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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us
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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us

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by James W. Pennebaker

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In The Secret Life of Pronouns, social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics-in essence, counting the frequency of words we use-to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns


In The Secret Life of Pronouns, social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics-in essence, counting the frequency of words we use-to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.

Using innovative analytic techniques, Pennebaker X-rays everything from John McCain's tweets to the Federalist Papers. Who would have predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that a world leader's use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he will lead his country into war? You'll learn what Lady Gaga and William Butler Yeats have in common, and how Ebenezer Scrooge's syntax hints at his self-deception and repressed emotion in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying-whether we mean them to or not.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this intriguing treatise on computational linguistics, Pennebaker (Writing to Heal), chair of psychology at the University of Texas–Austin, probes innocuous "function words"—such as pronouns, prepositions, and articles—for clues to hidden states of mind. Deploying computer analyses of word-use frequency, he conducts an exercise in psychological and demographic profiling by means of verbal tell-tales: people who overuse articles, nouns, prepositions, and the word "we," for example, tend to be old, male, high-status, and cheerful, while people who overuse pronouns, verbs, and the word "I" tend to be young, female, low-status, and depressed. Pennebaker's accessible, entertaining account dissects a riotous assortment of language samples, from presidential speeches and Shakespeare to Beatles songs and Lady Gaga tweets, expounding on everything from the self-absorbed "language of suicidal poets" to the circumlocutions of liars. He's not always trenchant—Osama bin Laden's rhetoric betrayed a "need for power," he reveals—and he's sometimes overly reductionist; he speculates that poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "tend to use function words similarly... may explain why the two were so attracted to one another," and then graphs their relationship. Still, Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words is the kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour. B&w illus. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"A comprehensive investigation of how our words . . . reveal important insights about our behavior, emotions and personalities." ---Kirkus
Kirkus Reviews

A comprehensive investigation of how our words—whatwe say andhowwe say it—reveal important insights about our behavior, emotions and personalities.

Pennebaker (Psychology/Univ. of Texas; Writing to Heal, 2004, etc.) is well-known in psychotherapy circles for his work in the way language and mental health correspond. Here, the author continues exploring this connection between emotion, behavior, perception, cognition and language with a specific focus on what he calls "stealth words," or the small function words in our lexicon, like prepositions and pronouns, that are seemingly invisible in day-to-day speech. Pennebaker's own research and analysis of other linguistic and psychological studies is exhaustive and includes an immense amount of computational data via analytical programs like Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (or LIWC) and methods like LSM or language style matching detection. However, the author balances his data analysis with interesting and entertaining anecdotes, examples, narratives and dialogue, and his research sampling is vast: tweets by Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey, online dating profiles, King Lear, love letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning vs. the language of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, samples of instant messaging, scenes fromThe Godfather, presidential press conferences and more. The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words—I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this—play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion. In addition to these varied language samples, Pennebaker investigates a wide range of situations and topics including trauma from war or abuse, social and gender inequity and relationships of power, as well as daily self-perception or self-deception. Some assertions that seem like hasty generalizations—i.e., that couples who use parallel function words are more likely to have a happy marriage—are supported with such a preponderance of evidence that they become convincing and compelling.

Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection between language and human behavior, emotion and perception.

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Bloomsbury USA
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


What Our Words Say About Us
By James W. Pennebaker


Copyright © 2011 James W. Pennebaker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60819-480-3

Chapter One

Discovering the Secret Life of the Most Forgettable Words

Good morning everyone! Have a fabulous day! Xoxo Paris :) —PARIS HILTON, media personality

went to the mountains above Beirut yesterday to meet with Walid Jumblatt—the leader of the Druze—fascinating experience. —JOHN MCCAIN, U.S. Senator

Hanging out with friends—"pom" martinis-getting ready to watch xmas special. 10 eastern 9 central. Going caroling afterward! —OPRAH WINFREY, media mogul and television host

time to drink a bottle of wine and sketch for the new tour. st. louis was brilliant. there's eyeliner on my knee, and blood on my elbow. shady —LADY GAGA, singer and songwriter

Over 100,000 years ago, our ancestors began talking. About 5,000 years ago, humans started writing. In the last 150 years, we adopted everything from the telegraph, radio, and television to e-mail, text messages, blogs, and other social media. The ways we connect with one another may have changed but we still are compelled to communicate our ideas, experiences, and emotions to those around us.

Beginning in 2006, we began to use Twitter. Anyone with a Twitter account can broadcast brief updates, or "tweets," that can be instantly read by almost anyone. On a minute-by-minute basis, you can know what your friends or even world-famous celebrities are thinking. Many readers may wonder why people would want to do this. However, once you immerse yourself in the Twitter world, you can begin to appreciate some of its appeal.

Look back at the four tweets that begin this chapter. On a certain level, these tweets are no different from everyday communication. One can imagine overhearing similar things from someone at the next table in a restaurant. What are the different people telling others? Paris Hilton is simply calling out a greeting. John McCain is describing meeting an important person in Lebanon. Oprah Winfrey tells us about her plans for the evening. Lady Gaga wants us to know that she is getting into the spirit of her new tour.

But there is more in these tweets than their authors appreciate. Each entry is like a fingerprint. For example, if this were a multiple-choice test and people were asked to match the tweet with the author, most would make a perfect score on the test. Even if you had never heard of any of the authors, the mere label of "media personality," "U.S. senator," etc. would provide enough information to make educated guesses about who tweeted what.

The tweets also provide insights into each person's thinking and personality. Hilton is relentlessly upbeat with her exclamation points and emoticons. McCain works to impress his readers with his big words and worldliness. Winfrey, the consummate salesperson, "drops" what time the Christmas special (which is actually her Christmas special) will be aired. And Lady Gaga conveys that she is a bit wild but also thoughtful and, judging by her use of pronouns, somewhat prone to depression.

If we started analyzing more tweets from each of these people, we would begin to get a much richer sense of their motivations, fears, emotions, and the ways they connect with others and themselves. Each person uses words in a unique way. Some people, like Lady Gaga, tend to be highly personal in the ways they communicate— they are self-reflective in their use of words such as I and me. Others, like John McCain, reveal that they have a great deal of trouble in connecting to others. In fact, if you would like to try out a quick personality analysis tool based on peoples' Twitter feeds, try out the experimental website that my colleagues and I created, www.analyzewords.com.

Often, some of the most revealing words that we use are the shortest and most forgettable. Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words broadcast the kind of people we are. And this is the story of this book.

It has been a long road from our ancestors' uttering their first sentences to Paris Hilton's tweeting her greetings. Due in large part to the current technological revolution, we now have the tools to analyze tweets and Facebook updates, e-mails, old-fashioned letters and books, and the words from everyday life. For the first time, we are able to use computers to determine how everyday words can reflect our social and psychological states.

Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that the poet who overuses the word I in his poetry is at higher risk of suicide? Or that a certain world leader's use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he'd lead his country into war? By looking more carefully at the ways people convey their thoughts in language we can begin to get a sense of their personalities, emotions, and connections with others.


Before describing the secret life of words, it may be helpful to say a bit about the author. That would be me. I'm a social psychologist whose interest in words came about almost accidentally. As you will see, the focus of this book is really on people rather than language per se. Words and language are, of course, fascinating topics. Through the eyes of a social psychologist, words are even more intriguing as clues to the inner workings of people.

By way of background, my early career dealt with health, emotions, and the nature of traumatic experiences. In the early 1980s, I stumbled on a finding that fascinated me. People who reported having a terrible traumatic experience and who kept the experience a secret had far more health problems than people who openly talked about their traumas. Why would keeping a secret be so toxic? More importantly, if you asked people to disclose emotionally powerful secrets, would their health improve? The answer, my students and I soon discovered, was yes.

We began running experiments where people were asked to write about traumatic experiences for fifteen to twenty minutes a day for three or four consecutive days. Compared to people who were told to write about nonemotional topics, those who wrote about trauma evidenced improved physical health. Later studies found that emotional writing boosted immune function, brought about drops in blood pressure, and reduced feelings of depression and elevated daily moods. Now, over twenty-five years after the first writing experiment, more than two hundred similar writing studies have been conducted all over the world. While the effects are often modest, the mere act of translating emotional upheavals into words is consistently associated with improvements in physical and mental health.


Why does writing work? Some scientists suggest that repeatedly confronting painful emotions eventually lessens their impact—we adapt to them. Another group points to the unhealthy effects of rumination and unfinished business. Many people who have a traumatic experience keep replaying the events in their minds in a futile attempt to make sense of their suffering. The never-ending thoughts about their emotional upheavals can disrupt their sleep and make it impossible to focus on their jobs and their relationships. Writing about the trauma, according to this view, allows people to find meaning or understanding in these events and helps to resolve their emotional turmoil.

The answer isn't simple. I'm now convinced that when people write about traumatic events, several healthy changes occur simultaneously, including changes in people's thinking patterns, emotional responses, brain activity, sleep and health behaviors, and so forth. Discovering why writing is effective for one person may not explain why it works for someone else.

What the early writing researchers failed to consider was that people were using words to describe their personal upheavals. Perhaps the key to expressive writing was buried in what people actually say in their essays. The stories people wrote were powerful and oftentimes haunting. In almost every project, participants wrote about physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, divorce, drug and alcohol problems, suicides, terrible accidents, and feelings of failure, humiliation, and suffering. Not only was there a wide range of powerful stories but the ways people wrote about them differed widely. Some people used humor, others were full of rage, yet other stories were written in a cold, detached, and matter-of-fact way.

If a group of clinical psychologists or just regular people read these essays, could they decipher what dimensions of writing predicted improved physical health? We tried this and the answer was no. The stories were too complicated and even the most conscientious readers couldn't agree about which elements of people's heartbreaking stories were most meaningful. Some other approach was needed to unlock the reason behind the effectiveness of expressive writing.


It was 1991 and the revolution in computer technology was well under way. There had been some major breakthroughs in the computerized analysis of language in research that had been done at Prince ton, Harvard, and MIT in the 1960s and 1970s. Surely, with this new technology, I could get a computer program that could analyze my trauma essays. No judges, no heartache. I could get some answers with the press of a button.

Unfortunately, no simple computer programs were available at the time. "How hard could it be to write such a program?" I asked myself. By a happy coincidence, a new graduate student who had been a professional programmer had just joined my research team. "Martha," I casually told her, "I've got a great idea for a new program that should only take about three weeks to develop." Martha E. Francis turned out to be a creative programmer with a flair for social psychology, though she had no idea what she was getting into. Although the guts of the program were written very quickly, the "three-week project" took on a life of its own. In three years, we finally rolled out the first version of a computer program we called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC (pronounced "Luke").

The idea behind LIWC was that the words people used—whether in a trauma essay or everyday speech—would reflect their feelings and that by the simple process of counting these words we could gain insights into their emotional states. We assumed that angry people would use anger-related words; sad people would use sadness words. In writing about a trauma, the emotional states of our participants should be reflected in their selection of emotionally relevant words.

So, in developing the LIWC program, we created a series of word dictionaries designed to capture different psychological concepts. For example, we built an anger dictionary, now made up of over 180 words, that comprised numerous words related to anger, such as hate, rage, kill, slash, revenge, etc. We also included word stems such as kill so that any word that starts with the letters K-I-L-L, such as killer, killing, kills, and killed, would be counted as well. We then went on to build dictionaries for sadness, anxiety, positive emotions, and other mood states.

The trauma essays differed in multiple dimensions beyond their emotional tone. To cast a fairly broad net we developed other lexicons that measured the occurrence of other types of words, such as the use of different types of pronouns (e.g., first-person singular— such as I, me, and my), articles (a, an, the), different types of thinking-related words that signal cause-effect thinking (cause, because, reason, rationale), and so forth. Before we knew it, we had created almost eighty different dictionaries that we felt would include nearly all of the types of words people commonly use in everyday language.

The reason it took almost three years to get LIWC running was because of the painstaking process of building each dictionary. We employed an army of students who evaluated every word that was part of any dictionary. For example, should the word frustration be included in the anger dictionary? Panels of student judges had to all agree that it was related to anger (in this case, it was).

Thanks to Martha's programming skills and the thousands of hours spent by our student judges, LIWC was eventually ready to go. The final program instantly analyzed computer-based text or document files and calculated the percentage of words associated with each dictionary. The most recent version of LIWC can analyze thousands of individual digital files in a matter of seconds. Although our initial studies all focused on trauma essays, we eventually moved to poems, novels, blogs, Twitter feeds, letters, IMs, transcripts of conversations, and any other documents that contain words.

To appreciate how a word-counting program works, let's look at the first two sentences of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?"

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the plea sure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

LIWC would begin its analysis by first counting all the words in the text, which, in this case, is 113. It would then look at each word separately to determine if it was included in any of the existing dictionaries. So, for example, LIWC would first see the word Alice but would find no such word in any of its dictionaries. It would then move to the word was. Voilà! The word was would be in several dictionaries, including the verb dictionary, the auxiliary-verb dictionary, and the past-tense verb dictionary. The count for each of those dictionaries would now be 1. As LIWC proceeded in its task, it would then locate the next word, beginning, in the time dictionary; to in the preposition dictionary; and so forth. Finally, after evaluating all 113 words in the text and assigning each of them to the relevant dictionaries, LIWC would then calculate the percentage of total words that are linked to each dictionary. So, for example, in this passage, about 7 percent of all the words are personal pronouns, 9 percent are articles, and 3.6 percent are words related to emotion.

In analyzing a text, LIWC had many advantages over my troublesome human experts. Programs such as LIWC are 100 percent reliable in that you get the same results every time you run the program on a particular text. They are very fast, able to analyze the collected works of Shakespeare in under twenty seconds. And the results from the analysis of one person's text can be directly compared with those of anyone else's.

Despite these admirable features, word counting programs are also remarkably stupid. They can't detect irony or sarcasm and are singularly lacking in a sense of humor. Particularly damning is that they fail to capture the context of language. One word, for example, can have very different meanings depending on how it is used. (Continues...)

Excerpted from THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS by James W. Pennebaker Copyright © 2011 by James W. Pennebaker. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James W. Pennebaker is the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Writing to Heal and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, which has been translated into a dozen languages. You can analyze your own language at his website, www.secretlifeofpronouns.com.

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Secret Life of Pronouns 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
smarieb More than 1 year ago
The content of Dr. Pennebaker's studies/book was very interesting. His findings even more so. However, the style of writing was a bit less wow-ing. As someone who enjoys every word Dan Ariely writes, I was a bit less impressed with The Secret Life of Pronouns. The NPR story was succinct enough to get one of the book's points across. Look for an abridged version if you want the meat. Read the book if you'd like to know more about the methods and theory.
Brainylainy More than 1 year ago
If you're going to write about language, it helps to know something about it. Pennebaker doesn't even know a pronoun from a determiner or a preposition, much less a particle. His research methods are sloppy and not validly constructed, so his conclusions are unwarranted. Since there has been a lot of work done on function words, as well as gender differences in syntax, he doesn't even raise new issues. A waste of money
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Well this sucks
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really? This is a selection? What an incredible waste of a tree.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Happy now?