Geoffrey Nunberg: 'The I's Don't Have It' Counting words has become a popular new device in assessing political speech. The number of first-person singular pronouns in a speech can turn a modest public figure into a pompous politician. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg suggests that counting words isn't very revealing unless we consider their context as well.
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Geoffrey Nunberg: 'The I's Don't Have It'

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


Our linguist Geoff Nunberg, likes nothing more than going on the Internet and counting words to make points about language. But hes a little unsettled by the way commentators have been using that technique to support their opinions about everything from the House health care bill to the presidents personality.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG: The Internet makes everybody 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 1,900-page health care bill was published, critics on all sides took the counting of its words, whether that actually meant something or not.

A feminist group faulted the bill for containing only eight mentions of women, which is true but then it doesnt mention men even once. And opponents of the bill try to distill it to its coercive essence by noting that the word shall appeared in it over 3,000 times. As House Minority Leader John Boehner put it, shall, that means you must do. And the New York Post said it showed that the feds were telling people what to do on every page. But a shall-count in the thousands isnt out of line for a major bill from either side of the aisle. And the vast majority of those shalls spell out the obligations of the government in the health plans, not the people.

In fact, shall gets a bad rap considering how crucial it is in safeguarding our freedoms. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. The right to bare 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 health care bill. Of course, critics of the bill are still free to argue that it usurps our basic freedoms and opens a new fast lane on the road to serfdom, but that isnt something you can prove just by counting helping verbs.

Its that same craze for counting that moves commentators to tally first-person pronouns when they want to demonstrate somebodys narcissism. During the 2008 campaign, Frank Rich used that method to tag Hillary Clinton and John McCain as pompous egomaniacs. And after Sarah Palins speech resigning the Alaska governorship, the Wall Street Journals Peggy Noonan pointed to Palins predilection for using I, and described her as self-referential to the point of self-reverence.

But nobodys pronouns have come in for as much critical scrutiny as Barack Obamas. In Newsweek, Howard Fineman counted the pronouns in the presidents U.N. speech and concluded that he is 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 at Copenhagen.

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

Stanley Fish took up the same motif in the New York Times. He counted the first-person-singular pronouns in Obamas speech on the General Motors bankruptcy and announced that it signaled the emergence of an imperial I, in contrast to the differential wes and yous that Obama had used in his nomination acceptance speech and his victory speech in Grand Park. Of course, you could argue that its 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 hes 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 Grand Park or at the Democratic Convention. To Liberman, those misperceptions suggest that Will and Fish are suffering from what psychologists call confirmation bias. If youre convinced that Obama is uppity or arrogant, youre going to fix on every pronoun that seems to confirm that opinion. But you cant help thinking that theres a measure of projection here as well.

Will and Fish are neck and neck for the most immodest style in American prose. And its not surprising that they would read Obamas impenetrable self-possession as the sign of a bristling ego. When youre a narcissist, every doorknob becomes a mirror. But the real error here isnt in overestimating Obamas self-references - and, by the way, Palin doesnt use I and me disproportionately either. Its in assuming that the raw frequency of those pronouns says anything at all. True that association has a long history. In fact, the word egotism originally referred just to the over use of I.

But the great majority of peoples self-references actually signal deference or modesty, not conceit. Theyre what psycholinguist Jamie Pennebaker calls graceful Is: I suppose, I see, I wonder if. Those are a far cry from the self-assertive sledgehammer Is at the other end of the scale: I feel your pain, Im the decider, make my day, punk.

Id be the last person to disparage the usefulness of counting words. The Internet and computational tools have transformed the way we do linguistics. But the one thing we linguists know is that counting words isnt very revealing if you arent listening to them, too.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

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GROSS: You can download podcasts of out show on our Web site, And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Im Terry Gross.

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