Obama pronouns again

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The varsity commentariat seems, for the most part, to have given up on the "Obama is a narcissist because pronouns" meme — we haven't heard this recently from George Will or Peggy Noonan or Charles Krauthammer or Stanley Fish. But it's alive and well among second- and third-string pundits, for example surfacing in Howard Portnoy's analysis of the third presidential debate, "L’état c’est Obama", Hot Air 10/23/2012:

There may be no “I” in team, but there is most definitely an “I” in president and nation. And in Obama’s eyes, if no one else’s, the two are one and the same.

It is the latest flexing of his best-worked muscle, the egotissimus anteriori. It is telling. if unsurprising after four years of non-stop speeches filled with self-reverence. […]

CNN acknowledges that Mitt Romney did what he came to do, and that was to appear knowledgeable and presidential. And he did it without repeatedly using first-person pronouns.

There are two things that none of these pop-psychologizers do. One of them is to give some evidence that raw counts of first-person singular pronouns actually mean anything in particular (and for some discussion of this question, see Jamie Pennebaker's 8/9/2009 guest post, "What is 'i' saying?"). And the other thing that they never do is to provide actual numbers that would allow us to evaluate whether their assertions about Obama's allegedly excessive FPS pronoun use are true or false on their face.

Since Mr. Portnoy asserts a pronominal difference between Obama and Romney in the 10/22/2012 presidential debate, I hooked my prounoun-counting scripts up to the Federal News Service transcripts of the three 2012 presidential debates, and got these numbers:

Debate 1 (10/3/2012):

Word Count "i" % "I" All FPSPs % FPSP
Obama 7436 122 1.64% 155 2.08%
Romney 8079 227 2.81% 291 3.60%

Debate 2 (10/16/2012):

Word Count "i" % "I" All FPSPs % FPSP
Obama 6996 176 2.52% 202 2.89%
Romney 8317 260 3.13% 327 3.93%

Debate 3 (10/22/2012):

Word Count "i" % "I" All FPSPs % FPSP
Obama 7394 108 1.46% 132 1.79%
Romney 8449 198 2.34% 229 2.71%

I don't expect these facts to have any impact on Mr. Portnoy's complaint — it's not for nothing that the site is named "Hot Air" — but I continue to be surprised that apparently rational adults continue to publish obvious falsehoods about well-defined numbers that are easy to check.

N.B. The cited word counts for the third debate are somewhat different from those given in "Mitt Romney's rapid phrase-onset repetition", 10/28/2012, for three reasons. First, for this post I've used the Federal News Service transcripts, which mostly edit out disfluencies, as opposed to my own transcript, which do not (since the point of that post was precisely to count disfluencies). Second, in making counts from my transcript, I omitted all phrases (for both candidates) where there was overlapping talk (involving them or the moderator), whereas the Federal News Service transcripts separate the different speakers' contributions, generally without indicating overlap. And third, slightly different tokenization rules applied. However, in each post exactly the same treatment was applied to both candidates' transcripts.

Update — a quick Google News search for Obama pronouns reveals  that in the PBS punditizing after debate 2, Mark Shields filled some of his hot-air quota by opining that "I thought he overused the first person singular pronoun, the president did. It was 'my administration, my people, my ambassadors.'"


  1. Mary Sweeten said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    I cannot thank you enough for the phrase "varsity commentariat."

  2. Steve Hall said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    I'm curious about what pronoun Mr Shields might prefer to "my." Had the president used"the" instead, I'm sure the pundits would have accused him of trying to distance himself from those aspects.

  3. Jeff Carney said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    Let's pretend the President does use a high percentage of FPSPs. Since a presidential debate is in effect a "job interview," would this not seem natural? I've served on a number of search committees, and I don't recall a single post-interview discussion where someone said, "Gosh, that candidate sure talked about himself a lot. What an ego!"

  4. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    "numbers that are easy to check"
    I wonder if this is generally true: it's obviously so for you, perhaps (but I suspect not necessarily) even true for the complaining 'Alexander', but I bet that for his audience it's almost impossible. And that that is the whole point of the exercise.

    [(myl) Doing it the old-fashioned way, with a printout and a highlighting pen, would take maybe an hour at most.]

  5. mike said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    Is it within the acceptable-use confines of your-all uberstringent commenting policy to express bemusement that the phrase "Mr. Portnoy's complaint" managed to get into this post?

  6. James said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    Huh? Why bemusement?

  7. Rubrick said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

    @myl: "I continue to be surprised that apparently rational adults continue to publish obvious falsehoods about well-defined numbers that are easy to check."

    And I continue to be surprised that you continue to be surprised. If the author's goal is to convince people to dislike Obama, there is simply no downside to publishing such falsehoods.

    (BTW, I don't for a moment believe the "Portnoy's complaint" inclusion was accidental.)

  8. Rebecca said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    It seems like the main complaint regarding pronouns in the passage you cited initially was this:
    " …in Obama’s eyes… [the president and the nation] are one and the same." That is to say, they didn't see the number of "I"s as the issue, but rather that sentences would be constructed wherein Obama would use "I" to refer to America as a country. But it seems to me that as President he is our chosen stand-in…

  9. Jeff Carney said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    I suspect Mark is only rhetorically surprised and finds great joy in this activity.

  10. Steve said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    For those, like me, who were at a loss as to what the "Portnoy's Complaint" joke was, here is a Wikipedia link regarding a novel with that title.


    I join in the general skepticism that this is a coincidence. I do find the reference apt, though, as there is something – onanastic – in Mr. Portnoy's delight in attacking Obama's use of pronouns. OTOH, some might say that there is something onanastic about taking such delight in debunking Portnoy's claims, particularly when Portnoy's intended audience is unlikely to care about such a trivial matter as whether Portnoy's assertions are factually supported.

  11. Eugene said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    The best part is that Romney used more first person pronouns in all three debates. But then, as Colbert says, reality has a liberal bias.

  12. Sili said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    (BTW, I don't for a moment believe the "Portnoy's complaint" inclusion was accidental.)

    He's not a Leberman for nothing.

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    For those, like me, who were at a loss as to what the "Portnoy's Complaint" joke was, here is a Wikipedia link regarding a novel with that title.

    This makes me feel old. My assumption might be mistaken, and maybe it's just that Steve and I are from different subcultures … except that I read that book my senior year of high school. In a bible-belt small town with, as far as I can recall, no jewish people at all.

    I learned and retained a surprising number of Yiddish words from that book alone. Stereotypes, too, though I'm pretty certain I recognized them as literary caricatures even at the time.

  14. Links for 11-01-2012 | The Penn Ave Post said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 2:26 am

    […] "Uncertainty" – Paul Krugman Gaining from growth – Lane Kenworthy Obama pronouns again – Language Log […]

  15. [links] Link salad sat down by the rivers of Babylon | jlake.com said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 7:22 am

    […] Obama pronouns again — I don't expect these facts to have any impact on Mr. Portnoy's complaint — it's not for nothing that the site is named "Hot Air" — but I continue to be surprised that apparently rational adults continue to publish obvious falsehoods about well-defined numbers that are easy to check. We are talking about conservatives here, who already know that the "facts" and the "data" have a liberal bias, and therefore their gut feelings trump any amount of reality. […]

  16. I/me/my and presidential candidates « Corpus linguistics said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    […] on "strength" and weakness" in presidential debates and the Language Log's Obama Pronouns Again post. The question here: how many first person pronouns do various candidates use? Here I'm […]

  17. Tyler Schnoebelen said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    For folks who are interested in how all the various presidential and vice presidential candidates since 1960 have used first person pronouns, I put together this write-up (upshot: the Bushes, Dole, and Clinton use I/me/my/myself/mine a lot; Jim Lehrer, various VP candidates, and Obama use them much less than expected).

    Question: I put together a corpus of debates based on official transcripts. Mark, do you know of any with disfluencies/etc?

  18. ezra abrams said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Why do you persist with this silly idea that the news media exist to inform ?
    It exists to make a profit (only NPR is slimy and hides this)
    If people wanted hard factual correct news, they would pay for it.
    But people don't want that, or, more correctly, the minority of people that advertisers care about (white 18-35 year old males) don't care.

    How does the news media make money ?
    By and large, by delivering content that people like, which means they agree with it – very few people will suffer the psychological pain of regularly reading or listening to something they don't agree with.
    What the web does is allow people to slice that market more finely; which allows, say , Marc Levine, who manages to contradict himself every few minutes, to find a slice large enough to make a good living.

    Facts are not important (and the supposedly painful fact checking at the N Y Times and the New Yorker just serves a bias cover; Dean Baker had a nice catch recently when caught a reporter saying a budget deficit in Germany was "stunning [ly large]": the bias is manufacturing consent.

  19. Nelida K. said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    I believe that the inclusion, or reference to, "Portnoy's complaint" is known in text analysis as an "intertextual reference", and I am convinced it was fully intentional.

  20. PLTODMS said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    All of a sudden counting the number of pronouns a politician uses in his speeches is an important criteria for evaluating a politician's character. This I believe has surfaced as it relates to Obama only. I haven't seen this type of attack against other politicians in the past.

    I wonder how much racism is behind this phenomena. After all, a person who knows his place never uses the pronoun "I", "me", "we" or "myself" before his masters.

    Ps, Here is a breakdown of the use if pronouns across all presidents. Wonder why this was not made an issue before Obama? Certainly there were higher numbers for some vs others before Obama. Reagan was on the high side from this new perspective.


  21. Nancy Friedman said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    Romney's habitual use of the first-person possessive pronoun strikes me as noteworthy, if not a little bizarre: for example, he invariably says "my state" to refer to Massachusetts, as though he didn't just govern it but bought it.

  22. News Wire | Links for 11-01-2012 said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 5:19 am

    […] Obama pronouns again – Language Log […]

  23. Mar Rojo said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    Suppose you've seen this: http://politicalwire.com/archives/2013/02/05/what_pronouns_say_about_politicians.html

  24. Daily Beast | C’mon, Obama’s not a narcissist | Congress Arizona said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 12:02 am

    […] claimed Obama was “I”-ing up the place ungraciously during his debates with Mitt Romney. In fact, in the first debate, Romney said “I” 227 times to Obama’s 122; in the second, 260 to […]

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