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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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I was very interested in this topic, as I have increasingly noticed that I don't really understand how prepositions are used in foreign languages I have studied.

This book had literally nothing to do with that topic (ahahaha), but was interesting nonetheless. I think it will be particularly interesting to try and pay more attention to the language used in my interactions at work, and better understand the dynamics there. ( )
  magerber | Feb 22, 2016 |
My family laughed at me when they found out I was reading a book about the secret life of pronouns—what secrets could pronouns possibly have, anyway?—but the concept that the "nothing words" of language can be a mirror into individuals' lives was fascinating to me.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover, however, that a person's word usage is so subtle that it takes a computer program to find these connections. I can't just walk down a street, strike up a conversation with a random stranger, and within 10 minutes be able to tell if the person is arrogant, depressed, insecure, or lying, simply by paying attention to word nuances.

We all know that words have a huge affect on our lives, but the point this book repeatedly makes is not that words shape us, but rather that our words—particularly the function words that no one notices—reflect who we are, what motivates us, and how we think. Despite our efforts to hide aspects of our personalities, our words shout out to the world startling insights anyway; fortunately, though, no one realizes just how much our words are saying about us.

By reading this book, I had hoped to learn how to become a better ghost writer and how to manipulate the tone of my writing for various projects. I didn't exactly get that, but the book was fascinating nonetheless. ( )
  AngelClaw | Jan 29, 2016 |
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  lulaa | Jun 19, 2015 |
Interesting and helpful insight into the way that language unwittingly structured by our perspectives and our relationships in society. Unfortunately, the writing is not concise. The insights, good as they may be, are belabored. I kept finding myself wanting skip through the authors meandering thoughts in the hope of getting on to the next concept. Despite the affable title this is a scholarly work that just was not distilled down for the general reader.
  michaelgambill | Apr 1, 2015 |
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. ( )
    2 vote bragan | Nov 23, 2014 |
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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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