Friday, January 13, 2017

The royal I

"I'm not signing no one-year deal. No. I done proved it. I done showed it, there's not really a guy like me out here ..."
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

No, I'm not going to comment on Jason Pierre-Paul's grammar. Rather my interest is in his use of his of first-person singular pronouns, four times in about two dozen words. This focus on himself came just after his Giants lost an NFL playoff game 38-13 to the Green Bay Packers, a time when a little humility might have been in order. Such boastfulness is common today, especially in the world of sports. It makes one long for more players like Barry Sanders, who after each spectacular touchdown run would simply hand the ball to an official and head back to the Detroit Lions bench.

Barry Sanders
In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about George H.W. Bush during his campaign for the presidency. "If a speechwriter put the word 'I' in one of his speeches, he'd instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You're running for president. You've got to talk about yourself. Eventually they'd cow him into doing so. But the next day he'd get a call from his mother. 'George, you're talking about yourself again,' she'd say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I's in the speeches. No more self-promotion." Bush was to politics what Barry Sanders was to sports. It was about the team, not him.

Frances Perkins
Later Brooks tells about Frances Perkins, a warrior for social justice who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. "The word 'one' plays a crucial role in her descriptions of her own life," he says. "Sometimes she would use the formulation 'I did this,' but more often her diction was formal and archaic: 'One did this ...'" This may have sounded pompous, even 70 or 80 years ago, but Brooks says it was "simply a way to avoid the first person singular pronoun."

There are other was ways to avoid first person, some of them sounding even more pompous. There is, for example, the "royal we," most familiar in the phrase "we are not amused." Then there are those people, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who refer to themselves in third person. MacArthur, like most kings and queens, was not known for humility. Even so, third person may have seemed to him like a way to talk about himself while seeming to be talking about somebody else.

For most of us, we are better off following the examples of Barry Sanders and George H.W. Bush, simply letting our actions speak for us or, if we must speak, as a presidential candidate must, sharing the focus with others.

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