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

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/120496369/120498289" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from