17 January 2014

George F. Will Senses I’s, as in “OIP Derangement Syndrome”

Back in June 2009, George F. Will criticized President Barack Obama for being “inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun.” At Language Log, linguist Mark Liberman tested Will’s judgment:
I took the transcript of Obama's first press conference (from 2/9/2009), and found that he used 'I' 163 times in 7,775 total words, for a rate of 2.10%. He also used 'me' 8 times and 'my' 35 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 206 in 7,775 words, or a rate of 2.65%.

For comparison, I took George W. Bush's first two solo press conferences as president (from 2/22/2001 and 3/29/2001), and found that W used 'I' 239 times in 6,681 total words, for a rate of 3.58% — a rate 72% higher than Obama's rate. President Bush also used 'me' 26 times, 'my' 31 times, and 'myself' 4 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 300 in 6,681 words, or a rate of 4.49% (59% higher than Obama).
But curiously Will had never made the same “inordinately fond” critique of George W. Bush. He was close enough to Bush to slip the candidate an index card revealing a question he’d ask on the air, but evidently didn’t listen closely to how Bush answered questions.

In October 2009, Will expanded his criticism to include First Lady Michelle Obama, evidently trying to respond to takedowns like Liberman’s by offering numbers:
In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.
Liberman again tested the context of Will’s remark:
Barack Obama's Olympic remarks included 26 first-person-singular words out of 1130, for a rate of 2.3%. This is slightly below his typical rate for presidential press conferences, and a bit more than half the rate of the George W. Bush pressers that I measured earlier (2.3/4.49 = 51%, to be precise). . . .

It's true that Michelle's tally was higher — 45 first-person-singular words out of 781, for a rate of 5.76%.

This is almost as much as the 6.4% first-person-singulars registered by Nancy Reagan's statement on Edward Kennedy's death, or the 7.0% achieved by her remarks at the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan in 2001, or the 10.0% notched by her discussion of the assassination attempt on her husband.
We’ll recall that Will was close enough to Ronald Reagan to help coach him for a Presidential debate and then go on TV as a “journalist” to declare that Reagan had won performed well. But Nancy Reagan’s use of pronouns didn’t get under his skin the way Michelle Obama’s does.

In May 2012, Will regurgitated his idea once more, saying on television:
If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually.
Once again, Liberman shared actual evidence from the radio addresses of the last five Presidents, starting with Reagan. Once again, Barack Obama scored lowest on the use of the “first-person singular pronoun.” Fed up with such claims, Liberman declared Will’s statement to be a lie.

Will’s thought process is clear. He has such a visceral reaction to hearing this President that he has to justify that feeling to himself in a socially acceptable way. He therefore complains that President Obama (and his wife) are too focused on themselves. In fact, Will’s problem is obviously that he doesn’t like to hear people like them speaking from a position of authority and respect, regardless of what pronouns they use.

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