Debate 3: McCain and Obama word usage

October 15, 2008

 

by James W. Pennebaker

The third and final debate produced language patterns that were remarkably similar to the other two debates.  As before, McCain was slighly more personal and emotional than Obama.  McCain also used more future tense verbs.  Obama used words that suggested he was more cognitively complex with longer words and more complicated sentences. In addition, he tended to use more exclusive words and tentative words (e.g., perhaps, maybe) which can also signal looking at the world from different perspectives.

As discussed in a previous blog, we have also found evidence to suggest that McCain and Obama have different thinking styles.  Whereas McCain tends to be more categorical in his thinking,  Obama is more fluid or contextual in the ways he approaches problems.  Categorical thinking involves the use of concrete nouns and their associated articles (a, an, the) and suggests that the person is approaching a problem by breaking it down into its component parts and attempting to put it in meaningful categories.  Fluid or contextual thinking involves a higher rate of verbs and associated parts of speech (such as gerunds and adverbs).

There were also a few departures in language use by the two candidates compared to their earlier debates.  Obama, for example, used more 1st person singular pronouns than his opponent for the first time in any debate we’ve analyzed.  This may be due, in part, to the fact that McCain only used his “my friends” only once. Obama also used more achievement words than McCain which has typically been a reliably high marker for McCain. 

Using the LIWC computer program, the differences in language usage between the categories in the third debate were as follows:

Category   Examples   McCain     Obama Interpretation
Word count  

6596

7339

Obama talks more
Words per sentence  

13.83

18.39

Obama longer sentences
Big words (over 6 letters)  

17.77

18.72

Obama bigger words
Personal pronouns  

10.22

9.22

McCain more personal in general
   1st person singular I, me, my

2.99

3.08

 
   1st person plural We, our

2.71

3.05

 
   2nd person You, yours

1.91

1.39

McCain more pointed
   3rd person singular He, she, her

1.33

0.63

McCain more reference to others
   3rd person plural They, them

1.27

1.08

 
Indefinite pronouns It, those

6.67

7.67

Obama more vague
Articles A, the

6.76

6.24

McCain more categorical thinking
Verbs Walk, went

15.74

16.65

Obama more fluid or contextual
Auxiliary verbs Is, have

10.29

10.40

 
   Past tense Was, gave

3.35

2.68

McCain talks about things in the past
   Present tense Am, is

10.01

12.06

Obama more present oriented
   Future tense will

1.39

0.91

McCain more future oriented
Common adverbs Very, really

4.05

4.39

 
Prepositions To, for, of

13.22

13.35

 
Conjunctions And, or, whereas

6.55

6.21

 
Negations No, not, never

1.52

1.61

 
Quantifiers Much, few

2.59

3.08

 
Numbers Six, 12

1.65

1.72

 
Social references Friend, we, talk

11.75

10.19

McCain more references to others
Overall emotion words Happy, hurt, kill

5.43

5.01

McCain more emotional
  Positive emotions Happy, nice

3.79

3.61

 
  Negative emotions Sad, nasty, bad

1.65

1.43

 
      Anxiety, fear Worry, scared

0.12

0.14

 
      Anger Angry, hate

0.59

0.31

 
      Sadness Depressed, cry

0.32

0.27

 
Cognitive mechanisms Think, should

17.39

17.89

 
   Insight Realize, know

1.73

2.04

 
   Causal Because, reason

1.43

2.13

Obama more causal reasoning
   DIscrepancy Would,could

2.11

2.00

 
   Tentative Maybe, perhaps

1.52

2.15

Obama perspective difference
   Certainty Absolute, certainly

1.46

1.50

 
   Inhibition Blocked, stop

0.64

0.60

 
   Inclusive words With, and

6.78

6.13

McCain over inclusive
   Exclusive words Except, but

2.24

2.47

 
Relativity Times, going, over

11.61

12.11

 
   Motion Went, fly

1.65

2.02

 
   Space Area, under

5.81

5.78

 
   Time Hour, clock

3.70

4.05

 
Content Categories        
Work Job, paycheck

3.99

4.86

 Obama more references to work
Achievement Try, succeed

1.82

2.58

 Obama higher in achievement words
Leisure Games, tv

0.47

0.44

 
Home Garage, yard

0.53

0.41

 
Money Cash, debt

3.21

3.19

 
Religion God, church

0.06

0.08

 
Death Dead, cemetery

0.09

0.01

 
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15 Responses to “Debate 3: McCain and Obama word usage”

  1. Ian Says:

    Think you mixed up the column headings for the two candidates. Either that, or every one of your interpretations refers to the wrong candidate. I suspect the former.

    Do you have a key or glossary anywhere on this blog that details the meaning and linguistic significance of each of these categories? If not, I think that would be a helpful aid in interpretation.

  2. Gary Bornzin Says:

    Interesting way of quantifying one’s intuitive impressions.

    By the way, it appears that the column titles for Obama and McCain have been accidentally switched.

  3. cj Says:

    Based on the numbers and the commented interpretations -think u have the names reversed!!!

  4. Saskia Says:

    The heads of the columns for Obama and McCain have been switched, I think.

  5. cspademan Says:

    Are the Obama and McCain column headings of this chart reversed? Thanks much for posting your work here; I am fascinated by what you are observing.
    Charlie


  6. In your chart, have you reversed the Obama and McCain headings? The observations under “Interpretations” suggest that.

  7. Jeppe K Says:

    Maybe I misunderstand something, but shouldn’t the column titles Obama / McCain be opposite? 🙂 If Obama spoke 6596 words and McCain 7339, how can Obama be speaking more?

  8. wordwatchers Says:

    Sorry about the column naming error. Yes, Obama DID say far more words. Thank all of you for catching this.

  9. Jeppe K Says:

    Thank you too for an excellent blog. Found it through the article in New York Times, which a friend shared on Facebook. You’re in my RSS-feed from now on.


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  11. withPenache Says:

    Let’s reexamine the implications of using ‘I’ and ‘we.’ We have a culture that is given to emphasis of the individual. Linguistic evidence of this is given in that we capitalize the very word we use to refer to ourselves. Far from being a pretense of royalty, the use of ‘we’ can indicate a stepping away from this egocentricity. As studies cited in your analysis state, confident people use ‘I’ less often. They are the ones who can most afford to refrain from drawing attention to themselves. Individuals with management or leadership responsibilities may do so in order to convey an attentiveness to the interests of others and to seem less authoritarian. A speaker may use ‘we’ as a means of projecting a less unilateral mode of thinking. Because men have historically held roles in which they are called upon to serve the needs of others, this might also explain why men traditionally use ‘I’ less often. A confident, unprepossessing person, then, might reasonably be expected to use a greater proportion of we/I than the general population. This, I believe, is a more likely interpretation of such usage patterns than the suggestion that the use of ‘we’ can indicate a regal, distant, or unapproachable manner. Quite the opposite: it is the verbal equivalent of a very tall person assuming a stooped posture.


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