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

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

by James W. Pennebaker

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Secret Life of Pronouns 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 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
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Free LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy. Basic thesis: knowing how often people use pronouns, articles, helper verbs, and other countable things can predict a lot about them. This is an easy read, and has some surprises: people who use ¿I¿ a lot are more likely to be low-status than high, whereas ¿we¿-users are more likely to be high-status. As is usual with pop science, while Pennebaker is open about the fact that his results are bell-curved, there¿s pressure to take more away than the science really supports: women talk like this and men like that, which is true only in gross, and ¿good¿ predictions of gender from analyzing written text run in the 65%-75% range, where 50% is chance. He¿s clearest about this when he¿s discussing lie detection: in situations where there is external validation of truth-telling or lying (people convicted of perjury v. people initially convicted whose convictions were overturned based on DNA or other evidence of innocence), analyzing what kinds of words people use and how complex their sentences are again predicts truth about 70% of the time, again better than chance but hardly a magic bullet. His results also show the importance of context: not only do people talk differently in different situations, they routinely mirror each other¿s styles (at least when things are going well), and when you assign them a high status they start talking like high-status people (and vice versa). So, he suggests, our ways of talking are more diagnostic than they are anything else; he¿s skeptical of deliberate attempts to change ways of talking without more direct intervention into ways of thinking, though that would be an interesting set of experiments and one I¿d definitely like to read about.
bruce_krafft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was prepared to be bored by this book. Why? Well because so many books promising similar things have been boring, dull, and anything by interesting. I can say that I was very happily proven WRONG ¿ right away.This book is fascinating, and is written in a very engaging manner. You will be reading parts (or maybe all of it) out loud to your significant other, or maybe even the poor unsuspecting person sitting next to you on the bus.Will you be looking at your e-mails differently after reading this book? Will you double check the texts & IM¿s from your loved ones? Checking out the lyrics of your favorite songs? Most probably. This isn¿t a book about words so much as it is a book about how language reflects who we are at any given moment. Some things are obvious and some findings are totally counter-intuitive. All of them are quite fascinating.
raistlinsshadow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a solid read, though I was expecting something more in line with the likes of Steven Pinker and psycholinguistics than word-based psychology. I especially wasn't sure what to think, given that my previous familiarity with Pennebaker was with his expressive writing studies and his physical health/mental health connections. However, once I got over the shock of it being much more psychology-oriented than linguistics-oriented, it was an interesting read.This didn't read like the usual piece of science-for-the-masses nonfiction book; rather, Pennebaker wrote in a style that was approachable and informal¿but I felt like it needed a tad more formality. The idea behind the exercises and the website integration was interesting, but it felt more sales-pitch and less this-is-neat, and, more importantly, less integrated and more jarring.However, it is an intriguing piece of work, and the field itself seems to have a lot of promise, even if it likely shouldn't be used as anything more than a parlor trick at this point. This book makes me excited for the future of the field.
Taphophile13 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Glancing at the title with its highlighted pronouns, one might think this is a proscriptive grammar book but one would be mistaken. It deals with sociolinguistics and how our choice of words reveals who we are, where we are and what we are doing. Words give away social class, emotional state and whether or not we are telling the truth. This book will not turn you into a walking lie detector; it is only through the use of word counting programs and computer analysis programs that our speech gives up it secrets.Pennebaker studied function words ¿ pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, negations and a few other small words ¿ as found in transcribed conversations, blogs, essays, and e-mails. He likes to refer to these words as stealth words. Leaders use ¿I¿ less than followers and people who use ¿a, an¿ and ¿the¿ a lot do better in college. Younger people generally use more personal pronouns, past tense verbs and negative emotion words; older people use more articles, nouns, prepositions, future tense verbs and positive emotion words. Verbs, especially auxiliary verbs, indicate lower power status. Women use more personal pronouns and verbs, men use more big words, nouns, numbers and curse words. (You have probably already noticed some of this in your own conversations.)Several exercises, such as writing about a picture or photo, are included and Pennebaker directs the reader to try some of them at his website. Chapter 4 explores formal, analytic and narrative writing as found in literature, song lyrics, even suicide notes. Those who use a formal style tend to smoke and drink less, are concerned with power and status, and are less self-honest. Analytic writing indicates cognitive complexity, predicts higher grades, and the writer is more honest and open to new experiences and reads more. Those who use narrative writing have higher social skills, more friends and are more out-going. (It begins to sound a bit like a fortune cookie.)Pennebaker gives some examples of the descriptions people wrote when asked to write about a photo of two people at a backyard barbeque. These samples were very revealing as the writers actually said more about themselves than about the facts of the pictures. An alcoholic is sure there is a keg at the party, a recently engaged woman is sure the couple is happily married and a politically active student ¿knows¿ the couple is having a political conversation. He even ¿knows¿ which candidate each supported for president. (Projection is a well-known psychological phenomenon.) We are all familiar with the truth coming out via Freudian slips. People telling the truth tend to relate stories with more details and more pronouns while fabricators use more emotion words. Those who are innocent say ¿I¿ more while those who are guilty use more third person pronouns. Pennebaker also mentions the University of Washington study which was able to predict whether a marriage would last just by analyzing the couple¿s interactions. Respect, positive emotions and avoiding accusations are related to marital harmony. Dismissive comments, avoidant behavior and personal attacks did not bode well for the relationship. This goes along with language style matching (LSM) in which speakers adjust their speaking style to that of their listeners. High LSM accounts for regional speech differences and is not just found in happy couples: ¿when playing or watching sports, people tend to talk about the game.¿ (Someone please alert the media.)The last chapter is a hodge-podge, jumping from who wrote some of the Federalist papers (he analyzed them but still isn¿t sure who wrote eleven of the anonymous papers), to Beatles¿ lyrics (they did come together over time) to U.S. Presidents (G. W. Bush is interested in people, Reagan was a disinterested story teller and Obama is very self-confident).Following the last chapter is an eight page ¿Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild.¿ He
vpfluke on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an engrossing book on how we humans use language, not realize many of the subtle ways we are communicating without realizing what we are really doing. Our use of pronouns vary based on social status, group identification, and emotional state. For instance, he compares John Kerry's greater use of we-words when campaigning for president against George Bush, who used a greater number of I-words. Bush was able to project a friendlier style to the voting public. Pennebaker calls short words like pronouns stealth words. You learn how to use them early in life and are unaware of what they reveal about you.Pennebaker makes an interesting compariosn of pronouns right after 9-11. He was able to look through many hundreds of blogs to compute word usage. Initially, first day, people used I words, reflecting their fear and other emotions right on top of the event. Then people shifted quickly into we words, reflecting the desire for collective action on the part of many people. After a number of months, people returned to the use of pronouns that existed before 9-11.For verbs Pennebaker gives an example of three differently written excuses: 1. I finished my homework, but the dog ate it. 2. I had finished the homework, but the dog must have eaten it. 3. The homework was finished but must have been eaten by the dog.The first has a good chance of being true, the second one raises suspicians about statement, the third one is probably a an outright lie. The first one is straightforward, the second represents incomplete actions, the third one is filled with the passive voice. With all of Pennebaker's emphasis on grammar, there was a paragraph at the top of Page 244 that I wanted to correct due to the drilling in me as a child of the proper use of the accusative (or objective) case in English. He states: I can usually make a reasonable guess who she (his wife) is talking to by her cadence, volume, tone, and even accent. I would have used the word "whom", as I was trained in this. I wish Pennebaker had made some comment on this reaction that some of us seem to have. I seldom correct people, but after reading this book, I am noticing more often people's use of the objective case in pronouns. But I like the idea of grammatical case, and even see a stealth ablative in words like thence and whence.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The reviews by those lucky enough to have received this book from LT's Early Reviewers Program are very good. Let me just add my two cents' worth by saying that I loved this book. It is well-written, engaging, easy and fun to read and absolutely fascinating!
chuck_ralston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker, Professor and Head, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas, is an intriguing account of the big impact of small words on personality. As he notes in his Preface, ¿pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a handful of other small, stealthy words reveal parts of [our] personality, thinking style, emotional state, and connections with others.¿ The `function¿ words as he calls them, include: `I¿, `you¿, `we¿, `they¿, `a¿, `an¿, `the¿, `but¿, `not¿, `for¿, and `over¿, to list a few, and these serve not only as parts of speech but also as keys to personality traits and social connections. An example: The most frequently spoken word in English, `I¿, is used more often by followers than by leaders. Contrasted with function is the style, or `content¿ words: nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, which words provide common understanding of things, or objects, and actions and modifications to same.Professor Pennebaker is a social psychologist who has crossed over into several disciplines: linguistics, computer and information technology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy among others, to establish the hypothesis that these `stealth¿ words reveal or reflect psychological states. The impetus for such inter-disciplinary work was the advent of computer technology and the program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). The LIWC analytic tool has been used by Pennebaker and his colleagues to describe gender differences, especially the language of sex, age, and social class, and in determining personality attributes, as well as in emotional trauma, lie detection, status and leadership hierarchies, and even the language of love. A most revealing example of the value `invisible¿ function words in the context of content words is Pennebaker¿s analysis of word usage and frequency in Lincoln¿s Gettysburg Address. One might think after reading the text that its most frequently used words are `nation¿, `war¿, `men¿, or possibly `dead¿, but in actuality the most commonly used word is `that¿ (12 times or 4.5%), `the¿ (4.1%), `we¿ (3.7%), `here¿ (3.5%), `to¿ (3.0%), a (2.6%), and (2.2%), and `can¿, `for¿, `have¿, `it¿, `not¿, `of¿, `this¿ (1.9% each) ¿ fourteen little words comprising 37% of the text. Only one content word, `nation¿ is among the top fifteen frequently used words (used twice or 1.9%). By extension, according to Pennebaker, the list of common stealth or function words in our English language includes some 450, or just over half (55%) of all the words used. Moreover, most of these words are of three letters or less! If character is fate in that elegant rendering by Novalis of a fragment from sage Herakleitos, then language reveals character, and The Secret Life of Pronouns is testament to this. I highly recommend this book for its wit, delight, and good sense to those who want to continue to be careful with their words.
drneutron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
James Pennebaker, Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, has spent a long time studying how people use words. He and his students have gathered an impressive collection of studies on the relationships between word use and gender, personality, emotions, etc. The Secret Life of Pronouns is his popularization of the work. Generally, I thought his ideas were interesting, though hardly Earth-shaking in scope or technique. The main method is through computerized word counts and a bit deeper analysis combined with standard techniques to match statistical patterns of use to various psychological and sociological characteristics. I struggled through the book with two issues: - Pennebaker uses small percentage differences between word use by, for example, males and females to draw distinctions. From this, he makes some pretty serious claims - like being able to tell whether a person is male or female from a relatively small sample. I agree that he can probably tell with some statistical uncertainty, and I believe he certainly understands that his conclusions about the source of a writing sample are statistically based. But in his text, he states very definitively on more than a few occasions that he absolutely can distinguish details of the writing sample source. This is disingenuous and takes away from the book. - The book doesn't give much real information about the statistics behind what he's claiming, nor does he ever really address issues associated with misinterpretation such as variations in an author's texts that are intended. All in all, it's worth a read, but because of these two issues, I can't give it more than 3 stars.
etsmith on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What can you know about me from analyzing this review? As it turns out, quite a lot. Professor Pennebaker has devoted much of his career to linking word patterns to individual characteristics. Pronoun patterns in particular tip off the savvy analyst to the writer's gender, for example. A psychologist by training, his work uses the tools of rhetorical analysis to study some enduring questions in his field. Pennebaker and his students take advantage of a relatively new and increasingly useful research paradigm in their work. Rather than divide questions into small painstakingly researched hypotheses, the new research takes advantage of the speed and accuracy of computers to identify patterns in large databases. In this case, the databases are collections of writings of students and others whose identities can be linked with other known characteristics (think gender, attitudes, level of depression, and so on). Can word patterns predict individual characteristics? The point of the book is that they can. Of what practical use is this type of analysis? Pennebaker suggests that word patterns reveal the self in ways that might not be conscious for the individual. Imagine being able to run a presidential candidate's speech through a sophisticated computer program to find out that he has a dangerous bias toward aggressive action.As a social scientist, I was especially interested in some of Pennebaker's ingenious methods of ferreting out the meaning of word patterns. One important issue is the power of his research methods. He often achieves significant results by using enormous samples. However, sometimes the effect sizes are less than exciting. As a veteran researcher, I see this as a problem. Sometimes significant results extracted from large samples just are not terribly important; they represent mild tendencies as opposed to tight connections.
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Well this sucks
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Really? This is a selection? What an incredible waste of a tree.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Happy now?