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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker

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Function words are everywhere. We use and are exposed to them all the time. They are virtually impossible to hear and to manipulate. And many of these stealth words say something about the speaker, the listener, and their relationship.

This is an interesting book that summarises extensive research that has used computer algorithms to analyse text to see what it says about a person.  Contained are studies of notable works of fiction such as analysing the type of text written by Shakespeare for different characters and speeches performed by previous US presidents.  Includes studying different languages and similar patterns tended to be noted.


The three methods contained in the book about author identification include tracking the rate of function word usage, analysing punctuation and layout, and examining the use of obscure words. Each of these methods does far better than chance in identifying characteristics of an author as well as matching the author’s  writing to other writing samples.

Across hundreds of thousands of language samples from books to blogs to everyday informal conversation, men consistently use articles at higher rates than women. And, even taking people’s sex into account, high article users tend to be more organized and emotionally stable.

Indeed, men and women who habitually use a and the at higher rates tend to be more conscientious, more politically conservative, and older.

By listening to, counting, and analysing stealth words, we can learn about people in ways that even they may not appreciate or comprehend. At the same time, the ways people use stealth words can subtly affect how we perceive them and their messages.

All function words, such as before, over, and to, require a basic awareness of the speaker’s location in time and space. The ability to use them, then, is a marker of basic social skills. These words are hard to learn in second languages.

Using I too much suggest self centred and the person to more likely to be depressed.

Women use first-person singular pronouns, or I-words, more than men. People’s pronouns track their focus of attention. If someone is anxious, self conscious, in pain, or depressed, they pay more attention to themselves. Research suggests that women, on average, are more self-aware and self-focused than are men. The differences in the use of I-words between women and men are not subtle. In natural conversations, blogs, and speeches, women use I-words at much higher rates.

Men and women use first-person plural words, or we-words, at the same rate. Most of time means us or you or I. Royal we is occasionally should be I – politically very ambiguous. Also no difference in positive emotion words.

Women use more cognitive words than men. Cognitive words are words that reflect different ways of
thinking and include words that tap insight (understand, know, think), causal thinking (because, reason, rationale), and related dimensions.

Women use social words at far higher rates than men. Social words refer to any words that are related to other human beings.

Super-males talk lots of articles (a word that comes before a noun to show if it’s specific or general) and prepositions (a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause), very few pronouns, social words, or cognitive words. Opposite is true for females.

When studying writers as they age they tend to use more positive language

Older people often use function words like men and younger people tend to use them like women. These patterns hold up across cultures, languages, and centuries. Interestingly, it’s not that women start to talk like men and men just stay the same. Rather, men and women usually have parallel changes. For example, at ages eight to fourteen, about 19 percent of girls’ words are pronouns, compared with 17 percent for boys. By the time they reach seventy, the rates drop to 15 percent for women and 12 percent for men.

The factor of analytic thinking identifies people who work to understand their world. The hallmark of analysing is making distinctions. These distinctions could be between what people did and what they didn’t do, which part of the test they passed and which part they failed. Words that contribute to analytic thinking include exclusives (but, without, except), negations (no, not, never), causal words (because, reason, effect), insight words (realize, know, meaning), tentative words (maybe, perhaps), certainty (absolutely, always), and quantifiers (some, many, greater).

People who make distinctions in speaking and writing make higher grades in college, tend to be more honest, and are more open to new experiences. They also read more and have more complex views of
themselves than those who are low in analytic thinking.

Narrative Thinking

Some people are natural storytellers. They can’t control themselves. From a simple language perspective, the function words that generally reveal storytelling involve people (which means the use of personal pronouns of all types—especially third-person pronouns), past-tense verbs, and conjunctions (especially inclusive words such as with, and, together). people who score high on the narrative thinking factor tend to have better social skills, more friends, and rate themselves as more outgoing.

People also fluctuate in their thinking styles depending on who they are with, what they are doing, and how they feel about themselves.

When someone changes the conversational direction, it serves as a powerful marker of what is on his or her mind.

When expressing their true beliefs, students said more words, used bigger words, and relied on longer and more complex sentences. Their arguments were more nuanced and less emotional. Particularly interesting was their relatively heavy use of exclusive words (e.g., except, but, without). Exclusive words are used when people are making a distinction between what is in a category and what is not;

Reflective writing after trauma can be useful as long as the person includes true personal thoughts rather than just a statement of the fact.

Although the function words distinguished honest from deceptive online ads, there were also differences in content words. For example looking at online dating profiles, people who were dishonest about their profiles tended to shift the focus of their self-description away from their sensitive topic. For example, women and men who lied about their weight were the least likely to mention anything about food, restaurants, or eating. Similarly, those whose pictures were the most deceptive tended to focus on topics of work and achievement in
a way that built up their status and downplayed their physical appearance.

Lying can be hard to detect – with a computer on retrospect up to 75% but that relies on a baseline and knowledge of what is true. Studies from humans:

1. I finished my homework but the dog ate it.
2. I had finished the homework but the dog must have eaten it.

3. The homework was finished but must have been eaten by the dog.

The first excuse is far more likely to be true. It includes two past-tense verbs that indicate that the actions were specific and were completely finished. The second excuse relies on five verbs that hint that the actions were not completed and, with the word must, may not have even happened. And the third person’s excuse is the most scurrilous lie of the three—six verbs, past tense, and not a single I-word.

As these examples attest, when someone doesn’t directly answer your question, there is a good chance they are hiding something no matter how earnest they may sound.

Language Style Matching (LSM)

To get a sense of how in synch two people are, all we need to do is to calculate the rate of personal pronouns that each person uses.  

The LSM scale ranges from a perfect 1.00 if the two people are in perfect function word harmony and as low as 0 if they are completely out of synch. In reality, numbers below 0.60 reflect very low synchrony and those above 0.85 reflect high synchrony.

There is an interesting way to check this, if you go to www.SecretLifeOfPronouns.com/synch, you can enter text that you have sent and received from a friend, lover, or enemy. With the click of a button, you will receive feedback about the degree to which the two of you are in synch in your use of function words.

You can then compare your LSM numbers with average LSM scores generated by others who have used the website. Even better, you can try out the LSM detector several times, comparing your interactions with different people. This should give you a sense of your general skill at matching your language with others.

The bad news is that a real-world LSM detector would be of only limited value. Yes, it could tell us when relationships were in synch and out of synch but not the meaning of the synchrony. Language style matching tends to be elevated when both people are passionate about each other and when they truly hate one another. In addition, synchrony also increases when one of the two people is lying to the other. So, if your LSM detector registers a high number, you and your conversational partner are essentially paying close attention to each other.

The longer people talk with others, the more they use we-words and the less they use I-words. As we get to know others, we let down our guard and start to accept them. The pattern of increasing we-words and decreasing I-words emerges across a wide array of groups. Tracking people’s use of we-words and I-words, it is possible to detect their perceptions of group identity. Generally if using we it is a good thing in terms of that group.

Over time, as people become more comfortable with their group, everyone tends to use we-words more. When groups succeed or are threatened from the outside, group identity increases, with a corresponding increase in the use of we-words.

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