A surprising and entertaining explanation of how the words we use (even the ones we don't notice) reveal our personalities, emotions, and identities.
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 of Pronouns, social psychologist and language expert 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. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.
Using innovative analytic techniques, Pennebaker X-rays everything from Craigslist advertisements to the Federalist Papers-or your own writing, in quizzes you can take yourself-to yield unexpected insights. Who would have predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that a world leader's use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he led his country into war? 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 are among the figures who make cameo appearances in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying-whether we mean them to or not.
In this intriguing treatise on computational linguistics, Pennebaker (Writing to Heal), chair of psychology at the University of Texas Austin, probes innocuous "function words" such as pronouns, prepositions, and articles for clues to hidden states of mind. Deploying computer analyses of word-use frequency, he conducts an exercise in psychological and demographic profiling by means of verbal tell-tales: people who overuse articles, nouns, prepositions, and the word "we," for example, tend to be old, male, high-status, and cheerful, while people who overuse pronouns, verbs, and the word "I" tend to be young, female, low-status, and depressed. Pennebaker's accessible, entertaining account dissects a riotous assortment of language samples, from presidential speeches and Shakespeare to Beatles songs and Lady Gaga tweets, expounding on everything from the self-absorbed "language of suicidal poets" to the circumlocutions of liars. He's not always trenchant Osama bin Laden's rhetoric betrayed a "need for power," he reveals and he's sometimes overly reductionist; he speculates that poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "tend to use function words similarly... may explain why the two were so attracted to one another," and then graphs their relationship. Still, Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words is the kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour. B&w illus.