Two more pundits who don't count

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Craig Shirley & Bill Pascoe don't like Jon Huntsman Jr., and in particular they didn't like the speech (CSPAN video, transcript) in which he announced his presidential candidacy ("Jon Huntsman is no Ronald Reagan", The Daily Caller 6/21/2011):

Most Americans are on the right side of the spectrum. They are knowledgeable and far more sophisticated about politics and government than the commentariat gives them credit for.

They are awash in personalities, and are sick of them. They don’t want Kim Kardashian as their president. They want someone of substance and depth and content who uses the personal pronouns “we” and “us” more than he uses “I” and “me,” and who understands what it is about America that makes it great — and will do everything in his power to restore that greatness.

The segment that I've put in bold face is yet another replication of the First-Person-Singular Pronoun trope — but unlike most versions of this complaint, which can only be checked by comparing the relative frequency of FPSPs in comparable speeches of different politicians, this one makes a within-politician claim, and thus can easily be checked by taking a quick look at the particular speech these two political experts are complaining about.

Jon Huntsman Jr.'s 1480-word announcement  included the following personal pronouns:

61 we
31 I
33  our
9 they
8 their
8 you
6 me
3 his
4 my
3 us
2 her
1 he
1 ourselves

Recall that according to Shirley & Pascoe,

The American people … want someone of substance and depth and content who uses the personal pronouns “we” and “us” more than he uses “I” and “me,” …

Turning to the numbers, we find that Huntsman's announcement used "we" and "us" 61+3=64 times, and "I" and "me" 31+6=37 times. Expanding the count to all first-person plural versus first-person singular pronouns, we get 61+33+3+1=98 for the plural ("we/us") dimension, versus 31+6+4=41 for the singular ("I/me") dimension.

Do Craig Shirley and Bill Pascoe mean this to be an endorsement of Jon Huntsman, who is thus shown to be exactly what they say that the American people are looking for? I don't think so.

Do they they believe that 37 is greater than 64, or that 41 is greater than 98? If you put it to them that way, I doubt it.

Do they care about the truth or falsehood of their assertions? Apparently not, which means that their essay can be assigned to the technical category of bullshit.

One last thing. Shirley and Pascoe begin their pronominal complaints this way:

So if Governor Huntsman is no Reagan, who is he?

He’s the GOP’s Barack Obama. In Huntsman’s announcement today, his remarks were infused with possessive pronouns, just like Obama. Huntsman is the darling of the liberal media, just like Obama. Huntsman seems lost when it comes to understanding America, just like Obama.

"Infused with possessive pronouns".  That's a new complaint, as far as I know — is it really possible that Mssrs. Shirley and Pascoe think that Jon Huntsman is trying to follow Barack Obama into the hearts of the "liberal media" by overuse of possessive pronouns?

I think that it's more likely this is another version of the same old FPSP complaint, and  they used the term "possessive pronouns" when they meant "first-person singular pronouns".  (After all, first-person singular pronouns are supposed to be a sign of self-absorption, and someone who is "possessive" is selfish, and so…) One reason for doubting that they meant the term literally is that I can't think of any rational argument for being concerned about over-use of possessive pronouns. And another reason is that  Huntsman's announcement contained not a single possessive pronoun, in the sense of that term used in traditional grammatical analysis.

If we broaden the category to include what are traditionally called "possessive adjectives", we get these:

33 our
9 their
3 his
4 my

Make of this what you will — I'm going to try to get some (less foolish) work done.

[Update — OK, I couldn't help myself.  Newt Gingrich's 5/17/2011 announcement of his candidacy used "we" and "us" 8 times, and "I" and "me" 9 times.  Craig Shirley has been designated to write an official biography of Newt.  As the page at Gingrich Productions explains, "Gingrich and Shirley have in the past collaborated on opinion pieces, including a Politico column two weeks ago".  And you can draw some additional conclusions about Mr. Shirley's attitudes toward Mr. Gingrich from his Newsmax review of Newt and Callista's film, "New Reagan Documentary Superb, Heroic Work". No word yet on balance-of-pronouns issues.]


  1. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    I was about to mention the 'possessive pronouns' point on the previous post. I would guess they take it to mean 'pronouns which he [the speaker] possesses' (in that they refer to him).

  2. The Ridger said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    I'm quite sure they think "my, our, her, etc" are possessive pronouns. That's what most people are taught to call them.

    [(myl) Perhaps — but that can't be what they meant by "infused with possessive pronouns". Why would that be a bad thing to be? Who has ever claimed that Barack Obama uses its and their and his too much? I'm pretty sure that Andrew (above) is right — Shirley and Pascoe wrote "possessive pronouns" because they meant "first person singular pronouns", i.e. selfish pronouns, i.e. "possessive" pronouns…

    I mean, these are guys who clearly can't (or at least don't) count, since they made a transparently false assertion about the relative counts of "I/me" and "we/us". Why would you think that they bothered to take any care with their choice of grammatical terminology?]

  3. dw said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    The American people … want someone of substance and depth and content who uses the personal pronouns “we” and “us” more than he uses “I” and “me,” …

    Clearly, they mean that the politician must use both "we" and "us" more than both "I" and "me".

    In other words, the desired politician must
    * use "we" more than "I"
    * use "us" more than "me"
    * use "we" more than "me"
    * use "us" more than "I"

    Looking at your table, we see that only two of those four conditions are satisfied. Obviously, therefore, Huntsman cannot be someone of "substance and depth and content"!

    (Note: in case your sarcasm detector didn't go off, let me say that I dont think this is a very plausible reading either…)

  4. James said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    Ridger, yes, but why on earth would Shirley/Pascoe think it's a bad thing to use possessive pronouns? What is it supposed to show about Obama that he uses possessive pronouns?
    I think Andrew (not the same one) must be right.

    Also, I swear when I was in the middle of reading this posting I had to check to be sure it was written by MYL. It has a very Pullumesque flavor in the middle section.

  5. James said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    Oy, it took me too long to write that comment, I guess.

  6. Devon Strolovitch said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    Is it wrong to wish there was a 'like' button here?

  7. jfruh said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    But wouldn't using the first-person plural be an indication of a love of socialistic collectivism, while a first-person singular demonstrates rugged individuality? I'm confused by the logic here.

    [(myl) "Logic"? ]

  8. JMM said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    It just doesn't matter. Words don't have meaning to these people; they only have emotional impact, and even that they will twist, turn and spin at their need.

    Meh – personally I want people in responsible positions who will take responsibility for their acts. They apparently see that as a fault.

    Anyway, no. I too doubt they even know what a pronoun is, as much as I doubt this comment belongs here. But if we are talking about the meanings of words, it is clear, words mean what ever a (former-)Australian media mogul wants them to mean.

    [(myl) I don't think that it's fair to blame the Daily Caller on Rupert Murdoch. And equally witless examples of the FPSP trope have been published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post again and again, etc.

    I blame this on the poor quality of pundits' interns, who apparently all abruptly became slovenly undereducated idiots in 1985. Presumably pundits have always been as they are today, but their underlings used to save them from publishing excessive numbers of illogical conclusions based on transparently false claims of fact.]

  9. GeorgeW said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    The authors practice what they preach and demonstrate their humility by avoiding FPPs and, instead, speak for the American public.

  10. Axl said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    something's wrong either in the count or the account of the count – the table has 61 we and 3 us, not 33 us (but 33 our) = 64 we+us. but who's counting?

    [(myl) Well, *I'm* counting. And you're right, I did screw it up. (My excuse — I found a better-quality transcript, and re-did the word counts, and then changed the sums in too much of a hurry, and used the wrong number in one of the sums.) It's fixed, now, I think — "we" + "us" is 61+3=64, "I" + "me" is 31=6 = 37. Same conclusion.

    Thanks for the correction, seriously.]

  11. hanmeng said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    Wouldn't possessive pronouns be bad if you're opposed to the idea of possession, i.e. property? Which would make them pretty far left. Or maybe it's demonic possession they're thinking of.

    [(myl) Yes, I have to admit that some anarchists or communists might see possessive pronouns as propertarian. But somehow I doubt that Shirley and Pascoe meant to take Obama and Huntsman to task for being excessively attached to private property.]

  12. Martin J Ball said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    As all these folk appear to be the descendants of the know-nothing party, it's not surprising that they … er … know nothing?

  13. Axl said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    Totally understandable to slip up like that, and I don't mean to make faces, seriously — I'm more surprised that nobody who commented favourably noticed it or thought it was worth mentioning.

  14. Jan Freeman said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    James, your comment about the Pullumesque rhetoric here reminds me that one of the pleasures of the old Language Log — where posts were signed at the end rather than bylined at the top — was seeing how many words you had to read before you could guess that the author was MYL or GKP or AZ or one of the other regulars. (Not many, in most cases.) (Another pleasure was the old typeface, but I've made my peace with the sans-serif Language Log.)

  15. Bobbie said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    According to Craig Shirley & Bill Pascoe, which (if any) candidate matches the requirements of " substance and depth and content who uses the personal pronouns “we” and “us” more than he uses “I” and “me" ” …?
    [While I acknowledge that their analysis is flawed, I still want to know who they think is a viable candidate. Not that it really matters! ]

    [(myl) I don't know who they favor now. But Craig Shirley has ties to Newt Gingrich. And Bill Pascoe, according to his web site, has managed campaigns in the past for Alan Keyes and David Vitter, which may give you some idea of his taste in leadership.]

  16. [links] Link salad wanders into summer | said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 6:29 am

    […] Two more pundits who don't count — More on the irrational and counterfactual pundit obsession with politicians and personal pronouns. Seriously. Yes, these comments are made by adults with ready access to objective information that disprove their assertions. […]

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    Contra Martin J Ball, whatever else may be said about Messrs. Shirley and Pascoe, they are not very plausible heirs of the old Know-Nothing tradition in American politics. All three GOP politicians they are said by myl to have actively worked for or with (Gingrich/Keyes/Vitter) are Roman Catholics. Two of the three even have suspiciously non-Anglo-Saxon-sounding surnames.

  18. VinnyD said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    I thought you were going to object to "Most Americans are on the right side of the spectrum." I would have said that the median American is in the middle of the spectrum, and about half are to her right and the other half to her left.

    [(myl) That depends on where you get your norms (or other definitions) from, doesn't it? If the standard is the current distribution of opinions in the world at large, then their statement is plausibly true. And if the standard is some invariant scale somehow defined in terms of opinions about property, taxation, regulation, behavioral codes, etc., then it's too subjective to for their to be any obvious way to falsify the statement. Certainly not by counting…]

  19. Kylopod said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

    Out of curiosity, I checked the transcripts of Reagan's announcement speech for his candidacy in 1979 and Obama's in 2007 and counted the I's, me's, we's, us's (with Microsoft Word). These are the results:

    Reagan: we 76, us 21, I 42, me 4
    Obama: we 68, us 27, I 47, me 7

    That's roughly the same, and in both cases the we's and us's outnumber the I's and me's. Hunstman comes off "worse" by this metric, because he has fewer we's and us's than Reagan or Obama do, and while his we's and us's combined are more than his I's and me's combined, he actually has more me's than us's. Conclusion: Huntsman is no Obama or Reagan.

    I really need to get to bed.

  20. The Ridger said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    I wasn't trying to do anything but address this:

    And another reason is that Huntsman's announcement contained not a single possessive pronoun, in the sense of that term used in traditional grammatical analysis.

    If we broaden the category to include what are traditionally called "possessive adjectives", we get these:

    which seemed to focus on what a possessive pronoun is, not why they would think using them is bad.

  21. Stitch said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    "Most Americans…want someone of substance and depth and content who uses the personal pronouns “we” and “us” more than he uses “I” and “me”

    Do the Pascoes give any reference for this, or are they just referring to themselves as "Most Americans?" If the latter, it says something about how they want the plural pronouns used.

    [(myl) The article is by one Pascoe (Bill) and one Shirley (Craig), and as you can read for yourself, they don't cite any sources for any of their assertions. In fairness to them, this is pretty common in punditry.]

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