "I'm not trying to be difficult…"

  11. EricF said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    Inquiring minds want to know what Bob Dole thinks.

  12. Anan said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    It would be interesting to compare the use of "I think", "I feel", "I believe", "I know", "I trust" etc. by the candidates. Then we could make all sorts of pop psychology pronouncements of which candidate is the most rational, in touch with their emotions, religious, arrogant, gullible, etc.! (This surely must have been done already.)

    [(myl) Numbers in frequency per million words, based on the sample in the debates:

             "I feel"  "I believe"  "I know"  "I trust"  "I guess"
    Clinton    70        790         1088        18        53
    Cruz        0        337          276         0        31
    Kasich      0        695          591         0         0
    Sanders     0       1797          415         0        39
    Trump     146        195          926        24       219
    

    ]

  13. GeorgeW said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

    Clinton presents opinion, Cruz asserts universal truth?

  14. leoboiko said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

    Clearly Democrats are fair and honest, while Republicans present their opinions as fact (p<0.05, n=4, Trump excluded as outlier).

  15. ohwilleke said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    Off topic: Someone at language log needs to blog about the issue of whether a constructed language like Klingon can be the subject of a copyright, an issue that is currently being litigated and is the subject of an amicus brief. It even has a "no Klingon word for . . . " trope.

    https://popehat.com/2016/04/28/marc-randazza-wrote-an-amicus-brief-about-klingon-and-its-magnificent/

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    Robert Coren and Lazar: Thanks.

  17. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    Many years ago, I deliberately began to introduce "I think…" and "I feel…" into my speech and writing and these days I also frequently use "it seems to me…". This is intended to signal my awareness of my subjectivity and fallibility and to avoid giving the impression that I am making categorical, objective assertions of truth. It's been so long that I'm not entirely certain about this, but my hazy memory is that as a young man I was very much prone to swaggering assertions of universal truth whereas now I'm moderately allergic to them. But it's also the case that when I made this change I was aware then, and am aware now, that it's acceptable (and often necessary) to have strong opinions and to act upon them. I try to balance both sides of this.

    Over the years I've observed that some people respond to this habit negatively. On the one hand, there are people who are basically my opposites — they only trust confident, universal assertions and perceive my style as weaseling. On the other hand, I've met more than a few people who simply react to the first person pronoun and the explicit invocation of my subjectivity as a sign of self-absorption and arrogance. I'm not inferring this, I've been told so explicitly — that "I think…" and such privileges myself above everything else.

    This relationship to the use of the FPP is not coincidental — my sense is that there's a worldview and style of thinking and discourse that somehow manages to equate the pronouncement of categorical, universal truths without reference to one's subjectivity or self as being somehow more personally humble and more rational, as if oneself is unimportant compared to the revealed truth of the cosmos. I also have the impression that this is partly a function of how young people are taught to write in secondary school and university. Obviously, from my perspective, this is profoundly arrogant and self-centered even as it pretends to be otherwise. But I would think that, wouldn't I?

    All of which is to say that I'm not the least surprised to find a correlation in this to politics. The conservative temperament prefers less ambiguity and more universality, as well as bold assertions of authoritative truth. Authority is deeply involved in this, too, I think, in that in the invocation of an incontestable authority, the self is subsumed into the truth of that authority. People borrow authority to make assertions about truth while dodging their own responsibility for their apprehension of it. I'm begging the question, though, because if an authority truly is incontestable, then the only responsibility one has with regard to truth is to accept the authority's assertion of truth. In that context, to that mindset, the subjectivity of "I think…" signals a form of doubt, which in turn implies that one's subjective doubt is a challenge to authority and thus is a kind of arrogance.

  18. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    I think it's safe to say that Cruz is the most doctrinaire conservative in the race, so it makes sense that he has the lowest number of "I think"'s, but then you'd expect Sanders to beat Clinton on the left, yet it's Clinton who uses the phrase by far the most. My theory is that she is trained, consciously or not, to emphasize her subjectivity more as a woman.

    It is considered bad style to use "I think" when writing argumentative prose; formal arguments are more persuasive when claims are asserted forthrightly. But in conversation, I find that relying too much on assertion is a sure way to tick people off and prevent constructive dialog. Different situations call for different styles, I think.

  19. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    I think (see what I did there?) it's safe to say that Cruz is the most doctrinaire conservative in the race, so it makes sense that he has the lowest number of "I think"'s, but then you'd expect Sanders to beat Clinton on the left, yet it's Clinton who uses the phrase by far the most. My theory is that she is trained, consciously or not, to emphasize her subjectivity more as a woman.

    It is considered bad style to use "I think" when writing argumentative prose; formal arguments are more persuasive when claims are asserted forthrightly. But in conversation, I find that relying too much on assertion is a sure way to tick people off and prevent constructive dialog. Different situations call for different styles, I guess.

  20. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    Sorry for the double post.

  21. Ari Corcoran said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

    Actually nothing good comes after "With all due respect …"

  22. Mai Kuha said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    Gee, I wonder how "I guarantee" would compare.

  23. Julie A. Maahs said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 2:07 am

    You'd have to bring in all the qualifiers that people use to weaken or soften their assertions. Bernie Sanders says "in my view" so often it's a distinctive feature of his speech, but means the same thing as "I think" and "I believe."

    [(myl) Good idea. Numbers again are frequencies per million words:

              "I think"    "I believe"  "my view"   SUM
    Clinton    4685          790          70        5545 
    Cruz       1194          337          31        1562
    Kasich     1807          695         104        2606
    Sanders    4047         1797         494        6338
    Trump      2900          195           0        3095
    

    Basically the same pattern — "I believe" boosts Sanders over Clinton, but "my view" is not common enough to make a big overall difference, even though it's true that Sanders uses it more than the others.

    If you were going to do this in a serious way, though, you'd want to annotate the function of individual instances. It's not an attempt to "weaken or soften" his assertions when Ted Cruz says "I believe in America", or "I'm a fighter. I am passionate about what I believe."]

  24. GeorgeW said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 6:04 am

    " . . . when writing argumentative prose; formal arguments are more persuasive when claims are asserted forthright."

    I understand that Cruz was a debate champion in college. I wonder if this is part of formal debate training and is an influence on his style in political speeches.

    It has been pointed out somewhere (LL?) that he uses few fillers in his speech and instead has more pauses which is taught in debate training.

  25. Ray said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 6:41 am

    my toes always curdle in delight when I hear an expert on teevee begin with "so, "

  26. Rodger C said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    @Ari Corcoran: I associate "With all due respect" with the military, specifically when one feels oneself forced to contradict a superior: "With all due respect, sir, we're heading off a cliff."

  27. Robert Coren said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    @Ray: Your toes do what?

    [(myl) Apparently his toes separate into curds and whey… Posting a video of this phenomenon on YouTube is clearly indicated.]

    In our household, beginning a conversation with "So,…" signals that the other person is required to pay attention, and possibly even to think.

  28. andyb said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    @Robert Coren: When I was growing up, if anyone in our house started off with "So" followed by a pause, they would be immediately interrupted with "a needle pulling thread". It wasn't even really a joke, just a reflexive response. It was hard to suppress when I went to college and a few of my professors liked to start lectures, or signal a change in topics, that way…

  29. Roger Lustig said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    @Rodger C: That phrase had its 15 minutes a few years back. http://www.courthousenews.com/2014/09/16/71454.htm — it's the last few lines.

  30. ohwilleke said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 12:53 am

    "Many years ago, I deliberately began to introduce "I think…" and "I feel…" into my speech and writing and these days I also frequently use "it seems to me…".

    I spend a fair amount of time teaching witnesses in legal cases, student writers, and young lawyers to banish those kinds of constructions from their speech and writing.

    Anytime anyone makes any statement of opinion, the fact that it is the opinion of the person stating it is implied and doesn't have to be emphasized, and it has more rhetorical effect stated without qualification in addition to using fewer words and being more direct.

    Another similar trick when coaching witnesses is to teach them to state things that they know to be factually true in a manner that does not disclose the source of the knowledge whenever possible.

    Hence, "Johnny never ties his shoes.", as opposed to "Johnny's teachers have told me that he never ties his shoes."

    Only the most savvy lawyer will manage to think to make a hearsay object to the first statement (which would keep it out of evidence), while any first year law student or high school mock trial participant would know to object to the second sentence on hearsay grounds before the sentence can be completed and the cat is out of the bag.

  31. Ray said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    @Robert Coren omg I don't know why I said that! (an eggcorn? or maybe I meant 'curdle', as in 'curl' and 'huddle'?)

    but apparently I'm not entirely alone:

    http://notwithoutmyhandbag.com/blog/2007/a-name-to-curdle-your-toes/

  32. Rodger C said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    The thought of curdled toes is absolutely heart-rendering. I think.

    [(myl) I would have said that it's heart-warning, or maybe harsh-warming…]

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