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

3.65  ·  Rating details ·  2,744 ratings  ·  327 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
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 31st 2011 by Bloomsbury Press (first published August 30th 2011)
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 ·  2,744 ratings  ·  327 reviews

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Dec 20, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: language, psychology
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
Emma Sea
Sep 19, 2015 rated it did not like it
so... this is a book with a section called, "What song lyrics say about the band: The Beatles" (p. 265) that asks, what could we learn by analyzing the songs primarily by Paul McCartney, primarily by John Lennon, and those they co-wrote? which attempts to answer the question without giving any song titles or including any song lyrics, not even details of the analysis or a summary of the results (which is certainly not barred by any conceivable copyright law). Apparently Lennon and McCartney "wer ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Mar 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
J.W Pennebaker's early research indicates that people who write about their traumatic experiences (i.e. journaling) tend to recover from psychological and co-occurring physiological symptoms faster and better than those who do not.

An important factor in Pennebaker's study was that participants were asked to write about their traumatic experiences, every day, for fifteen minutes, over the course of four days. Participants who wrote the same (or similar) story each time didn't get the beneficial
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
Matt Holloway
Sep 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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,
Kate Woods Walker
Oct 02, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Oct 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 etymology. 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” are ...more
Aug 28, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: couldn-t-finish
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
The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

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



"Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen a
May 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Tova Krakauer
Oct 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
A few things in this were interesting. There were some entertaining examples of Pennebaker's research. I've also noticed that I pay a little more attention to the way I and people around me use pronouns since I've read it. Unfortunately, the book doesn't answer the larger question which any book should answer, which is: why was the book written? Why should people read it? The author's research doesn't reveal anything new about the human mind, it reveals linguistic patterns, which Pennebaker expl ...more
Mar 30, 2012 rated it liked it
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
May 01, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook, linguistics
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
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
*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
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
Jan 20, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Kater Cheek
Oct 29, 2013 rated it liked it
If you have a nerd-gasm about statistics, linguistics, and social psychology, this is a must-read book. Bonus points: the author has done the research himself, so it's not just rehashed from another book you've already read (though I've seen his work referenced.)

This is the point where I tell you the secret thing your words are saying about you, but Pennebaker is a scientist more than a salesman, so the gist of the book can't be summarized into neat soundbites. You really have to read it, becaus
Bryan Alkire
Jan 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Interesting but really useless for the general reader. The topic is interesting, what computers show us about our language habits. The writing is ok, if not spellbinding and the topic sections make sense. But, I thought the author was basically writing ad copy for his computer linguistic software. It’s pretty evident he wants businesses and government to license the software. It’s all about how effective the software is in showing language trends and the like. It just gout old after a while. Wor ...more
Feb 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My two favourite things are people and words, in no particular order. This book meshes those two concepts perfectly. While heavily scientific in content, Pennebaker writes in an extremely accessible language that makes for a wonderful casual read. Highly recommend this if you're a people and word nerd like me. ...more
Dec 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating stuff, if you like languages and thinking about how they work, WHICH I SO VERY MUCH DO.
This book gives examples, analyses, activities, stats, and insight about politicians' use of "we" vs. "I" (and it might not be what you think), about how function words reveal group hierarchies, about how people in proximity can start to mirror speaking styles and develop linguistic footprints.

I love this kind of socio linguistic stuff so much. The Linguistics degree I never got may be the not-degr
Domenico Conza
Sep 03, 2015 rated it liked it
“The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James W. Pennebaker is an unusual read that was interesting at first but loses its grasp towards the end with statements throughout the book that makes you wonder if the author is tunnel vision with only one perspective of the world. First of all, the book was a great read to grab insight on what our words say about our personality and way of thinking that may indicate future actions. Such as the way how former president Bush Jr. States his pronouns during his in ...more
Feb 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
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
Jennifer Rivera
Aug 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book because it was easy to read, it was entertaining, and because it was very insightful for me.
The author brilliantly discussed the differences between articles, and personal words that shape the sentences that one uses in their daily lives. If we paid a little more attention to the way we speak, we can understand each other more often, and ourselves. Even more since James W. Pennebaker included a helpful hand guide for us at the end of his book.
The book was written in a way as i
Cristian Bailey
Sep 04, 2015 rated it liked it
This book was good , it was very informative about the words we use. People can really learn a lot from this book about themselves and others if they pay enough attention to one another.

The author repeated his point over and over in the book. I see it as a good thing because every time he repeated his theory, it was to remind the reader the point of the experiment not only for that, but it also helped strengthen his work and he referred back to his theory to give meaning to his evidence (his ex
Nov 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle, writing
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
Nov 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Rachel B
Nov 22, 2014 rated it liked it
Pennebaker explores the world of "function words" - aka pronouns, prepositions, and articles - and explains how we can learn about people based on their use of these words, even after setting aside considerations for content. I really did find it fascinating, especially the first half of the book. It does get a little repetitive after that. One of the main things I found interesting is how people's excessive use of "I" words (I, me, my) can indicate that they are from a low social class, are dep ...more
Oct 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you think this book is only about pronouns, think again. While I don't think that the use of words alone can tell us all about anyone--if they could then there would be people who could do so with 100 percent accuracy based on this--it's surprising which words tell most about people. However, word uses vary by several different factors. I think this would be an excellent resource for fiction writers, among other people. ...more
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James Pennebaker is an American social psychologist and husband of Ruth Pennebaker. He is the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. His research focuses on the relationship between natural language use, health, and social behavior, most recently "how everyday language reflects basic social and per ...more

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