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The Secret Life of Pronouns

What Our Words Say About Us

By James W. Pennebaker
15-minute read
Audio available
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker

The Secret Life of Pronouns (2011) shines a light on the everyday language that we seldom pay attention to, revealing the ways in which it serves as a window into our personality and our social connections.

  • Linguists, psychologists and grammar nerds from all disciplines
  • Anyone interested in what language can reveal about others and ourselves

James W. Pennebaker is the chair of the Psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, and is author of Writing to Heal and Opening Up.

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The Secret Life of Pronouns

What Our Words Say About Us

By James W. Pennebaker
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker
Synopsis

The Secret Life of Pronouns (2011) shines a light on the everyday language that we seldom pay attention to, revealing the ways in which it serves as a window into our personality and our social connections.

Key idea 1 of 9

One of the first language analysis computer programs showed that analyzing language style yields great insights.

It was over 100,000 years ago that humans first began communicating through spoken language, and some 95,000 years later, they began writing as well. In just the last 150 years, we’ve developed everything from the telegraph to the telephone, television to e-mail, text messages and social media, all to facilitate communication. Indeed, language is a crucial aspect of what makes us human. But what does the way we use language say about us?

To answer this question, the author created one of the first computer programs for language analysis.

In the 1980s the author became interested in finding out whether people who had experienced serious trauma could improve their mental health by putting their experiences to paper.

He and his research team needed a way to analyze the essays that his patients produced, so they created a computer program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC.

The idea was to tally all the words in these essays that related to specific psychological concepts. For example, the program might find words that relate to anger, such as hate, rage, kill or revenge, and then tally them up.

Finally, the program would calculate the percentage of words associated with different psychological states. The findings revealed that those who used more positive words, such as love, care and happy, were the ones whose mental health improved.

Interestingly, this program revealed much more than just the patients’ mental well-being.

In the 1990s, one of the author’s graduate students had an idea: what if they analyzed the essays differently?

Instead of focusing on nouns, verbs and adjectives to analyze the content of the essays, they could instead focus on the words that revealed the subject’s writing style. Those words include pronouns, prepositions and articles.

The subsequent analysis of these words led to surprising, and even bizarre, findings. For instance, the author found that the more people switched between I-words such as I, me, my and other pronouns such as we, you, she and they, the more their health improved.

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