Context, context, context

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Yesterday on the American Dialect Society listserv, JSB wrote:

In his news conference on the GWB (that is, Bridge) scandal, Gov.
Christe used the word "I" or first person singular pronouns 273 times
[Slate]. After some "teasing" about it, in his State of the Union
message yesterday he used "we" or "we've" 97 times [NYTimes, today].

(1) "We['ve] is the new euphemism for "I['ve].

(2) Christie's ego has apparently diminished a bit. The frequency
of the first person (singular) in his 110-minute news conference was
2.48 I's/minute. The frequency of the first person (plural) in his
45-minute State speech was 2.15 We's/minute. (Do we have a term for
a new measure of egotism?) A decrease of about 13% — approximately
equal to the percent of persons recently polled whose opinion of
Christie had decreased (16%).

This is a mistake that I've come to expect from journalists, but I'm surprised to see it on ADS-L.

It's generally meaningless to say "Wow, so-and-so used word W such-and-such a number of times on occasion O", unless you compare this usage as a rate to the usage rates of other people on similar occasions.

In an earlier post ("First Person Singular, Redemption Plea Edition") I pointed out that apologies, by their nature, tend to be rich in first person singular pronouns; and that Chris Christie's new conference was pretty much par for the course in this respect, compared to similar productions from other politicians. As a result, the articles teasing Christie for the number of first person pronouns in that performance were illogical and silly.

For reasons that should be obvious, State-of-the-State addresses tend to be heavy users of first person plural pronouns. Here's a passage from the 2013 State of the State Address by Martin O'Malley of the state of Maryland:

But in Maryland, here, we made better choices.  

We used the pressure of sinking revenues to make government more efficient and effective. For the first time, we started setting public goals with more immediate deadlines. We started measuring weekly performance to make government more effective, to make it work.  We constrained budget growth and made government smaller. We strengthened our Rainy Day Fund and protected our Triple A Bond Rating.  

We fixed our pension system and it wasn’t easy. We reformed hundreds of pages of regulations, we streamlined permitting, and we fast tracked jobs projects. We eliminated paperwork, simplified applications for business licenses, and reduced waiting times, in some cases, from months to days.  

We advanced public-private partnerships like the one at the Port that’s created thousands of jobs.  

We put real-time information about the people’s government into the people’s hands by using the internet, posting the information on the internet, converted paper notecards to digital files, and used smart maps to better target our limited resources.  

We cut more state spending than any administration in modern history.

So I harvested 10 2013 SOTS speeches from the Pew Stateline web site, and ran a simple program to count words and various types of pronouns. The results show that Chris Christie's 2014 SOTS speech was middle-of-the-road for first person plural usage (six other governors were higher, and four were lower), and on the low side for first person singular usage, perhaps in response to that teasing (two lower, eight higher):

It's not hard to find the texts or to do the counts. So come on, people, let's be rational about this stuff. You might not like Chris Christie, but that's no reason to lower yourself to the level of George Will.

(And to see that even journalists can get it right, see Katy Steinmetz, "Why Pundits Shouldn’t Read Too Much Into Chris Christie’s Pronouns", Time 1/15/2014…)



  1. Yerushalmi said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    The real question is how it measures up to Christie's own previous State of the State addresses.

    [(myl) Go for it!]

  2. GeorgeW said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    Maybe there should be another category of the first-person plural pronoun. In addition to the 'royal we' and the 'nurses we,' there should be the 'confessional we.' This would often be found in close proximity to a passive "mistakes were made.'

  3. Brian T said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    Under the logic of this pronoun counting, you could hear a man say "I stand in awe of Miss Smith's tremendous talent, I wish I had such an astounding intellect, and I could never hope to equal these impressive achievements, which have deeply humbled me" and then you could logically say "Did you hear that narcissist? FIVE instances of 'I' or 'me' and ZERO instances of 'she' or 'her.' All he did was focus on himself! What a braggart. Hey, pay attention to someone ELSE for a change, why don't you?"

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    Mark: Did you notice that the journalist whom you give credit for "get[ting] it right" wrote, in the very paragraph in which she quotes you, the following:

    Talking about his aide who was partly responsible for the closure, Christie could have used a shirking passive voice and said “someone who was in that circle of trust… betrayed my trust.” Instead he upped the I-count and said, “someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust… betrayed my trust.”

    Shirking passive voice, indeed!

  5. richardelguru said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    at least that implies that that is a possible "non-shirking passive voice".

  6. Nathan said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    What program do you use to count words?

    [(myl) A few simple scripts that I wrote myself — remove comment lines, tokenize, make a lexical histogram, pull out the pronouns…
    It would be easy to write a single perl script to do pronoun counting in English text; if I have a spare half hour some time, I'll write on and post it.]

  7. Chris Waters said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    @GeorgeW: This would often be found in close proximity to a passive "mistakes were made.'

    The problem with "mistakes were made" is that it implies that there was a responsible agent, and is likely to trigger a hunt for that agent. The truly blame-ducking politician should always remember to use the active voice: "mistakes occurred."

  8. D.O. said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    @Nathan. If you feel especially lazy, you can load a text into MSWord (or I guess, almost any word processing program), clean it depending on what needs to be cleaned and just ask for the word count for denominator and make a replacement of the word you are trying to count (don't forget to select option "the whole word only") with whatever. The replacement script will give you the number of replacements.

    Interestingly enough, the last time I tried this trick, it found 2 occurrences of I — one as a middle initial and another as a Roman number. So, as usual, caveat emptor.

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