Geoffrey Nunberg: 'The I's Don't Have It'

In his most recent commentary, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg contemplates the practice of counting words, noting that it has become "a favorite way to track a trend, uncover a hidden meaning, or cut a long text down to size." Nunberg points to the healthcare bill that passed through the House, and notes that a word count might suggest why a feminist group might find fault in a 1,900-page document that only uses the word 'women' eight times, or how other critics could see the abundance of the word 'shall' in the bill as illustrative of the government's attempt to control its citizens.

Word-counting has become a popular practice in the analysis of politicians who are, more often than not, judged critically by their choice of words. But Nunberg says that while word-counting is a credible practice, it should be the first step rather than the last. As psycholinguist Jamie Pennebaker notes, there is a significant difference in the "graceful I", which connotes deference and modesty, and the narcissistic "imperial I." Counting words isn't very revealing if you aren't listening to them, too.

Geoffrey Nunberg is a professor at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

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