Debate language

October 15, 2008


by James W. Pennebaker

I will try to post the language variables of tonight’s third debate as soon as the transcripts are available.  In the meantime, several comments that have been posted in the last 24 hours that point to some misunderstandings:

Speech writers, trainers, and natural language.  Some people have noted that we can’t determine if the language used by the candidates reflect their speech writers or the candidates themselves.  Indeed, that is why we try to analyze only unscripted language.  Debates are particularly good for this.  Yes, all the candidates slip into canned phrases with some frequency but, in general, they are likely using more of the words they would naturally use than not. 

Some of our other analyses compare the ways candidates talk in one-on-one interviews with debates as well. In general, candidates are fairly consistent in the ways they use words across these contexts.  Obama and Biden tend to be more consistent than McCain and Palin but the differences are not striking.  See the previous posts by Molly Ireland on this topic.

First person singular pronouns: I versus my versus me.  The use of first person singular is psychologically fascinating.  When people are engaged in everyday normal conversations, they use the word “I” at quite high rates (about 6% of all words) compared with “me” (about 0.5%) or “my” (about 0.7%).  A couple of people have noted that McCain obviously uses first person singular pronouns at such high rates because of his use of “my friends”. 

It’s true that McCain has been using “my” at higher rates across the two debates  than Obama but he has also been using “I” at these elevated frequencies as well.  This has been true for both candidates for interviews and debates for the entire election season.  The average pronoun use for the two candidates across the first two debates (as a percentage of total word usage) is as follows:













It should be noted that the relative rates of all the pronouns were virtually identical from the first to the second debate except for McCain’s higher use of “my” in the second debate (0.20 in Debate 1 and 0.71 in the second).

What does it mean if a person uses high rates of I versus me?  One of the founders of modern psychology, William James, made the strong assertion that the use of “I” implied a self in control whereas the use of “me” suggested the self was being acted upon by others.  This, of course, makes perfect sense.  Empirically, it’s probably wrong.  People who are depressed, lower in status, and lower in self-esteem consistently use “I” at higher (not lower) rates than non-depressed, high status, and self-assured people.  Ironically, the use of “me” doesn’t seem to be related to any of these qualities — or any qualities that we have studied so far.

It would be misleading to think that the use of “I” always signals depression and low self-esteem.  People who use I tend to be more honest and are often more socially sensitive.  They are more likely to say “I think it’s cold outside” instead of “It’s cold outside.”  Saying phrases such as “I think”, “I believe”, etc are subtly indicating that they are aware that other perspectives exist and that theirs is only one of many.


One Response to “Debate language”

  1. rio Says:

    How interesting! I wrote a small and somewhat related post in parsing the speech of the presidential debates ( using Python code – not surprisingly, your analysis is much more fascinating. Congratulations on the mention in the New York times!

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