Pronouns again

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Fred Vultee, "Pronouns: The Reunion Tour", HeadsUp The Blog, 3/1/2017:

The Fabulous Pronouns are back on the road! Take it away, The Washington Examiner:

President Trump referred to himself during his first speech to a joint session of Congress at a much lower rate than former President Barack Obama did in his first address in February 2009, roughly half as often.

Technically, Donald Trump's speechwriters used 53 first-person-singular pronouns in 4818 words, while Barack Obama's speechwriters used 87 FPS pronouns in 5988 words, so the ratio of rates is (53/4818)/(87/5988) = 0.76 — so it should be "roughly three quarters as often", not "roughly half as often".

On this deeply pointless metric, Barack Obama is again roughly in the middle of the pack of recent presidents, when we look at their first addresses to a joint session of Congress:

Something similar is true for pronouns in State of the Union addresses, as discussed in "The evolution of SOTU pronouns", 1/28/2014:

Looking at the numbers another way, Trump's speechwriters for last night's address to Congress gave him a relatively low  ratio of first-person singular pronouns to first-person plural pronouns: 53/234 = 0.23. But as discussed in "Did a blind squirrel happen to find a nut", 8/8/2015, in the August 2015 Republican debate his "me-to-we" ratio was 3.94 — and his FPSP usage rate was 7.5% — by far the highest of the 10 debaters:

Speaker Words 1stSing 2nd 1stPlural 1stSing% 2nd% 1stPlural% 1stSing/1stPlural
Trump 1788 134 43 34 7.5% 2.4% 1.9% 3.94
Paul 1000 55 17 25 5.5% 1.7% 2.5% 2.20
Cruz 933 41 9 19 4.4% 1.0% 2.0% 2.15
Walker 1145 41 18 31 3.6% 1.6% 2.7% 1.32
Kasich 1333 45 16 52 4.2% 1.2% 3.9% 1.08
Christie 1380 48 29 46 3.5% 2.1% 3.3% 1.04
Bush 1525 57 15 63 3.7% 1.0% 4.1% 0.90
Carson 1138 38 30 49 3.3% 2.6% 4.3% 0.78
Rubio 1503 42 11 56 2.8% 0.7% 3.7% 0.75
Huckabee 1244 13 9 44 1.0% 0.7% 3.5% 0.30

And more typically, in Mr. Trump's 2/16/2017 press conference, his FPSP usage rate was 4.83%, and his 1stsing/1stplural ratio was 2.20, compared to 2.93% FPSP usage and 0.98 me-to-we ratio for Barack Obama's last press conference.

What does this all mean?

The most obvious thing is that last night's speech, in this as in other respects, was not at all like Mr. Trump's spontaneous style.

But let me quickly add that pronoun statistics of this type are somewhere between overused and meaningless. For some documentation of the weirdly disproportionate role that they nevertheless have played in the past eight years of punditry, see e.g.

"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009
"Obama's Imperial 'I': Spreading the meme", 6/8/2009
"Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009
"Royal baloney", 6/9/2009
"Another pack member heard from", 6/9/2009
"I again", 7/13/2009
"What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2009
"Recommended reading", 5/3/2011
"Presidential pronouns, one more time", 5/22/2011
"Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count", 6/23/2011
"A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012
"Another lie from George Will", 5/7/2012
"Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012
"First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition", 1/11/2014
"The evolution of SOTU pronouns", 1/28/2014
"Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer", 9/16/2014
"Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited", 10/21/2014
"Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier", 1/20/2015
"Did a blind squirrel happen to find a nut?", 8/8/2015
"More BS from George F. Will", 8/28/2015
"Debate words", 9/27/2016
"Evidence, data, and reasoning", 2/17/2017

I find that there is considerable consistency between Donald Trump's evaluation of mass-media pundits and mine, although I like to think that my motivation is more objective.




  1. David L said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 7:36 pm

    I find it fascinating that Bush41 seems to be something of an outlier in his use of first person pronouns. He always struck me as one of the more modest and self-effacing of recent presidents.

  2. Marja Erwin said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 12:52 am

    For the record, the Washington Examiner is a far-right paper, has used racist slurs such as "illegals" in their top front headlines, and pushes racist alt-right/neo-Nazi claims on their website.

  3. John Shutt said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 9:48 am

    "Read my lips: No new taxes." (first person singular possessive)

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 11:22 am

    I wonder whether Trump's writers have been reading George F. Will or whoever and deliberately decided to hold down the rate of first-person pronouns.

    [(myl) This is a plausible conjecture — which might have been telegraphed to the Washington Examiner, though of course they would be capable of coming up with the idea on their own.]

  5. Thorin said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 11:29 am

    I wonder why Ford isn't included in the first chart.

    [(myl) I couldn't find a transcript of a corresponding address to Congress. If you can provide a link, I'll gladly add him.]

  6. Ed M said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    I doubt Trump's "I am your voice … I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order" declaration at the RNC convention last year can be topped by another president. Trump perhaps stored up enough first-person ego-karma there to make George Will's head explode.

  7. Thorin said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

    I guess because of Ford's unorthodox path to the presidency, he didn't have the same traditional first speech to a joint session of Congress as other presidents. But here's a list that includes two speeches to joint sessions of Congress about the economy and foreign policy.

  8. Ken said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

    Any estimate of how many of the "we"'s were royal?

  9. John Shutt said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 12:08 am

    @Ken: Just eyeballing the text, the first dozen or so "we"s are all inclusive of his audience, which would seem on the face of it to be at least the joint houses of Congress.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    Any estimate of how many of the "we"'s were royal?

    Trump does, is my impression, often say "we" when he really just means himself; this certainly isn't royal but meant to include his voters when "we" are for example "winning" or "are going to make America great again".

    Sanders did the same. I haven't paid that much attention to Clinton.

  11. Michael Stoler said,

    March 5, 2017 @ 11:45 pm

    I don't have statistics for this, but during the campaign (which, I guess, is still going on), Trump seemed to refer to himself in the third person a lot. (More than any presidential candidate since Bob Dole was mocked for it in 1996.) "Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete shutdown…", people are going to "Vote Trump", etc. Perhaps he does this because he realizes his name has powerful associations, and it's already a brand, and he wants to strengthen it as one.

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