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

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

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Overview

We spend our lives communicating. In the last fifty years, we've zoomed through radically different forms of communication, from typewriters to tablet computers, text messages to tweets. We generate more and more words with each passing day. Hiding in that deluge of language are amazing insights into who we are, how we think, and what we feel.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 Craigslist advertisements to the Federalist Papers-or your own writing, in quizzes you can take yourself-to yield unexpected insights. 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 led his country into war? You'll learn why it's bad when politicians use "we" instead of "I," what Lady Gaga and William Butler Yeats have in common, and how Ebenezer Scrooge's syntax hints at his self-deception and repressed emotion. Barack Obama, Sylvia Plath, and King Lear are among the figures who make cameo appearances in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying-whether we mean them to or not.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452606804
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 03/12/2012
Edition description: Unabridged CD
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James W. Pennebaker is a social psychologist whose research focuses on the relationship between natural language use, health, and social behavior. Throughout his career, he has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal agencies for work in his field. His articles have been published in academic journals, and his books include Opening Up, Writing to Heal, and The Psychology of Physical Symptoms. He is currently the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Winner of the prestigious Audie Award for his recording of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic by Gordon S. Wood, veteran actor Robert Fass is equally at home in a wide variety of styles, genres, characters, and dialects. Robert also earned an Earphones Award for his narration of Francisco Goldman's novel Say Her Name, which was named one of the Best Audiobooks of 2011 by AudioFile magazine. He has given voice to modern and classic fiction writers alike, including Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Asimov, Jeffrey Deaver, and John Steinbeck, plus nonfiction works in history, health, journalism, and business. For eleven years, Robert was featured weekly on the InTouch network, broadcasting selections from the New Yorker magazine to the visually impaired.

Read an Excerpt

THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS

What Our Words Say About Us
By James W. Pennebaker

BLOOMSBURY PRESS

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.

WHEN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE MEET

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.

IN SEARCH OF A THEORY TO EXPLAIN THE POWER OF WRITING

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.

THE COMPUTER REVOLUTION AND THE BIRTH OF LIWC

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.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Discovering the Secret Life of the Most Forgettable Words 1

Chapter 2 Ignoring the Content, Celebrating the Style 18

Chapter 3 The Words of Sex, Age, and Power 39

Chapter 4 Personality: Finding the Person Within 73

Chapter 5 Emotion Detection 104

Chapter 6 Lying Words 131

Chapter 7 The Language of Status, Power, and Leadership 170

Chapter 8 The Language of Love 196

Chapter 9 Seeing Groups, Companies, and Communities Through Their Words 227

Chapter 10 Word Sleuthing 255

Appendix A Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild 291

Notes 301

Bibliography and References 319

Index 335

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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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Hyyyddywhdywdy
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Really? This is a selection? What an incredible waste of a tree.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Happy now?