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

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

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...

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Title:The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us
Author:James W. Pennebaker
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Matt Holloway

    The best thing about this book is how badly it befuddles reviewers, who become paralyzed by consciousness of their own writing while trying to review it!

    It's excellent. He performs linguistic analysis on all kinds of human speech and exchange, from politics to speed-dating to chit chat to King Lear and Robert Browning.

    In a nutshell, first person singular denotes: truthfulness, emotional immediacy, and a lower status in interchange. First person plural is more complex but can denote solidarity,

    The best thing about this book is how badly it befuddles reviewers, who become paralyzed by consciousness of their own writing while trying to review it!

    It's excellent. He performs linguistic analysis on all kinds of human speech and exchange, from politics to speed-dating to chit chat to King Lear and Robert Browning.

    In a nutshell, first person singular denotes: truthfulness, emotional immediacy, and a lower status in interchange. First person plural is more complex but can denote solidarity, haughtiness, or insincerity, depending on usage. Second person pronouns indicate a higher social status. Third person indicates falsehood and an emotional distance.

    I heard him give a talk a couple of weeks ago and he used the word "I" a lot. He must be super sincere! (Actually, he puts some of his own emails on the line in the book, to great effect.) This is a fun book!

  • Jaylia3

    Linguist buffs take note because this is not your typical word book. Its subject is not word origins, the evolution of language, or the fine points of grammar. Instead The Secret Life of Pronouns is more psychology than entomology. It explores and analyzes the little words we use, and author James W. Pennebaker makes the case that it’s these tiny, forgettable words that tell a lot about our personality, emotional state, style of thinking and connections with other people. These “little words” ar

    Linguist buffs take note because this is not your typical word book. Its subject is not word origins, the evolution of language, or the fine points of grammar. Instead The Secret Life of Pronouns is more psychology than entomology. It explores and analyzes the little words we use, and author James W. Pennebaker makes the case that it’s these tiny, forgettable words that tell a lot about our personality, emotional state, style of thinking and connections with other people. These “little words” are not just the pronouns of the title, they are all function words, including articles like “a”, “an”, and “the” and prepositions like “of”, “from” and “toward”, that connect and organize the larger, more apparently important words like nouns and verbs. Using a computer program that took three years to write Pennebaker investigates and draws conclusions from the little function words in movies, of politicians, in college application essays, of lovers, of liars, in literature, of people in groups, and of leaders vs. followers. The results are not always intuitive, for instance it’s better for a politician to use “I” rather than “we”, but the conclusions are often interesting and sometimes fascinating.

  • Charlene

    Can't say enough about this book!

    James Pennebaker takes the reader into computational linguistics with wit and wisdom. He and his research team have used powerful computer programs to count the frequency of the words we use.

    One of Pennebaker’s most intriguing sections deals with the psycholinguistic changes that occur after traumatic events. He studied more than 70,000 blog entries written by more than 1,000 bloggers in the two weeks before and after the 9/11 attacks and found that

    Can't say enough about this book!

    James Pennebaker takes the reader into computational linguistics with wit and wisdom. He and his research team have used powerful computer programs to count the frequency of the words we use.

    One of Pennebaker’s most intriguing sections deals with the psycholinguistic changes that occur after traumatic events. He studied more than 70,000 blog entries written by more than 1,000 bloggers in the two weeks before and after the 9/11 attacks and found that the use of first-person pronouns dropped dramatically after the attacks as people paid less attention to themselves and focused more on the victims and the country at large.

    He also studied the work of 18 poets, nine of whom committed suicide, and found that the suicidal writers used far more “I”-related pronouns than the others.

    Another bit of information he came up with is that people of higher social status use fewer I-words than people of lower status.

    "A drop in the use of I-words can also indicate that a political leader is about to carry out a threat. He found patterns in the words of Harry Truman before dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the speeches of Adolf Hitler before he invaded Poland!"

  • Morgan Blackledge

    J.W Pennebaker's early research indicates that people who write about their traumatic experiences (i.e. journaling) tend to recover from psychological and co-occurring physiological symptoms faster and better than those who do not.

    An important factor in Pennebaker's study was that participants were asked to write about their traumatic experiences, every day, for fifteen minutes, over the course of four days. Participants who wrote the same (or similar) story each time didn't get the beneficial

    J.W Pennebaker's early research indicates that people who write about their traumatic experiences (i.e. journaling) tend to recover from psychological and co-occurring physiological symptoms faster and better than those who do not.

    An important factor in Pennebaker's study was that participants were asked to write about their traumatic experiences, every day, for fifteen minutes, over the course of four days. Participants who wrote the same (or similar) story each time didn't get the beneficial effect. Participants who changed the way they told their story did.

    According to Pennebaker's more recent computer assisted statistical analysis of word category usage in writing and speech samples, an individuals particular style of use of function words -in both writing and speech- is an important indicator (even predictor) of their psychological state, and social status.

    FUNCTION WORDS ARE:

    -Pronouns (such as I, you, they)

    -Articles (a, an, the)

    -Prepositions (to, of, for)

    -Auxiliary verbs (is, am, have)

    As a clinician, I am excited by Pennebaker's work. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has prescribed journaling for decades. The literature has clearly demonstrated that journaling has therapeutic value, but has failed to describe how (exactly) journaling works. This research sheds light on the former, hopefully leading to more effective and targeted future interventions.

    Additionally, Pennebaker's work may shed light on the active components of talk therapies such as Motivational Interviewing. Perhaps facilitating change talk has an even greater efficacy than previously understood.

    A note of warning, this book is really hard to stay with at first, i.e. I kept drifting off and having to re-read large sections for the first few chapters. The going gets smoother though, so I strongly suggest pushing through. The bulk of the book reads nicely, and is full of really juicy and original stuff. Notice most (if not all) of the extremely negative reviews were from people that did not finish the book (an automatic disqualifier for any review).

    I realize this is an incredibly dry review. This is no coincidence. The book is incredibly dry too. But that's not always a bad thing. Think white wine, or towels. If you endeavor to read this thing, don't expect a slack jawed page turner. But if you think you might be interested in exploring the intersection of statistics, linguistics and psychology, I highly recommend this book.

  • Kate Woods Walker

    Fascinating, and a little creepy,

    gives the layperson an overview of what linguists are discovering and psychopaths already know instinctively: our language patterns reveal much of who we are. Whether by careful listening, or by computerized word counting, those who want to gain insight--or just an unfair advantage--can go spelunking in your subconscious with no more equipment than the words you choose and the paragraphs in which they appear.

    The word-counting and ana

    Fascinating, and a little creepy,

    gives the layperson an overview of what linguists are discovering and psychopaths already know instinctively: our language patterns reveal much of who we are. Whether by careful listening, or by computerized word counting, those who want to gain insight--or just an unfair advantage--can go spelunking in your subconscious with no more equipment than the words you choose and the paragraphs in which they appear.

    The word-counting and analysis of author James W. Pennebaker and his students shows how "I" word usage means much, much more than you think, and a good deal of it counter-intuitive, to boot. That's the fascinating part.

    Some of the work cited in this book will probably inform computer programs that will soon enough be able to identify you through your writing style, no matter how many internet personae you adopt. That's the creepy part.

    In these days of citizen uprisings and anonymous internet free speech, I fear for the future of rabble rousing.

  • Christy

    What a bummer. With such a cool title and excellent NYT reviews, I was sure that this book was going to make it to my top books of the year. The author writes in the preface, "Although this book focuses on function words, it really isn't about parts of speech at all. Rather, it's about how these words serve as windows into people's personalities and social connections." That sounds cool, doesn't it? Not so. Later in the next chapter he comments, "If you are a serious linguist, this book may disa

    What a bummer. With such a cool title and excellent NYT reviews, I was sure that this book was going to make it to my top books of the year. The author writes in the preface, "Although this book focuses on function words, it really isn't about parts of speech at all. Rather, it's about how these words serve as windows into people's personalities and social connections." That sounds cool, doesn't it? Not so. Later in the next chapter he comments, "If you are a serious linguist, this book may disappoint or infuriate you." This statement, upon first reading it, made me think that it wouldn't be a book for someone like Carlos, but it still might work out for me. Not so. It was just so.... fluffy. And seriously, it has to be a pretty lame book for me to make a comment like that since I can get bogged down by analytical writing. I just couldn't take any of it seriously because Pennebaker didn't give me a reason to. I read about 75% and then flipped through the last 25%. So what do pronouns and other stealth words say about us? Well, I learned that depressed people use "I" statements much more, that people who use more articles are concrete thinkers, and that high preposition use indicates a complex thinker. Wow. How totally not amazing.

    Now that I think about it, I am going to change my rating from a 2 to a 1.

  • Trevor

    I was so excited when I got this book that it jumped to the top of my real to read list – not that such an actual list exists, it being much more random, serendipitous and arbitrary than could be captured here on Good Reads. It certainly isn’t numbered!

    The reason why I was so keen to read this book is because I had thought it would present some of the latest research on the work begun by Basil Bernstein and Michael Halliday into Sociolinguistics. Bernstein says some fascinating things about how

    I was so excited when I got this book that it jumped to the top of my real to read list – not that such an actual list exists, it being much more random, serendipitous and arbitrary than could be captured here on Good Reads. It certainly isn’t numbered!

    The reason why I was so keen to read this book is because I had thought it would present some of the latest research on the work begun by Basil Bernstein and Michael Halliday into Sociolinguistics. Bernstein says some fascinating things about how various social classes use prepositions (working class kids being more likely to use spatial prepositions – on, by – and middle class kids relational prepositions like of) and pronouns (middle class kids using many fewer pronouns so as to communicate using their so-called elaborated code). The first thing I did when I got this book was to look up Bernstein and Halliday in the index – and there was not a single reference, something that made my heart sink immediately. There was one reference to Chomsky – but if you have read any of my recent reviews on sociolinguistics you will know that Chomsky thinks the whole sociolinguistic exercise is a waste of time.

    This book isn’t about sociolinguistics, though, this is more like pop-psychology linguistics. It is, in short, embarrassing.

    The problems with this book are very much American problems. This guy starts the section on social class saying this, “From the very beginning of my education, I was always taught that in the United States we do not have social classes.” So it comes as a complete surprise to him not only that social classes do exist in the United States, but that they even use language differently from each other. What really annoyed me was that even after his belated discovery of social class and it being correlated with ‘powerful effects on smoking, drinking, depression, obesity, and every physical and mental health problem you can imagine’, that isn’t quite enough to overcome his typical US obsession with the individual. Social class is raised and forgotten nearly as quickly. He is not interested in seeing how or why linguistic social markers might have evolved and be used to keep people in their place, say, in the way Bourdieu is interested in this. I guess he was afraid that if he started down that track he would be accused of class warfare. Instead he sticks to dull-as-dishwater (and mostly discredited) personality psychology.

    If you need a rebuttal of personality psychology – things like Myers Briggs, Rorschach Tests, MMPI or even phrenology – then you should read the wonderful book

    . Unfortunately, after reading that book this guy’s excursions into personality appraisals starts out as being annoying and ends up being jaw-droppingly simpleminded. He says things like, “In my experience, people’s personalities don’t change very often…” He doesn’t support this with any kind of evidence – but he really ought to have as it is a central idea to his entire book. To make his point he needs to prove that people’s personalities stay consistent and the grammatical words (rather than what he calls ‘content words’ – what linguists call lexical terms) they choose to use is an infallible means to illuminate their personalities. The hole in this logic is so gaping the only thing remarkable is that he is able to write 116 pages (where I stopped less in anger than despair) dancing around this hole without falling into it.

    But really, I only got to page 116 after limping on from page 98 before falling asleep last night. Page 98 is where he says, “In early 2001, after analysing Bush’s first inaugural address, Winter warned that Bush’s language was consistent with a pattern of aggressiveness based on a tight group of followers who would be resistant to dissenting opinions.” Yeah – and you could only have drawn such a remarkable conclusion about how Bush’s presidency was likely to progress on the basis of a linguistic analysis of his inaugural address, because his previous history as Governor had been so utterly different. Reading this quote was like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat after you had already seen its ears popping up over the brim.

    Another breathtakingly simpleminded assertion in the chapter on ‘Personality: Finding the Person Within’ (even the title makes me cringe) is on the very next page – which I’m going to quote in full, but only because it should be tattooed onto this guy’s stomach like that autistic women does in the Dragon Tattoo book, you know, as a warning to others.

    “A Thumbnail Sketch: Osama bin Laden Through His Words

    Consider the language of a public figure such as Osama bin Laden. Over much of his adult life, he left a record of his language in his interviews, speeches, letters, and written articles. Analysis of his words in Arabic or in English translation evidences his supreme self-confidence, even arrogance (very low rates of I-words, high use of we-words and you-words). Unlike most other leaders of extremist Arabic groups, including his sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden was a storyteller (high in narrative markers – past-tense verbs, social references) with a decidedly dour, hostile edge. Our overall analyses would peg him as high in need for power, moderate in need for achievement, and low in need for affiliation. Cindy Chung’s meaning extraction technique reveals that his real obsession in life switched from rage at his homeland, Saudi Arabia, to America’s incursion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, he never showed much interest in Israel compared to his al-Qaeda colleagues. No data on whether he liked long walks on the beach at dusk.”

    Like I said, I limped on for a few pages after this and today have decided I can’t bring myself to read any more of this book. Hey, would you have guessed bin Laden was arrogant prior to learning of this detailed analysis of his pronouns? Not only do people not change, but the same word counting techniques are just as effective if they are used for someone’s use of Arabic as they are for someone’s use of English (or Elizabethan English) and is even effective for Arabic in English translation.

    Earlier in the book he finds some correlation between male and female use of pronouns and then uses it to test how

    ‘male’ or ‘female’ characters from fiction are… Juliet, it seems, is more masculine than you might expect. I have to say that I find this to be, again, a typically American mistake – one that thinks that the whole world is essentially identical with the US, it only being that the world hasn’t realised that yet. So that how Arabs speak and use pronouns means exactly the same thing about their personality as how US citizens speak English and use pronouns says about their personalities. Cultural differences don’t exist – linguistic differences don’t exist – there are three personality types, formal, analytic and narrative thinking – and getting people to write about a bottle of water is enough to show which of those star signs (oh, sorry – thinking styles) they belong to.

    But if you are interested in the fascinating subject of sociolinguistics – what this book would have been about if this guy had bothered reading some of the literature that had been around for 20 years before he started ‘discovering’ this stuff, I would highly recommend,

    by Romaine or

    by Bernstein or

    for more on social class than a US author of a popular book can bring himself to discuss .

    Avoid this – it is written like a self-help book and will make you feel patronised at the turn of nearly every page.

  • David

    I considered putting this on the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, but that wouldn't be quite fair. It's not you, Doctor Pennebaker, it's me. I have no doubt that the research reported on in this book is genuine, if only because of its excruciatingly tedious nature. Frankly, it's hard to get excited (or even to stay awake) about work that uses word-counting as its primary tool, particularly given Doctor P's fawningly enthusiastic invocation of factor analysis as a legitimate statistical m

    I considered putting this on the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, but that wouldn't be quite fair. It's not you, Doctor Pennebaker, it's me. I have no doubt that the research reported on in this book is genuine, if only because of its excruciatingly tedious nature. Frankly, it's hard to get excited (or even to stay awake) about work that uses word-counting as its primary tool, particularly given Doctor P's fawningly enthusiastic invocation of factor analysis as a legitimate statistical method. Even a reader willing to overlook this (serious) deficiency is likely to be bludgeoned into a state of anesthetized indifference by the pedestrian prose and the sheer banality of the conclusions.

    It probably didn't help that I read this book immediately after finishing "Thinking Fast and Slow". Daniel Kahneman's clear, careful, measured exposition reminds us that work in experimental psychology can be reported with lucidity and elegance. The mix of anecdotal evidence, statement of the bloody obvious, and somewhat dubious over-generalization found in this book has to be considered a disappointment. And the whole obsession with pronoun usage seems entirely overblown, and not at all convincing.

    Upon reflection, and after reading Trevor's excellent, take-no-prisoners review, (

    ) I have to agree with his assessment and downgrade this to a single star. I will spare Pennebaker the indignity of the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, if only because I kind of feel sorry for anyone whose life work involves research as pathetically boring as his appears to be.

  • Emma Sea

    so... this is a book with a section called, "What song lyrics say about the band: The Beatles" (p. 265) that asks, what could we learn by analyzing the songs primarily by Paul McCartney, primarily by John Lennon, and those they co-wrote? which attempts to answer the question without giving any song titles or including any song lyrics, not even details of the analysis or a summary of the results (which is certainly not barred by any conceivable copyright law). Apparently Lennon and McCartney "wer

    so... this is a book with a section called, "What song lyrics say about the band: The Beatles" (p. 265) that asks, what could we learn by analyzing the songs primarily by Paul McCartney, primarily by John Lennon, and those they co-wrote? which attempts to answer the question without giving any song titles or including any song lyrics, not even details of the analysis or a summary of the results (which is certainly not barred by any conceivable copyright law). Apparently Lennon and McCartney "were virtually identical in their use of positive emotions, linguistic complexity, and self-reflection" (p. 267) but we have to trust Pennebaker on that as zero examples of the use of said emotions, linguistic complexity, or self-reflection are given to us. Never has the intriguing statement "Lyrics also provide a window into the personalities of the various songwriters within a group" been so poorly addressed IN THAT WE ARE TOLD SUCH A WINDOW EXISTS BUT WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LOOK THROUGH IT OR EVEN SEE IT.

    This book is stupid and I dislike it.

  • Owlseyes inside Notre Dame, it's so strange a 15-hour blaze and...30-minutes wait to call the firemen...and

    The Ache of Marriage

    BY DENISE LEVERTOV

    The ache of marriage:

    thigh and tongue, beloved,

    are heavy with it,

    it throbs in the teeth

    look for communion

    and are turned away, beloved,

    each and each

    It is leviathan and

    in its belly

    looking for joy, some joy

    not to be known outside it

    two by two in the ark of

    the ache of it.

    --

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

    in:

    APROPOS THE DEBATES:

    "Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen at the highest levels of politics. Lingu

    The Ache of Marriage

    BY DENISE LEVERTOV

    The ache of marriage:

    thigh and tongue, beloved,

    are heavy with it,

    it throbs in the teeth

    look for communion

    and are turned away, beloved,

    each and each

    It is leviathan and

    in its belly

    looking for joy, some joy

    not to be known outside it

    two by two in the ark of

    the ache of it.

    --

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

    in:

    APROPOS THE DEBATES:

    "Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen at the highest levels of politics. Linguistically, he is authentic and supremely confident but at the same time simple and not concerned with logical or formal reasoning. "

    in: A Look into the Second Clinton-Trump Debate

    October 10, 2016

    Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

    University of Texas at Austin

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