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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words…

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

by James W. Pennebaker

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James W. Pennebaker is a social psychologist who has spent a lot of time using computers to look for revealing patterns in people's written and spoken word use. He doesn't concentrate on the words you'd probably expect, though: the meaty, substantial nouns and verbs that convey most of the overt meaning of language. Instead, he finds subtler meanings in what he calls "functional words," all those little bits of language that hold sentences together but that we normally pay very little attention to, such as articles and prepositions.

Here's a small sample of his findings:

  • Women use more personal pronouns (such as "he" and "she") than men do, while men use more articles ("a" and "the"). The conclusion seems to be that women, statistically speaking, talk more about people and men more about objects. (There are, of course, multiple possible explanations for this.)

  • When two people of different social status are talking -- e.g. a boss and an employee -- the low-status person uses the word "I" much more frequently, while the high-status one uses "you" more often.

  • People who are lying tend to use "I" less often and to use less complex sentences than people telling the truth, among a number of other differences. Most people can't tell the difference at much more than chance levels, but Pennebaker has a computer program that he claims can manage about 75% accuracy. Which is not exactly a super-reliable lie detector, but is impressive, nonetheless

  • All of which is interesting stuff, and there are quite a few other intriguing tidbits in here, as well. Unfortunately, though, I didn't find the book as a whole nearly as fascinating a read as I'd hoped. Pennebaker may be an expert on other people's word choices, but I didn't necessarily find his own style all that gripping, and a lot of the examples he uses to illustrate his points aren't particularly great. The book also seems a bit padded in places. It's not really that long -- less than 300 pages, minus the end matter -- but it seemed to me it could have been a fair bit shorter without losing much.

    I also wish he'd gone into some of his methodology a bit more. Obviously, this is a book written for the layman, not a scientific paper, but some of the things it does that annoy me could have been easily avoided. For instance, early in the book, there are a number of tables comparing what percentage of the time certain groups used certain words... but he doesn't always include the number of subjects in the study, which renders those numbers pretty much meaningless. And in the sections on personality and emotions, he makes some claims about how certain patterns of word use track with certain personality traits or emotional states, but, while he goes into detail about how the word patterns were measured, he often doesn't discuss how the presence of those personality traits or emotions were determined. In some cases, he almost gives the impression that it's based on nothing more than his own assumptions from reading the writing samples. Hopefully that's not actually true, but there's no way to tell. Fortunately, most of the rest of the book is better on that score, but since those sections come early on, it left me with a lingering mistrustful feeling I never entirely managed to overcome.

    Still, while some of the conclusions seem much more solid than others -- which is probably inevitable in a squishy field like psychology -- and while Pennebaker might oversell some of his ideas a little bit, this kind of computerized word analysis does seem like an interesting and potentially useful tool, and some of the things he does with it are kind of nifty. ( )
    1 vote bragan | Nov 23, 2014 |
    This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
    The subject of language is one I enjoy, and I accept that it can often be very dry to read in book form, so I anticipated dryness before having picked Secret Life. Unfortunately, this was less a discussion of language and more a constant assault of anecdotal language psychology, the author regularly asserting how the use of a pronoun reflected some specific aspect of the person using it. I found the delivery of the information boring and frankly, my strong inner skeptic was constantly crying out for better data.
      IslandDave | Nov 5, 2014 |
    An interesting look at what subtext is provided by our choice of words. Ultimately the book is merely an academic exercise for those of us without multi-million dollar linguistic analysis software, but the learnings obtained from a linguistic analysis of many disparate sources including blogs and college admission essays, among other sources are fascinating to uncover. A little dry at times, it was an interesting enough subject to keep me pushing through to the end of the book. ( )
      Meggo | Oct 20, 2013 |
    This book contains some Chaz Bono-level anecdotal evidence about the effects of testosterone on behavior. I kind of wanted to cry when I read the following (but maybe I've got too much naturally-occuring testosterone coursing through my biologically-female (or whatever) veins preventing me from crying, or using social pronouns).

    And I quote:

    "For a variety of reasons, both men and women occasionally undergo testosterone therapy, whereby they are given periodic injections of the hormone. What would happen to their language during times when their testosterone levels were high versus when they were low? Through an odd series of events, I was able to answer the question." (57)

    How does Pennebaker answer this question? He looks at the writing of two people: one 28yo transguy taking T to transition and one 60yo non-trans guy taking T to"restore his upper body strength" (58)

    Now that's rigorous science, folks. Wait, though, there's more.

    "...there was one fascinating and reliable difference--in social pronouns (including words like we, us, he, she, they, and them). As testosterone levels dropped, they used more social pronouns. Think what this means: Both GH and the anthropologist inject themselves with testosterone and they now focus on tasks, goals, events, and the occasional object--but not people." (58)

    Is this really a RELIABLE sample? Two people?

    "It is news because these language differences signal that men tend to talk and think about concrete objects and things in highly specific ways. They are naturally categorizing things... a man naturally categorize and assigns objects to spatial relations at rates higher than women."

    Please can we go back to the 90s when people had heard of social construction of identity?

    PS: The Gender Genie http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php score for this review (minus quotations) is: Female Score: 54 Male Score: 111. Take that, Pennebaker.

    ( )
    1 vote anderlawlor | Apr 9, 2013 |
    I love linguistics. This book wasn't completely about that but rather the psychology of the words we use. This book is about what our words choices say about us, says about our age, gender, class, education or power level. Interesting stuff but most of it was said in the first two chapters. ( )
      Alanne | Mar 29, 2013 |
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    For you

    and for us

    and where we have been

    and where we will go.
    First words

    Stop for a minute and think about your last conversation, e-mail, or text message. You think you said something about dinner plans, your laundry, a strategy for the next sales meeting. And you probably did. But at the same time,, you said much, much more. The precise words you used to communicate your message revealed more about you than you can imagine.
    Chapter 1

    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.
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    Book description
    We spend our lives communicating. We put thoughts into words to connect with family and friends, to express our desires, and increasingly, to earn our livings. In our lifetimes, we’ve zoomed through new forms of communication technology, going from typewriters to IMs, tweets, and text messages. More and more words are generated 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, linguistic and social psychologist 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. Using innovative techniques and insightful surveys (including quizzes you can take yourself) Pennebaker X-rays everything from Craigslist advertisements and Twitter to the Federalist Papers andclassic literature to reveal how our words show more than we think.

    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 make cameo appearances as well in this sparkling romp through language—a must-read for fans of Deborah Tannen, George Lakoff, and Steven Pinker.
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    Draws on groundbreaking research in computational linguistics to explain what language choices reveal about feelings, self-concept, and social intelligence, in a lighthearted treatise that also explores the language personalities of famous individuals.… (more)

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