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The I's Don't Have It

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, November 17, 2009

The Internet turns everybody into a linguist, the same way it turns us all into medical diagnosticians and tracers of lost persons. Counting words has become a favorite way to track a trend, uncover a hidden meaning, or cut a long text down to size.

So when the House Democrats' 1900-page healthcare bill was published, critics on all sides took to counting up its words, whether or not that actually meant anything. A feminist group faulted the bill for containing only eight mentions of "women"  -- which was true, but then it doesn't mention "men" even once. And opponents of the bill tried to distill it to its coercive essence by noting that the word shall appeared in it over 3000 times. As the House Minority Leader John Boehner explained it, "Shall, that means, 'you must do,'" while the New York Post's Charles Hurt said it showed the feds were telling people what to do on every page.

But a shall-count in the thousands isn't out of line for a major bill from either side of the aisle -- there are more than 2000 in the prescription drug bill the Republicans passed in 2003. And the vast majority of staturory shalls spell out the obligations of the government, not the people. In fact, shall gets a bum rap, considering how crucial it is in safeguarding our freedoms. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech; the right to bear arms shall not be infringed; nobody shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process... -- page for page, shall is three times as frequent in the Constitution as in the House healthcare bill. Of course critics of the bill are still free to insist that it usurps our basic freedoms and opens a new fast lane on the road to serfdom. But that isn't something you can prove just by counting helping verbs.

It's that same craze for counting that moves commentators to tally first-person pronouns when they want to demonstrate someone's narcissism. During the 2008 campaign, Frank Rich used that method to tag Hillary Clinton and John McCain as pompous egomaniacs. And after Sarah Palin's speech resigning the Alaska governorship, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan pointed to Palin's predilection for using I and described her as "self-referential to the point of self-reverence. 'I'm not wired that way,' 'I'm not a quitter,' 'I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm."

But nobody's pronouns have come in for as much critical scrutiny as Barack Obama's. In Newsweek, Howard Fineman counted the pronouns in the President's UN speech and concluded that he's too impressed with his own aura. Other columnists have sounded the same note. George Will said that Obama was "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun" and described him as ego-tripping when he used those pronouns 26 times in his speech to the Olympic Committee in Copenhagen.

But everybody uses those pronouns a lot -- they account for around six percent of the words in our everyday conversation. The question is whether Obama uses them any more than other politicians do. At the blog LanguageLog, the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman compared the transcripts of Obama's press conferences with those of his three presidential predecessors. It turned out that Clinton and the two Bushes all used first-person pronouns anywhere from 50 to 70 percent more often than Obama does. And Obama used the pronouns less frequently than that in the Copenhagen speech that Will saw as the peak of presidential preening. (His inaugural address also used fewer first-person pronouns than those of his predecessors.)

Stanley Fish took up same motif in the New York Times. He counted the first-person singular pronouns in Obama's speech on the General Motors bankruptcy and announced that it signaled the emergence of an "imperial I," in contrast to the deferential we's and you's that Obama had used in his nomination acceptance speech and his victory speech in Grant Park.

Of course you could argue that it's natural for a politician to use we and you more often in a speech thanking political supporters than in one explaining a policy decision that he's taking responsibility for. But even so, Obama actually used those first-person pronouns less frequently in the GM speech than he did in his speeches in Grant Park or at the Democratic convention.

To Liberman, those misperceptions suggest that Will and Fish are suffering from what psychologists call confirmation bias. If you're convinced that Obama is uppity or arrogant, you're going to fix on every pronoun that seems to confirm that opinion. But you can't help thinking there's a measure of projection here, as well. Will and Fish are neck and neck for the most immodest style in all of American prose, and it's not surprising that they'd read Obama's impenetrable self-possession as the sign of a bristling ego. When you're a narcissist, every doorknob becomes a mirror.

But the real error here isn't in overestimating Obama's self-references (and by the way, Palin doesn't use I and me disproportionately, either). It's in assuming the raw frequency of those pronouns says anything at all. True, that association has a long history: the word egotism orginally referred just to the overuse of I. But the great majority of people's self-references actually signal deference or modesty, not conceit. They're what the psycholinguist Jamie Pennebaker calls "graceful I's": "I suppose," "I see," "I wonder if..." Those are a far cry from the self-assertive, sledgehammer I's at the other end of the scale: "I shall return," "I'm the decider," "Make my day, punk!" (According to Pennebaker, Obama's first-person singular pronouns are overwhelmingly "gentle I's.")

I'd be the last person to disparage the usefulness of counting words -- the quantitative research made possible by the Internet and computational tools have transformed the way we do linguistics. But one thing we linguists know is that counting words isn't very revealing if you aren't listening to them, too.


Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.