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The Personal Pronoun Presidency

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Ben Zimmer reviewed a new book by James W. Pennebaker, chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas, entitled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Professor Pennebaker and his associates have developed a computer program that purports to analyze the psychological content of speech through a person’s use of pronouns.

In his review, Zimmer criticized Victor Davis Hanson, George Will and Charles Krauthammer for asserting that Obama’s promiscuous use of the “I” word is a well-known trait of his presidency:

Regrettably, none of these pundits have bothered to look into how Obama might compare with his predecessors. … Pennebaker crunches the numbers on presidential press conferences since Truman and finds that “Obama has distinguished himself as the lowest I-word user of any of the modern presidents.” If anything, Obama has shown a disdain for the first-person singular during his administration.

Since this will come as news to many, it is worth noting how Pennebaker reached his result — which can assist in evaluating Zimmer’s assertion about Obama’s “disdain” for the first-person singular.

Pennebaker put each president’s press conferences into a computer, calculated the number of times the words “I,” “my,” and “me” appeared in them, and expressed the results as a percentage of total words in the total press conferences of each president. You don’t have to be John Kerry to notice what is missing from this analysis: nuance!

Earlier this year, I touched on this same subject, analyzing Obama’s Libya announcement and reviewing his Memorial Day address. Consider Obama’s classic self-reference in his statement on the terrorist attack in Norway: “I remember fondly my visit to Oslo and how warmly the people of Norway treated me.” Anyone who can use “I,” “my” and “me” in a single sentence, while speaking about horrific murders in a foreign country, has entered a zone no computer program can reach.



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