One last (?) piece of nonsense

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Callum Borchers, "Count Obama’s references to ‘I’ and ‘me’ while you can, conservative media", WaPo 1/18/2017:

For eight years, tracking Obama's use of the personal pronouns "I" and "me" has been a cherished ritual in the conservative media — one small way to promote the idea that the president is self-centered and therefore out of touch with all the decent, hard-working folks out there. […]

Last week, the Daily Caller dinged Obama for referring to himself 75 times in his farewell address.

The ding in question was Peter Hasson, "Obama Refers To Himself 75 Times In Farewell Address", The Daily Caller 1/10/2017:

President Obama referred to himself 75 times in his farewell address Tuesday night, according to a review of his prepared remarks by The Daily Caller. […]

Obama said “I” 33 times during the speech, “my” 20 times, “me” 10 times, and “I’m” or “I’ve” 12 times.

I processed the Federal News Service transcript of the speech as delivered, and got even more first-person singular pronouns than the Daily Caller did — 53 instances of "I", and 88 first person singular pronouns in total.

But let's look at the percentages:

4899 words, 53 I's (1.08 percent), 88 FPSP (1.80 percent)
4899 words, 90 you's (1.84 percent), 106 SPP (2.16 percent)
4899 words, 99 we's (2.02 percent), 235 FPPP (4.80 percent)

Is this a lot? Well, we can compare Donald Trump's news conference of 1/11/2017. Based on my own transcription of the event's audio, I get

6582 words, 248 I's (3.78 percent), 282 FPSP (4.28 percent)
6582 words, 89 you's (1.35 percent), 98 SPP (1.49 percent)
6582 words, 77 we's (1.17 percent), 114 FPPP (1.73 percent)

So as we've found in many previous instances, Obama's rate of first-person-singular-pronoun usage is low compared to the rates displayed by other politicians.

Some previous LLOG coverage, in reverse chronological order:

"More BS from George F. Will", 8/28/2015
"Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier", 1/20/2015
"Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited", 10/21/2014
"Colbert on Krauthammer", 9/24/2014
"Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer", 9/16/2014
"The evolution of SOTU pronouns", 1/28/2014
"First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition", 1/11/2014
"Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012
"Another lie from George Will", 5/7/2012
"A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count" (6/23/2011)
"Two more pundits who don't count" (6/21/2011)
"Presidential pronouns, one more time" (5/22/2011)
"Recommended reading" (5/3/2011)
""A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator"" (8/9/2010)
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse" (7/10/2010)
"Them there I's" (2/11/2010)
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time" (10/6/2010)
"What is 'I' saying?" (8/9/2009)
"'I' is a camera" (7/18/2009)
"I again" (7/13/2009)
"Another pack member heard from" (6/9/2009)
"Royal Baloney" (6/9/2009)
"Inaugural pronouns" (6/8/2009)
"Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme" (6/8/2009)
"Fact-checking George F. Will" (6/7/2009)

As this list indicates, it's not just "the conservative media" who have cherished this particular piece of (in the technical philosophical sense) bullshit — unless The Washington Post is part of "the conservative media".

In particular, George F. Will has a longer and more consistent history of false statements and insinuations on this point than any other prominent writer —   for a few of his effusions, see the links in "Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009; "Fact-checking George F Will, one more time", 10/6/2009; "Another lie from George F. Will", 5/7/2012; "More BS from George F. Will", 8/28/2015.

And another Washington Post writer, Charles Krauthammer, has added his own uninformed bellows to the chorus from time to time — see "Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010; "Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer", 9/16/2014.

Borcher again:

Over the years, this counting game has been played by the National Review, Weekly Standard, Washington Examiner, Infowars, the Federalist, the Daily Mail, Daily Wire, Independent Journal Review, CNS News and Conspiracy Outpost, among others.  

Fox News appears to have been among the first to make this a thing, publishing an important finding by the conservative Media Research Center eight months after Obama took office.

But the cited Fox News article is from September 9, 2009. George F. Will's first assertion on this topic was published in the Washington Post on June 7, 2009, three months earlier.

Is it possible that Mr. Borchers isn't aware of his own newspaper's shameful history on this topic? Or is it against editorial policy for one WaPo writer to call out another's unsupported prejudice?

Of course, the whole exercise would be beside the alleged point even if the pundits involved were not innumerate. According to Angela Cary et al.,"Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014:

Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [-.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns.

Update — I thought it would be amusing to give George F. Will a dose of his own medicine, but with actual counts and rates. So I transcribed the Youtube video clip where he explains why he left the Republican Party, and here's the result:

201 words, 14 I's (6.97 percent), 18 FPSP (8.96 percent)
201 words, 1 you's (0.50 percent), 1 SPP (0.50 percent)
201 words, 0 we's (0 percent), 0 FPPP (0 percent)

Small N, just one sample, different context — but still. In June of 2009, Mr. Will opined that Barack Obama "is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun". Now we see that George beats Barack in first-person-singular-pronoun usage by 8.96/1.80, or about 5 to 1. So if Barack is "inordinately fond of the first-person singular", what should we say about George? That he's consumed with insatiable, obsessive lust for ceaseless self-reference? Or maybe just that this is a silly metric, and that George Will's often-repeated over-reaction to Barack Obama's relatively low rate of self-reference tells us more about Will's attitude towards uppity negroes than about Obama's rhetorical style.


  1. AndrewD said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 10:53 am

    I would have thought that in a farewell address, there would be a much higher use of "I" and "me". I also think that this would be acceptable to most people

    [(myl) Indeed. But even so, it would be nice if the people who seem to care so much about this matter actually looked at rates of use…]

  2. Guy said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

    One thing I wonder about these comparison-less figures is where the author would have drawn the line at what sounds "big". Apparently the author felt that 75 sounds like "a lot" in isolation. I'm guessing a number like 50 would have passed muster as well. What about 30? 10?

  3. DaveK said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

    Guy–it doesn't matter:

    "Proof of Obama's egotism is that he used 'I' or 'me' no fewer than five separate times in the course of his address".

  4. Peter D Schult said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 3:05 pm

    Though the WaPo is not part of the Conservative Media, both Will and Krauthammer are quite conservative columnists. To their credit, though, both have denounced Trump in the past.

    [(myl) The WaPo's regular columnists span a range of political viewpoints, which is fine. But both Will and Krauthammer have enthusiastically joined in promoting the "Obama is a narcissist because pronouns" meme, and Will arguably started it, or at least served as one of its very first promoters. So it's either ignorant or disingenuous for Borcher to cite and link to 11 instances of the meme in "conservative media" while ignoring his own publication's role in its history.]

  5. Guy said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 3:32 pm


    And if Obama had somehow avoided using first person pronouns entirely, I imagine he would have been accused of using the passive voice for failing to attribute things that happened to his own agency (whether he had actually used the passive voice being irrelevant, of course).

    I'm reminded of a criticism I read where Bill Clinton gave a speech about Hillary Clinton and kept referring to her as "she" and "her", which is apparently bad for some reason. There is no criticism on linguistic grounds too absurd for people to take as legitimate.

  6. Rube said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

    @Guy said: "There is no criticism on linguistic grounds too absurd for people to take as legitimate." I suspect that this is true of criticism on any grounds, though. The linguistic stupidities are probably just more obvious to the kind of people who read this blog.

  7. Joshua K. said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

    Some people like to use any kind of criticism they can find against their political opponents, whether or not the criticism has any merit. Warren Harding was mocked for using the word "normalcy" and George W. Bush for using the word "decider," even though both words could be found in dictionaries with the meanings that those presidents were using. Even John F. Kennedy had used the term "the decider" in reference to the position of the President of the United States.

    [(myl) Yes — I posted many times about the "Bushisms" industry. Nothing on Harding, though.]

  8. Cervantes said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 11:01 am


    Is it possible that Mr. Borchers isn't aware of his own newspaper's shameful history on this topic? Or is it against editorial policy for one WaPo writer to call out another's unsupported prejudice?

    Or is Borchers a smart lad who refrains from carefully criticizing (or even examining) the work of his superiors because it's not in his own best interest to do so?

    (I suppose all three propositions could be true.)

  9. Mark P said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    MYL's style, at least in my opinion, tends towards measured, even when examining some of the more egregious bogus work. Criticism is sometimes harsh but usually couched in academic terms. In the last sentence of this post, however, it doesn't seem that he has any need for Obama's Anger Translator.

  10. mike said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

    >Some people like to use any kind of criticism they can find against their political opponents

    We've certainly seen much mirth about "yuge" and (especially) "bigly," in spite of the work here on LL showing that "bigly" is "big-league." As we've seen on this post and previous ones, factual investigation into such matters little when it comes to linguistically mocking the opposition.

    [(myl) The "bigly" business is bogus — see "Bigly", 2/26/2016. But "yuge" is especially egregious, since the lack of initial aspiration in words like huge, humor, humid, etc. is a regular feature of several regional varieties of English, including New York City where Donald Trump is from.]

  11. daveo said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

    I suspect the "yuge" less about how it's being pronounced than it is a criticism of Trump saying things are going to be "great", "huge", or 'big league" without providing any details.

  12. Steve Morrison said,

    January 29, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

    This nonsense has been going on for a long time. I found this entry on p. 37 of a book called Dirty Little Secrets of World War II:

    In 1939 a newspaper subjected the speech patterns of the then principal world leaders to analysis regarding the use of the first person singular. The results were not surprising.
    Adolf Hitler was wont to use I or the equivalent about once every 53 words, while his partner in crime, Benito Mussolini, used it about once every 83 words. In contrast, Franklin D. Roosevelt said I about once every 100 words. French Premier Édouard Daladier referred to himself in this fashion only once in every 234 words and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain only once in every 249 words, perhaps because they had so much to be modest about.
    Since at the time this analysis was made Winston Churchill was an unemployed politician, he was omitted from the survey. However, in his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” address to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, he used the first person singular about once in every 35 words, thereby beating even Hitler in the egotism stakes.

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