You Are How You Say It

I’ve recently read ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’, in which the social psychologist James Pennebaker  shows that while lexical words may tell us about a writer’s or speaker’s topic, function words, in particular personal pronouns, tell us about the writer or speaker and their relationship with the reader or listener. Computer analysis of thousands of pieces of text has enabled him and other researchers to identify the significance of the frequency of the words to which we don’t normally give a second thought.

It is already well established that pronouns occur more often in conversation than in writing. The Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus shows that, in the Conversation register, personal pronouns occur almost as frequently as nouns. By contrast, in the registers of Fiction, News and Academic Prose the proportion of nouns to pronouns is much higher, particularly in Academic Prose.

Pennebaker and his fellow researchers have taken this finding several stages further and shown, for example, that:

. . . the most commonly used word in spoken English, ‘I’, is used at far higher rates by followers than leaders, truth-tellers than liars. People who use high rates of articles – ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’ – do better in college than low users. And if you want to find your true love, compare the ways you use function words with that of your prospective partners.

Later in the book he asks:

Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essays 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 leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he’d lead his country into war?

His research shows that such connections can be made.

There also seem to be some differences in the use of function words between the sexes:

Women use first-person singular, cognitive, and social words more; men use articles more.

Our use of function words also says something about our social status:

People higher in the social hierarchy use first-person singular pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my at much lower rates than people lower in status. In any interaction between two people, the person with the higher status uses fewer ‘I’-words. This is not a typo. High-status people, when talking to lower-status people, use the words ‘I’, ’me’, and, ‘my’ at low rates. Conversely, the lower-status people tend to use ‘I’-words at high rates.

Those higher in status use first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) at much higher rates than those lower in status.

In written and spoken conversation, the person who uses more second-person pronouns like you and your is likely to be the person higher in status.

There’s much more, and I can only recommend that you get hold of a copy of the book if you’re at all interested. Some of his conclusions are counter-intuitive, but they are based on rigorous research. They can be applied in fields as varied as forensics, political forecasting, the analysis of literary texts and finding true love, but Pennebaker doesn’t offer any guarantees for the last.

The book has an associated website with a number of exercises that put some of his findings into practice. (Unfortunately, an interesting facility on the related site AnalyzeWords is not functioning at the moment.)



Filed under English Language, Language, Society, Spoken English

9 responses to “You Are How You Say It

  1. The part on the interaction between social status and the use of pronouns interests me the most. I wonder what may attribute to the findings quoted above. I guess this has something to do with education or occupation. People get educated in a particular discipline tend to speak or write in a way that is welcome in that discipline and so are people working in a particular walk of life.


  2. Perhaps this is the foundation for the royal “we”? It’s very interesting that word choice and order can reveal so much about the person behind them. It sounds like the procedures used to “out” JK Rowling as author Robert Galbraith:


    • The most famous example of ‘we’ being used by someone with pretensions to royalty was when Margaret Thatcher said ‘We are a grandmother’.

      More on the unmasking of Rowling here.


  3. Work superiors often use “we” to suggest a shared responsibility for taking on a task. Woe to the employee who thinks the boss includes him- or herself in the task when speaking of “we”!

    Come to speak of it, a parent often uses “we” when assigning tasks to a child: “What are we going to do to clean up this room? We better do something about it today!” Ha!


  4. The medical “How are we feeling today?” comes to mind, too.


    • Yet another use of ‘we’. Incidentally, I recall a study which showed that when doctors see a patient they don’t know, they say ‘What can I do for you’, but when they know the patient they say ‘How are you?’


  5. Pingback: The Secret Life of Pronouns | All Things Linguistic

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