Another lie from George Will

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Or rather, a tired old lie repeated yet again: "Will: Without First-Person Pronouns, Obama 'Would Fall Silent'", Real Clear Politics, 5/6/2012 (reproducing part of a panel discussion on ABC's This Week).

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If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually.

I call his assertion a lie, rather than using the technical term "bullshit", because it seems that Mr. Will is trying to convince us of something that is patently untrue, rather than just trying to puff himself up without any particular concern for whether what he says is true or false.

This is not an accidental or casual remark — George Will has been beating this particular drum since June of 2009. For a list of earlier posts on this topic, including more counting of first-person pronouns than you could possibly want to read about, see "A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012. (Hint: In comparable kinds of material, Barack Obama's rate of using first-person-singular pronouns is low compared to the usage rates of other recent presidents.)

Adding one more source to the list, I give below the counts of first-person-singular pronouns from the presidential radio addresses on file at The American Presidency Project at UCSB (technically, everything in the "Oral: Address – Saturday Radio" category):

Words FPSPs Percent FPSPs
Reagan 283,215 3,241 1.14%
Bush1 11,296 206 1.82%
Clinton 374,140 3,805 1.02%
Bush2 254,379 2,684 1.06%
Obama 123,893 1,123 0.91%

I recognize that when Mr. WIll says that "if you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent",  he's speaking hyperbolically. But the clear meaning of his hyperbole is that Barack Obama uses first-person singular pronouns excessively often; and in that context, this otherwise-meaningless comparison of rates also acquires a meaning, namely that George Will is careless with the truth.

Update — more from Fred Vultee here. And following up a question in the comments below, I'd like to suggest that you consider this quotation from George Will:

Look, self-absorption is part of the occupational hazard of politics, and it’s also part of the job description of being president. All that said, try to imagine Dwight Eisenhower talking about D-Day saying, ‘I did this. I decided this. I did this and then I did that.’ It’s inconceivable.

And then take a look at these two quotations from Dwight D. Eisenhower (in an interview with Walter Cronkite in a CBS program "D-Day Plus 20 Years", quoted in Loudon Wainwright, "D Day Reminder of the Best Ike", Life Magazine, 6/16/1964):

I thought it was just the best of a bad bargain. I possibly sat silently just reviewing these things, maybe, I'd say 35 or 45 seconds. . . . Actually, I think after 30-45 seconds of ssomething like that, I just got up and said, "Okay, we'll go," and this room was emptied in two seconds."

"Because if it did fail," he told commentator Walter Cronkite cheerfully, "I was going into oblivion anyway, so I might as well take full responsibility."

Let me repeat again the questions that I asked in an earlier post:

There are two interesting questions here, it seems to me. The first one is why George F. Will is so struck by rates of first-person usage, on the part of Barack and Michelle Obama, that are significantly lower than has been typical of recent presidents and first ladies on similar occasions. The second question is how many pundits and talking heads will follow his brainless lead this time around. […]

Now that I think of it, there's another significant question here as well. How in the world did our culture  award major-pundit status to someone whose writings are as empirically and spiritually empty as those of George F. Will?

[Hat tip to David Yamanishi.]


  1. djw said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

    Doesn't seem to understand the concept of audience and purpose, does he?

  2. Rubrick said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    Au contraire, djw. His audience is ignorant, pompous conservatives like himself, and his purpose is to please them while earning a nice paycheck and enhancing his undeserved reputation as an "intellectual". I get the sense he understands these quite well.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 5:13 am

    MYL: This is off topic, but I think I hear Obama use 'extraordinary' an d 'extraordinarily' a lot (an 'extraordinary' amount). Is there a way to check this in your data?

    FWIW, Will's response begins with the 1st person, singular pronoun.

    [(myl) In 127 speech transcripts here, in a total of 110,100 words, Obama uses extraordinary 17 times and extraordinarily once. That's a combined rate of 1000000*18/110100 = 163 per million words. In the 425-million-word COCA corpus, extraordinary occurs 13,360 times and extraordinarily 2,701 times, for a combined rate of 1000000*(13360+2701)/425000000 = 38 per million words.

    So relative to the language at large, he (or his speech-writers) do use extraordinary a lot.

    How this compares to political oratory from other sources is a different question.]

  4. Faldone said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    Do we have any text of Eisenhower talking about D Day?

    [(myl) There was a CBS program "D-Day Plus 20 years", which included an interview with Ike, and maybe a speech of his at a 20th-anniversary ceremony. I haven't been able to locate a copy or a transcript, but there's a passage quoted in a Life magazine article, about the go-no-go decision, which is fairly FPS-heavy:

    I thought it was just the best of a bad bargain. I possibly sat silently just reviewing these things, maybe, I'd say 35 or 45 seconds. . . . Actually, I think after 30-45 seconds of ssomething like that, I just got up and siad, "Okay, we'll go," and this room was emptied in two seconds."

    The same article quotes another fragment from the same interview:

    "Because if it did fail," he told commentator Walter Cronkite cheerfully, "I was going into oblivion anyway, so I might as well take full responsibility."

    I've added these to the original post — thanks for asking about it.]

  5. Jeff Carney said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, Language Log gets a lot of citations these days, and it's SEO ranking is quite amazing. I doubt that George Will himself has read any of Mark's posts on this topic, but it seems likely that one of his interns (or whoever does his grunt work) HAS run across it and maybe even brought it to his attention. This is an OLD topic.

    Bottom line. I think Mark is probably spot on when he calls Will a liar. He really knows better and says this crap anyway.

  6. un malpaso said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Not only a lie, but a really really lazy column-writing trick. Or a "column-inches-filling-because-I'm-tired-and-it's-Friday-afternoon-trick" might put it better.

  7. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Will is completely immune to debunking. He doesn't care.

    I think one of the earlier threads on this subject suggested that Will's thoughtful-conservative status rests largely on his break with Nixon over Watergate. Which seems like a low bar to clear, and a long time ago.

  8. Sili said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Of course Mr Will introduces his answer with "I do" rather than something more self-effacing, such as for instance "You're correct".

  9. GeorgeW said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    MYL: Thanks for the effort. Apparently, my lying ears didn't deceive me this time. The next question I would have (and I am not asking you to research it) is, has this influenced speech of the general public?

  10. The Ridger said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    @GeorgeW – I would sincerely doubt it. The "general public" doesn't really study presidential speeches, much less take cues from them. This is one reason liars like Will can continue to get away with it.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 4:51 am

    @The Ridger: You are probably right, but I hear it from him in news conferences and the like as well as his formal speeches.

    The reason Will can get away with his lies is that few people do what MYL has done and actually check the claim with real data.

  12. Jwc said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 6:12 am

    Wouldn't anything but first person singular actually be unconstitutional when the president discusses presidential decisions?

    After all, the president is unique among the branches of government to be an individual, rather than a group. A presidential decision is taken by one person, not a collective. Of course there are other duties, like representing the American people as a whole, but for decisions, it is him alone, and first person singular seems quite appropriate.

  13. CBK said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    Isn't it time to award the Goropius Becanus Prize?

  14. Sili said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

    Well, Jwc,

    He could have just used the passive (or agentless constructions). I'm sure the talkingheads would have approved of that.

  15. fev said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    Has anyone been counting the number of times the dean of Westminster said "extraordinary" to Jon Stewart tonight?

  16. Eugene said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 5:18 am

    There's nothing extraordinary about using any given word a little more often than average. If you very occasionally say "splendid," you're using it far more frequently than everybody else does. The same would be true of "phenomenal" or "atypical." Any word that you favor for any reason at all would occur with high frequency relative to a corpus.
    Plus, wouldn't a president talk about extraordinary things from time to time?
    Also, there's no reason at all to suppose that someone who did use first person pronouns more frequently than average should be considered self-involved – you'd have to observe their behavior to make that judgement – just as there's no reason to suppose that someone who uses a lot of second person pronouns has your best interests at heart.

  17. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

    The problem here isn't really that Will is making up facts, it is that newspapers are publishing his columns with such misinformation instead of pulling the column.

    Will isn't getting the Mitch Albom smack on the wrist. He isn't getting dumped by newspapers who cite the column as a problem. There's no outcry at Poynter or CJR or Romenesko, nor are there interesting corrections to post on Regret the Error.

    Because the debate is about language, instead of whether two athletes were in the bleachers at a game, somehow it gets passed as being ok because it is "opinion."

    The elephant in the room is that many editors don't bother to closely read individual editorial columns, they just slap them in the paper. They usually don't do fact-checking or hold columns that are problematic, because they depend on regularly scheduled columns to fill prescribed spaces. They don't put disclaimers on columns that say the column was edited for style but facts were not checked.

    Before people who edit get all self-righteous with me, they need to count the number of times some column has been printed in their papers with something similar to "ITAL(word)ENDITAL" somewhere. That's evidence no one is paying attention, and it happened often even before newspapers started laying off copy editors.

    As long as newspapers pay Will and his syndicate money while he misrepresents the facts, newspapers will be part of the problem. Their readers will have to wait for Jon Stewart to take up the topic on "The Daily Show."

  18. Lying About Language - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:06 am

    […] And we don't need to posit such a genre. The domain of language already provides plentiful evidence of barefaced nonhumorous lying that in other domains might get you ridiculed or jailed. Language Log has documented some staggering examples. The most striking is probably George Will's repeated assertion that President Obama's egotism is revealed in the extraordinarily high frequency of the first-person singular pronoun in his speeches. Mark Liberman has published about 17 Language Log posts on this topic since early June 2009 (this post includes a list up to 31 March 2012; Will's latest and most extreme assertion is discussed here). […]

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