Obama Will Use a Lot of Personal Pronouns in His SOTU Address. That Means He's a Narcissist, Right?

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Jan. 28 2014 3:01 PM

Obama Will Use a Lot of Personal Pronouns in His SOTU Address. That Means He's a Narcissist, Right?

161607202-president-barack-obama-delivers-his-state-of-the-union
But enough about me.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When we see a change in the State of the Union messages over the years—and there are plenty of changes to see—we need to consider several possible causes. Perhaps the English language has changed; perhaps the fashions and customs have shifted; perhaps the themes or topics have evolved, due to changes in the world and in the American political landscape; or perhaps the individual styles of particular presidents (or their speechwriters) are responsible.

No doubt all of these apply to varying degrees in different cases. Take, for example, the changes over time in the relative frequency of first and second person pronouns. Through the last 100 years, there's been a clear upward trend in the frequency of I/we/you/etc. in the SOTU addresses:

sotupronouns1

It's tempting to explain this graph in terms of an increasing personalization of presidential politics, or something of the sort, but in fact there's a simpler and more concrete explanation for most of the effect. The reason for the abrupt rise in 1913, and for some of the subsequent variation, was a change in the basic way that SOTUs were communicated. Gerhard Peters, co-founder of The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains:

[B]eginning with Jefferson's 1st State of the Union (1801) and lasting until Taft's final message (1912), the State of the Union was a written (and often lengthy) report sent to Congress to coincide with a new Session of Congress.
Federalists Washington and Adams had personally addressed the Congress, but Jefferson was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch's practice of addressing each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than "recommendations."
Jefferson's practice changed in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson believed the presidency was more than an impersonal institution and active and visible presidential leadership was needed to the people and the Congress. As an expression of this philosophy, Wilson delivered oral messages to Congress, citing the authority of the Constitution.
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The great majority of presidents after Wilson followed suit, delivering the SOTU as a speech. To be clear, though, not all of the increase in I/we/you/etc. can be attributed to the difference between written and oral style. Some of it, no doubt, reflects an evolution in rhetorical style—or at least in the style of rhetoric considered appropriate to these formal occasions.

Whatever its causes, the change has curiously been much greater in the case of first person plural pronouns than first person singular ones:

sotupronouns2

And if we look at the SOTU addresses by individual presidents from FDR on, omitting the written messages and including only the ones delivered orally to Congress, we can see that Barack Obama's speechwriters have put him more or less in the middle of the pronominal pack:

sotupronounsb1

This is unlikely to prevent cries of "narcissism!" or "royalty!" from pundits who are prejudiced by their own personal politics. But I present this bit of prophylaxis in the hope that ridicule may eventually succeed where reality has failed.

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Mark Liberman is a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Linguistics Data Consortium.

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