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

3.55 of 5 stars 3.55  ·  rating details  ·  1,164 ratings  ·  198 reviews


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...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 30th 2011 by Bloomsbury Press
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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...more
Kate Woods Walker
Fascinating, and a little creepy, The Secret Life of Pronouns 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...more
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...more
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 the use of f...more
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,...more
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...more
Diane
Well, I liked it as much as it's possible to like a book that feels sort of like torture to get through. Not the book's fault so much as mine because of my preferred ways of interacting with language and people and the world. The information was interesting, I suppose, but so antithetical to what I usually find interesting, not to say delightful, in language - as well as my ways of approaching it - that the book became a slog for me. It has to do with using computer programs to count the frequen...more
Deb
*What your pronouns say about you*

What do your words say about you? Or perhaps, more interestingly, what do others' words reveal about them?

James Pennebaker's _The Secret Life of Pronouns_ serves as a field guide for helping us understand how the words we use reflect our personalities, relationships, thinking styles, and psychological states. In particular, it's the function words—pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, negations, conjunctions, quantifiers, and common adverbs—that re...more
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...more
Andrea
This book contains some Chaz Bono-level anecdotal evidence about the effects of testosterone on behavior. I kind of wanted to cry when I read the following (but maybe I've got too much naturally-occuring testosterone coursing through my biologically-female (or whatever) veins preventing me from crying, or using social pronouns).

And I quote:

"For a variety of reasons, both men and women occasionally undergo testosterone therapy, whereby they are given periodic injections of the hormone. What wou...more
Dami
The premise of the book was quite interesting – the way you use pronouns signals your status, gender, emotional status and many other things.
The book indeed describes a large number of correlations between personal pronoun use, Language Style Matching and the use of emotional words with gender, personality, and social status.
To me it seemed that the book was relying very much in relative differences, in places lacking in detail, and a way to bring the different research directions under one coh...more
Ilze Folkmane
Definitely a very interesting read, but I had some issues with it. Somehow whenever I read a book that hangs in that limbo between a scientific research and a wannabe best-seller that's meant for a wide audience, I get really, really, really sceptical.
One of the biggest issues for me was the holes - information that, in my opinion, had to be there in order to make the book better and more reliable. At least, I though they were holes, perhaps I just did not understand the main point or spent too...more
Oscar
It’s difficult, albeit expected, to review a book about pronouns, and not focus on how one uses pronouns in said review, but alas, I digress. In this analysis of the secret life of pronouns,well, pronouns are discussed as those parts of speech that are essential to language, but often take a back seat to content words. James Pennerbaker argues that while pronouns don’t seem as interesting as other parts of speech; a close analysis on how a speaker uses them provides a psychological insight into...more
Kevin
I really enjoyed this book. It used the topic of word choice as a way to look into a number of topics, especially dealing with psychology. The main focus of the book was how the usage of function words like pronouns, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions (as compared to content words, which give information on what we are talking about and don’t just aid in the presentation) can tell a lot about how one person views another, whether they are humble or conceited, relative social class, emotion...more
Clayton
I haven't finished the book yet but I feel like the author tries to cover too much ground by touching on so many different aspects of the topic itself.

The book is more about "What Our Words Say About Us" although the "Secret Life of Pronouns" is pretty catchy. Our words are incredibly revealing of who we are and how we can connect with the world around us but he seems to touch more generally on everything about this. I'm somewhat overwhelmed by how much information he tries to cover. I feel like...more
Jafar
I can only blame myself for the disappointment of this book. In spite of my dislike and distrust of personality tests or anything like them, I was tempted to read this book to see what our language usage says about us. I was even worried that this book may make me obsess over my own and others’ words, given my occasional tendency to overanalyze. No need for such worries. The techniques that Pennebaker and his colleagues rely on require counting words over a large collection of texts and then doi...more
Colleen
Wonderful book that really makes you think about the smallest of words. Pennebaker, a behavioral psychologist, has spent years studing how the language we use reflects our emotional states. His findings, that what he calls function or stealth words, words like; the, and, but, is, was, over, before,I, and we are the one that revile much about our emotional states and how we see ourselves and each other. Pennebaker presents all this in a lively writing style that stays free of jargon. For those of...more
Chris
Not so much about language as what language reveals about us, this is a book on social psychology that uses interesting case studies to highlight an apparently robust corpus of research.

Analyzing the use of "invisible function words," including pronouns, can reveal a remarkable amount of information about individuals, groups, and relationships. The surprising thing to me was that some of that information is easily decoded by listeners who intuit the social use of language, while other bits of m...more
Rebecca
It was my fault, not its, that this statistics-heavy book failed repeatedly to rise to the top of my summer reading stack. I'll try again when it's cold outside. (I still love the witty cover!)
Kim
May 12, 2014 Kim rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: owned
Pennebaker's premise is intriguing - namely that little throwaway words like pronouns and relational words (so, but, etc.) can tell us a lot about an author from mental state, to gender, to confidence/leadership, social class etc. He has numerous examples of how that plays out from politics to social interactions to authorship of written works.

That said, the book is not a "fun" read. Once you get the premise, you start to feel beaten over your head by the examples and his clear love of certain...more
Abcdarian
Interesting idea but rather dull & repetitive presentation. I stopped reading because I just didn't care.
Katie
I can't really fault the book for being "pop psychology" since I knew that was what it would be when I got the book. And unlike some of the other reviewers who know a lot more about statistics than I do, I really can't fault Pennebaker for any of his statistical methods. My review is just based on how interesting and relevant I found this book, as an average reader.

The biggest detractor about this book is how much it jumps around from subject to subject, example to example. Although I was inter...more
Susan Bin
if your prospective career choice is consulting detective word sleuth then add this mother to your canon
Kara
One part linguistics, one part statistics, one part psychology. Mix, and add a popular twist. Voila.
Jobie
I really enjoyed this book. The writer was easy to read. Even though the subject matter was fairly dense it read simply.

The information was interesting and it was well researched.

Though he breaks down words into their usage and talks about all different kinds of words, the book was literally about the use of pronouns. I, you, he, she, they, etc. The conclusion that he draws based on his research isn't always what common sense would tell you.

The book was organized more thought to though than by s...more
Yaaresse
There's an old saying that to someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It's not the best analogy for my impression of this book, but it gets the point across well enough.

The first few chapters are interesting enough, and get the main idea across: a person's use of pronouns tells you something about their personality or motives, and different groups use pronouns in different ways and under differing circumstances. (Didn't most of us known this intuitively anyway?) Also...more
Lisa
The Secret Life of Pronouns has a bit of a misleading title. It's not only about pronouns, but about how our word choice, both in speech and in writing, reveals a lot about our personalities, our interests, our power relative to the audience, and our honesty.

It was a very interesting read, but one I suspect I would have enjoyed more in hard copy, where I could flip back to reference things I'd read earlier. On the Kindle, I got the impression that the book was a little random and disjointed.
Diane
I read this on my Kindle (I appreciate being able to read things on the Kindle, but I still have trouble not having pages)

I assumed this would be about pronouns and how we misuse them – a bit like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves for pronouns. It wasn’t. It is basically psychology presented in a popular, readable manner. For many years the author has been involved is using computers to track word use. I find word use very interesting and I liked learning more about it and how it is the little words like...more
Bob Allen
Fascinating book on how the use of words, particularly "function words", reveal much about our personalities, our relationships, our leadership standing, our truthfulness, even how successful we might be. Pennebaker tackles the question of whether or not we can change our personalities and relationships by changing our words. This is a bit of a word-nerd book. The central theme of the book is that our words are descriptive and, to a certain extent, predictive; they are not determinative or presc...more
Brad McKenna
I wanted to like this book, I really did. In the grand tradition of Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue" and Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" I love books about words and how we use them. So a book about what words in general, and pronouns specifically, say about us? Sign me up! But it was, perhaps, my liking of the aforementioned books that left me ultimately disappointed. So to Mr. Pennebaker, I quote that disingenuous breakup line, "It's not you, it's me."

The book is, indeed, about words. Howe...more
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“...after I published a paper showing that suicidal poets used pronouns differently from non-suicidal poets, a slightly inebriated poet threatened me with a butter knife at a party in my own home.” 6 likes
“Human relationships are not rocket science--the are far, far more complicated” 4 likes
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