Fox News Is Serious About This Whole Obama Pronoun-Counting Thing

Fox News is counting the number of times President Obama uses the word "I" in speeches? Yes, this is a real journalism thing that Fox is spending Rupert Murdoch's money on.

So, did you hear about this thing that Fox News is doing? Counting the number of times President Barack Obama uses the word "I" in speeches? Yes, this is a real journalism thing that Fox is spending Rupert Murdoch's money on.

It's a baffling exploit, for two reasons. First of all, isn't asking someone to count up words in speeches just about the most demeaning thing you can do to an employee, in this economy? It's demeaning to do to an intern, or even a specially trained, word-counting horse-prodigy. Secondly, as someone who used to teach public speaking (weird, I know!), I can tell you that I would never have asked my students to stop using the word "I" -- mainly because the end result would have been my students going to the head of my department to tell them that I was strange and needed to be fired.

Much attention has been given to President Obama's persistent use of "I" when giving speeches to sell his administration's agenda. Is he taking responsibility -- or, as his critics say, is he still in campaign mode? is tracking the president's speeches all this month and will report back after each to see whether The "I's" Have It.

But what will the "I"'s have? Is there a magic number of first person singular pronoun usages that take a speech from "taking responsibility" to being in "campaign mode?" Also, can't Fox make an informed judgment on that matter by examining the other words in various speeches? Note this example. There's no attempt to discern what the subtext of the speech is. They just counted up the instances of the word "I" and called it a day.

Anyway, I'm not sure what Fox wants Obama to do. Stop using the first person singular? Do they know how weird and egotistical people sound referring to themselves in the third person? Only the very best Brazilian soccer players should be allowed to do that.

This just seems to be what one would call "a dumb idea." Over at the Language Log, Mark Liberman has done a great job, attempting to apply intelligence to it:

In the case of President Obama's Feb. 6 DNC speech, Fox counts 3,092 words and 34 "'I' references". Using their transcript, I get 3094 words and 40 total first-singular references (22 I, 11 I'm, 3 I've, 2 me, 2 my), for a rate of 1.29 per hundred words. He also used 172 first-person-plural words (83 we, 36 our, 21 we've, 20 we're, 9 us, 2 we'd, 1 ourselves) for a rate of 5.56 per 100 words, and a We/I ratio of 4.3.

But these numbers are uninterpretable without some point of comparison. Is 1.29% I-words a lot for a speech of this type? A little? A moderate amount? Luckily there were a few competing political speeches at about the same time. Perhaps the most widely-covered was Sarah Palin's Feb. 6 speech at the Tea Party Convention. In CNN's transcript (eliminating commentary and question text), I get 118 first-singular pronouns in 6973 words(75 I, 12 my, 12 I'm, 11 me, 6 I'll, 2 I've ), for a rate of 1.69 per hundred, or about 31% more I-fulness than Obama.

Palin also used 247 1st-plural pronouns (107 we 83 our 38 us 9 we've 9 we're 1 we'd), for a rate of 3.54 per 100 words (about 57% less we-fulness than Obama), and a we/I ratio of 2.09 (less than half Obama's ratio).

House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) appeared on Meet The Press on Jan. 31. His remarks comprised 1353 words, including 27 first-singular pronouns, for a rate of 1.996 per 100, which is about 55% more ego-referential than Obama's DNC speech. Rep. Boehner used 70 first-plural pronouns, for a rate of 5.17 (making him almost as we-ful as Obama), but his we/I ratio was significantly lower, at 2.59.

In the speech analyzed above, Obama uses the word "Snowmageddon" one time, so maybe he could just start calling himself "the Snowmageddon?" Just a suggestion.

Them there I's [The Language Log]

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