The Secret Life of Pronouns

Who knew that pronouns can predict romantic compatibility, reveal power dynamics, lying, and who will recover from trauma?  James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin has been tracking the truth of pronouns for 20 years.

James Pennebaker

He includes them in the group he calls “function words,” necessary parts of speech that are invisible to us in conversation:  the, this, though, I, and, an, there, that, he, she, where, when.  Pennebaker contrasts these with “content words,” which carry meaning and evoke images in our minds, words like, school, family, life, friends.

In a recent NPR interview, Pennebaker related that he and his students studied couples’ compatibility in the context of speed dating,  Computers proved an essential tool for analyzing results, since try as we might, we really don’t hear function words.  By entering both the transcript and the speed dating outcomes, Pennebaker’s team discovered a strong correlation between matching function word usage and the decision to get together after the first meeting.  The computer predicted who would hit it off more accurately than the couples themselves.

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.

“When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way,” he says. “And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically.  They aren’t aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of ‘I, and, the,’… you can see it. It’s right there.”

The other discovery Pennebaker discussed in the interview centers on power dynamics.  When two people with different status or power interact, the subordinate uses “I” much more frequently.  Pennebaker suggests self consciousness is the cause, concern about how we’ll be perceived.

Finally, Pennebaker weighed in on the My Fair Lady question:  if we change our language, do we change?  After 20 years of research, Pennebaker says no.  Change who you are and your language will change, but not vice-versa.

What’s interesting is that several people I respect claim that changing your handwriting changes personality.  Organize your penmanship, for instance, and other aspects of your life will follow.  This suggests the added visceral dimension makes the difference.  Makes you wonder – The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.  Probably doesn’t work as well on a keyboard…

You can read about Pennebaker’s research in The Secret Life of Pronouns, 2011:

5 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Pronouns

  1. This is why I enjoyed studying Psychology, all of the little things that you can find out about people from things that most of us would never suspect as having any impact whatsoever.

    You can find out a lot about the personalities of people from things that we never think about. There’s an interesting book titled Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling (oddly enough Dr. Gosling is also from the University of Texas at Austin). This book deals with how much you can tell about a person’s overall personality based upon what they have in their room.

    I’ll definitely have to check out this book, it sounds interesting.


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