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

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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.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published August 30, 2011

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About the author

James W. Pennebaker

26 books142 followers
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 personality processes"

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 346 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,294 reviews21.7k followers
February 1, 2012
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 various social classes use prepositions (working class kids being more likely to use spatial prepositions – on, by – and middle class kids relational prepositions like of) and pronouns (middle class kids using many fewer pronouns so as to communicate using their so-called elaborated code). The first thing I did when I got this book was to look up Bernstein and Halliday in the index – and there was not a single reference, something that made my heart sink immediately. There was one reference to Chomsky – but if you have read any of my recent reviews on sociolinguistics you will know that Chomsky thinks the whole sociolinguistic exercise is a waste of time.

This book isn’t about sociolinguistics, though, this is more like pop-psychology linguistics. It is, in short, embarrassing.

The problems with this book are very much American problems. This guy starts the section on social class saying this, “From the very beginning of my education, I was always taught that in the United States we do not have social classes.” So it comes as a complete surprise to him not only that social classes do exist in the United States, but that they even use language differently from each other. What really annoyed me was that even after his belated discovery of social class and it being correlated with ‘powerful effects on smoking, drinking, depression, obesity, and every physical and mental health problem you can imagine’, that isn’t quite enough to overcome his typical US obsession with the individual. Social class is raised and forgotten nearly as quickly. He is not interested in seeing how or why linguistic social markers might have evolved and be used to keep people in their place, say, in the way Bourdieu is interested in this. I guess he was afraid that if he started down that track he would be accused of class warfare. Instead he sticks to dull-as-dishwater (and mostly discredited) personality psychology.

If you need a rebuttal of personality psychology – things like Myers Briggs, Rorschach Tests, MMPI or even phrenology – then you should read the wonderful book The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. Unfortunately, after reading that book this guy’s excursions into personality appraisals starts out as being annoying and ends up being jaw-droppingly simpleminded. He says things like, “In my experience, people’s personalities don’t change very often…” He doesn’t support this with any kind of evidence – but he really ought to have as it is a central idea to his entire book. To make his point he needs to prove that people’s personalities stay consistent and the grammatical words (rather than what he calls ‘content words’ – what linguists call lexical terms) they choose to use is an infallible means to illuminate their personalities. The hole in this logic is so gaping the only thing remarkable is that he is able to write 116 pages (where I stopped less in anger than despair) dancing around this hole without falling into it.

But really, I only got to page 116 after limping on from page 98 before falling asleep last night. Page 98 is where he says, “In early 2001, after analysing Bush’s first inaugural address, Winter warned that Bush’s language was consistent with a pattern of aggressiveness based on a tight group of followers who would be resistant to dissenting opinions.” Yeah – and you could only have drawn such a remarkable conclusion about how Bush’s presidency was likely to progress on the basis of a linguistic analysis of his inaugural address, because his previous history as Governor had been so utterly different. Reading this quote was like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat after you had already seen its ears popping up over the brim.

Another breathtakingly simpleminded assertion in the chapter on ‘Personality: Finding the Person Within’ (even the title makes me cringe) is on the very next page – which I’m going to quote in full, but only because it should be tattooed onto this guy’s stomach like that autistic women does in the Dragon Tattoo book, you know, as a warning to others.

“A Thumbnail Sketch: Osama bin Laden Through His Words

Consider the language of a public figure such as Osama bin Laden. Over much of his adult life, he left a record of his language in his interviews, speeches, letters, and written articles. Analysis of his words in Arabic or in English translation evidences his supreme self-confidence, even arrogance (very low rates of I-words, high use of we-words and you-words). Unlike most other leaders of extremist Arabic groups, including his sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden was a storyteller (high in narrative markers – past-tense verbs, social references) with a decidedly dour, hostile edge. Our overall analyses would peg him as high in need for power, moderate in need for achievement, and low in need for affiliation. Cindy Chung’s meaning extraction technique reveals that his real obsession in life switched from rage at his homeland, Saudi Arabia, to America’s incursion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, he never showed much interest in Israel compared to his al-Qaeda colleagues. No data on whether he liked long walks on the beach at dusk.”

Like I said, I limped on for a few pages after this and today have decided I can’t bring myself to read any more of this book. Hey, would you have guessed bin Laden was arrogant prior to learning of this detailed analysis of his pronouns? Not only do people not change, but the same word counting techniques are just as effective if they are used for someone’s use of Arabic as they are for someone’s use of English (or Elizabethan English) and is even effective for Arabic in English translation.

Earlier in the book he finds some correlation between male and female use of pronouns and then uses it to test how really ‘male’ or ‘female’ characters from fiction are… Juliet, it seems, is more masculine than you might expect. I have to say that I find this to be, again, a typically American mistake – one that thinks that the whole world is essentially identical with the US, it only being that the world hasn’t realised that yet. So that how Arabs speak and use pronouns means exactly the same thing about their personality as how US citizens speak English and use pronouns says about their personalities. Cultural differences don’t exist – linguistic differences don’t exist – there are three personality types, formal, analytic and narrative thinking – and getting people to write about a bottle of water is enough to show which of those star signs (oh, sorry – thinking styles) they belong to.

But if you are interested in the fascinating subject of sociolinguistics – what this book would have been about if this guy had bothered reading some of the literature that had been around for 20 years before he started ‘discovering’ this stuff, I would highly recommend, The Language of Children and Adolescents: Acquisition of Communicative Competence by Romaine or Class, Codes, And Control by Bernstein or Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste for more on social class than a US author of a popular book can bring himself to discuss .

Avoid this – it is written like a self-help book and will make you feel patronised at the turn of nearly every page.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,184 reviews1,064 followers
October 7, 2015
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 "were virtually identical in their use of positive emotions, linguistic complexity, and self-reflection" (p. 267) but we have to trust Pennebaker on that as zero examples of the use of said emotions, linguistic complexity, or self-reflection are given to us. Never has the intriguing statement "Lyrics also provide a window into the personalities of the various songwriters within a group" been so poorly addressed IN THAT WE ARE TOLD SUCH A WINDOW EXISTS BUT WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LOOK THROUGH IT OR EVEN SEE IT.

This book is stupid and I dislike it.

And HOW is it news to a psychologist, in a book published in 2011, that language use is gendered?

Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
578 reviews1,956 followers
June 16, 2013
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 effect. Participants who changed the way they told their story did.

According to Pennebaker's more recent computer assisted statistical analysis of word category usage in writing and speech samples, an individuals particular style of use of function words -in both writing and speech- is an important indicator (even predictor) of their psychological state, and social status.

-Pronouns (such as I, you, they)
-Articles (a, an, the)
-Prepositions (to, of, for)
-Auxiliary verbs (is, am, have)

As a clinician, I am excited by Pennebaker's work. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has prescribed journaling for decades. The literature has clearly demonstrated that journaling has therapeutic value, but has failed to describe how (exactly) journaling works. This research sheds light on the former, hopefully leading to more effective and targeted future interventions.

Additionally, Pennebaker's work may shed light on the active components of talk therapies such as Motivational Interviewing. Perhaps facilitating change talk has an even greater efficacy than previously understood.

A note of warning, this book is really hard to stay with at first, i.e. I kept drifting off and having to re-read large sections for the first few chapters. The going gets smoother though, so I strongly suggest pushing through. The bulk of the book reads nicely, and is full of really juicy and original stuff. Notice most (if not all) of the extremely negative reviews were from people that did not finish the book (an automatic disqualifier for any review).

I realize this is an incredibly dry review. This is no coincidence. The book is incredibly dry too. But that's not always a bad thing. Think white wine, or towels. If you endeavor to read this thing, don't expect a slack jawed page turner. But if you think you might be interested in exploring the intersection of statistics, linguistics and psychology, I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Matt Holloway.
143 reviews5 followers
September 11, 2011
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, haughtiness, or insincerity, depending on usage. Second person pronouns indicate a higher social status. Third person indicates falsehood and an emotional distance.

I heard him give a talk a couple of weeks ago and he used the word "I" a lot. He must be super sincere! (Actually, he puts some of his own emails on the line in the book, to great effect.) This is a fun book!
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,305 followers
February 9, 2012
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 method. Even a reader willing to overlook this (serious) deficiency is likely to be bludgeoned into a state of anesthetized indifference by the pedestrian prose and the sheer banality of the conclusions.

It probably didn't help that I read this book immediately after finishing "Thinking Fast and Slow". Daniel Kahneman's clear, careful, measured exposition reminds us that work in experimental psychology can be reported with lucidity and elegance. The mix of anecdotal evidence, statement of the bloody obvious, and somewhat dubious over-generalization found in this book has to be considered a disappointment. And the whole obsession with pronoun usage seems entirely overblown, and not at all convincing.

Upon reflection, and after reading Trevor's excellent, take-no-prisoners review, (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) I have to agree with his assessment and downgrade this to a single star. I will spare Pennebaker the indignity of the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, if only because I kind of feel sorry for anyone whose life work involves research as pathetically boring as his appears to be.
Profile Image for Kate Woods Walker.
352 reviews28 followers
February 14, 2012
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 analysis of author James W. Pennebaker and his students shows how "I" word usage means much, much more than you think, and a good deal of it counter-intuitive, to boot. That's the fascinating part.

Some of the work cited in this book will probably inform computer programs that will soon enough be able to identify you through your writing style, no matter how many internet personae you adopt. That's the creepy part.

In these days of citizen uprisings and anonymous internet free speech, I fear for the future of rabble rousing.

Profile Image for Jaylia3.
752 reviews131 followers
January 29, 2021
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 not just the pronouns of the title, they are all function words, including articles like “a”, “an”, and “the” and prepositions like “of”, “from” and “toward”, that connect and organize the larger, more apparently important words like nouns and verbs. Using a computer program that took three years to write Pennebaker investigates and draws conclusions from the little function words in movies, of politicians, in college application essays, of lovers, of liars, in literature, of people in groups, and of leaders vs. followers. The results are not always intuitive, for instance it’s better for a politician to use “I” rather than “we”, but the conclusions are often interesting and sometimes fascinating.
Profile Image for Christy.
415 reviews6 followers
November 1, 2011
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 disappoint or infuriate you." This statement, upon first reading it, made me think that it wouldn't be a book for someone like Carlos, but it still might work out for me. Not so. It was just so.... fluffy. And seriously, it has to be a pretty lame book for me to make a comment like that since I can get bogged down by analytical writing. I just couldn't take any of it seriously because Pennebaker didn't give me a reason to. I read about 75% and then flipped through the last 25%. So what do pronouns and other stealth words say about us? Well, I learned that depressed people use "I" statements much more, that people who use more articles are concrete thinkers, and that high preposition use indicates a complex thinker. Wow. How totally not amazing.

Now that I think about it, I am going to change my rating from a 2 to a 1.
Profile Image for Owlseyes .
1,650 reviews267 followers
Want to read
February 25, 2017
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

in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-Bms...


"Donald Trump is an aberration rarely seen at the highest levels of politics. Linguistically, he is authentic and supremely confident but at the same time simple and not concerned with logical or formal reasoning. "

in: A Look into the Second Clinton-Trump Debate
October 10, 2016
Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas at Austin

Profile Image for Charlene.
121 reviews10 followers
May 13, 2012
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 first-person pronouns dropped dramatically after the attacks as people paid less attention to themselves and focused more on the victims and the country at large.

He also studied the work of 18 poets, nine of whom committed suicide, and found that the suicidal writers used far more “I”-related pronouns than the others.

Another bit of information he came up with is that people of higher social status use fewer I-words than people of lower status.

"A drop in the use of I-words can also indicate that a political leader is about to carry out a threat. He found patterns in the words of Harry Truman before dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the speeches of Adolf Hitler before he invaded Poland!"
Profile Image for Tova Krakauer.
25 reviews10 followers
October 13, 2016
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 explains using things he known or assumes about the group or individual. And Pennebaker states in the beginning of the book that these patterns are practically impossible to detect by the human mind, since we subconsciously skip over non-content words. So what does the book accomplish? It doesn't reveal anything new about the human psyche, about group interactions or society or the world at large. It doesn't supply tools to eye the world at large in a new light, or monitor the way one interacts with her surroundings. I might have enjoyed reading this as an article about prospective machine learning start-ups. But not an entire book - and not in the guise of pop psychology. Felt like a waste of time.
Profile Image for Deb.
349 reviews79 followers
April 17, 2012
*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 reveal the most about us and others. In the words of the author:
“Function words can help us know our worlds just a little better. From author identification that can help in catching criminals or in identifying historical authors, to understanding the thinking of presidents or tyrants, to predicting how people might behave in the future, function words are clues about the human psyche. Most promising however, is that by looking at our own function words, we can begin to understand ourselves better.” (p. 290)

So, it's not so much the *content* of our speech, but the *style * of our speech, that creates a window into our behaviors, motivations, and souls. As the book reveals, function words are “window(s) into the inner workings of people” (p. 17) and “we take our personalities with us wherever we go, and no matter what the setting, we will leave behind a copy of our function-word fingerprint.” (p.99)

For example, function words can provide us valuable information about an individual: followers, truth-tellers, and depressed people tend to have higher rates of I-word usage, while leaders, deceivers, and presidents who are about to declare war/covering up an affair (with “that woman”) have lower use of I-words. Interpersonally, function words provide insights about who has more status, whether a group is working well together, and the quality of a close relationship. In fact, the degree of language style matching, or LSM, between you and your (potential) mate can predict the success of your relationship. (See for yourself at: www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/synch)

The book is filled with fascinating examples of how language analysis can provide us with insight and clues about personality, gender, deception, leadership, love, history, politics, and groups. Included among these analyses are: the “ear for gender” in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; the use of language style matching to understand the fate of the relationships between Elizabeth Barrett /Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes, and Sigmund Freud/Carl Jung; personality changes following the traumatic life events of of King Lear and Mayor Giuliani; increases in community cohesiveness and social bonds following 9/11 (as traced in the function word patterns of bloggers); primary author identification of essays in the Federalist Papers and various Beatle's songs; surprise personal insights revealed to the author via his function word use in his e-mails, letters of recommendations, and requests to his son to take out the trash; a chance for you to see how the words you use to describe a water bottle can reveal key aspects of your thinking style and personality.

The author's hope for this book is that “you come to see the world differently and can use this knowledge to better understand yourself and others.” (p. x) I know for me personally (note excessive use of I-words) this hope has been realized. After soaking in every word of this book, I've come to the conclusion that what our (functional) words reveal about us is literally beyond words!
Profile Image for Diane.
573 reviews6 followers
April 26, 2012
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 frequency of certain kinds of words in spoken and written language and this author and his grad students have romped through the culture feeding all sorts of material into their hopper. Who knew how revealing the number of articles (a, an, the) that one uses in a sentence or paragraph might prove to be? All sorts of things about the speaker/writer can be inferred from such knowledge, apparently. But now that I know that . . . I'm not sure how much richer my life is. Glad I'm finished with this one. Maybe I should have read it 40 years ago - altho I always did feel oppressed by linguistics to some extent.
Profile Image for Dami.
41 reviews4 followers
August 25, 2012
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 coherent theory or tool.
One other thing, I missed outside the book is the source code of the tools and algorithms they use (e.g. on the http://secretlifeofpronouns.com/ website), which somewhat limits the ability to really play with pronouns and discover new secrets.
Profile Image for Ilze Folkmane.
370 reviews41 followers
July 20, 2012
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 much time wishfully thinking what else I would have liked to see in the book. Pennebaker certainly generates some very interesting and well-founded ideas, but at the same time he fails to look at the from a different perspective. For example, he writes about the healthy effect of writing about one's traumas, but never mentions the issue of who reads those writings? What I mean is - does putting things on paper help? Or is is actually the idea that you can confide in another human being? Would their help improve also if no one read about their traumatic experiences?
Also, some information was not relevant. If you write a book about language, it is not advisable to include a chapter on non-verbal indicators of status.
Though, my biggest issue probably was that the information somehow did not fit together. E.g., Pennebaker states that it is natural that the use of 'I' drops significantly for recently elected presidents because they are intimidated and afraid, but at the same time he also says that a low use of 'I' indicates leaders and self-confident people. So which one is it? Is there a drop in 'I's because they are afraid or because they get more self-confident (as one might get when elected the President of the USA)?
Of course, it is not all bad. I especially enjoyed the part about the language of lying and multitasking ('enjoyed' does not necessarily mean that I did not have any problems with it), and I guess that for a while now I'll be paying closer attention to how other people use function words.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
488 reviews76 followers
July 6, 2022
I thought this book would be about language, but it is not. As the author says, “Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states.”

When I read in the introduction that certain types of words provide special insight into people’s intelligence, education, and social standing, I was dubious. It sounded pretty squishy to me, but I admit that I have had a bias against psychology fads since the days when Myers-Briggs was all the rage, and the place where I worked was so all-in on it that everyone was required to post cards on their cubicles showing what their four letter code was. I remember thinking how absurd it all was, trying to shoehorn all of humanity into one of sixteen boxes, but management thought it was going to solve all their teamwork and personnel problems. Net result of all that effort, all that money spent on consultants and M-B training for the entire workforce? Absolutely nothing.

So, with that as part of my background, I approached Secret Life of Pronouns with a gimlet eye. The problem with books like this is that they oversell their premise: they take a bit of genuine correlation between a few variables and try to expand it into universal truths. It is the sales pitch of self-help books: just do this ONE THING and all your problems will be solved.

The basic premise of the book is this: “Pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a handful of other small, stealthy words reveal parts of your personality, thinking style, emotional state, and connections with others. These words, typically called function words, account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use.” Okay, I thought, let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt here and seeing where this goes. Almost immediately the old “correlation is not causation” warning flashed in my mind when I read, “For example, the most commonly used word in spoken English, I, is used at far higher rates by followers than by leaders, truth-tellers than liars. People who use high rates of articles—a, an, the—do better in college than low users.”

It is a very broad assertion to make, that “Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words broadcast the kind of people we are.” There is, however, some hard evidence to back it up via software programs that analyze conversations, blog posts, e-mails, and other forms of communication, and count the different kinds of words, then correlate them with externally known factors like the writer’s social class, which “is generally measured by years of education that people have completed and their yearly income.” It still seems like a stretch to me, but some correlations can be identified, as in the fact that better educated people often show more confidence, use longer words, and are accustomed to holding positions of responsibility, which their choice of words demonstrates. I guess I am generally in agreement with the basic premise, but it falls into the category of psychology findings that are interesting rather than actionable. You can try to pay more attention to the types of words you use, but since speech is basically stream of consciousness rather than planned, and the words slip out so quickly, there is no real-time useful information here; you would have to record your conversation and later on feed it to the software program for analysis.

Having said all this, some of the book’s observations are useful and worth considering, though not groundbreaking. It doesn’t take a PhD to observe that, “When women and men get together, what do they talk about? Women disproportionately talk about other people and men talk about, well, carburetors and other objects and things.” This reminded me of a cartoon I once saw in Playboy magazine, where two women are discussing the party they are at, and one says, “Oh, the usual: the girls are discussing orgasms and the guys are talking lawnmowers.”

This focus on key traits is a reminder that they are used all the time to identify, categorize, and often manipulate us. “Why do survey makers want to know your sex, age, and social class if studying your political attitudes or buying behaviors? Because these three variables predict a stunning amount about people. If I know your sex, age, and social class, I can make surprisingly accurate guesses about your movie and music preferences, your religious and political views, your physical and mental health, and even your life expectancy.”

There is also a useful section on how to identify liars. They are often very good at inventing overall false scenarios, but not good at being able to contextualize the situation into invented things that happened in it and things that did not.

The ability to talk about what you did not do, did not see, or did not think about is a remarkably difficult task when you are lying. If you are telling a completely fabricated story, everything you are saying is something you didn’t experience. In making up a false story, you can quickly get a headache trying to add what you didn’t not do. Most lies, then, are made up of simple and straightforward statements about what the person presumably did or saw. Relatively few specific comments are about what they did not do.

Finally, there is a reminder that commonalities of speech are indicators of group identity. This has always been true, but one of the internet pathologies we see today is the conscious use of words, phrases, and epithets to exploit society’s darkest and most odious impulses, seeking out and bringing together people who on their own would be harmless losers and cranks, and turning them into weapons of class warfare. They become ignorant but dedicated warriors for twisted and malign ends, since “making people more aware of their own group increases the likelihood that they will endorse fighting and dying for it.”

I learned some things from this book, but its main premise, about words as markers of class, is less than it seems on face value. We all know that a thirty second conversation with just about anyone will tell you all you need to know about their intelligence, education, class background, and social standing.
Profile Image for Jafar.
728 reviews234 followers
March 9, 2012
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 doing statistical analysis on them. Their conclusions are based on how often the little words (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, etc.) are used in speech or writing. Quite a tedious research, isn’t it? (Who paid for this, I wonder? ) In the end, the whole research and its conclusions come off as shallow and vacuous. There are many observations and case studies in this book that will make you roll your eyes.
Profile Image for Amanda.
12 reviews
February 12, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Linda.
526 reviews28 followers
December 22, 2020
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-degree I regret the most.

It is also SO damn refreshing right now to read about pronouns (and other function words) and actually be learning about pronouns, not some blather about what someone thinks pronouns are.
September 4, 2015
“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 inaugural speech indicating a hostile usage of pronouns and prepositions that could have been a clue towards his aggressive presidency with war in the Middle East. This book is filled with examples of how Pennebaker and his computer software that took him three years to create helped him in his extensive study that adds to his reliability, but I still questioned his validity on his claims. This is where I questions Pennebaker’s claims that he feels strongly about. Such as better Politician's should use fewer “I’s” in their speeches to be in a better position with the people, but then suicide victims used fewer “I’s” as well to indicate their behavior and future actions. Pennebaker also claims very early on in the book that sociolinguistics won’t find this book appealing which already shows that the author is unsure about the books purpose. The secret of pronouns is not really a secret but a part of our lives that doesn’t get the attention that some think it deserves. This book has taught me to be very meticulous about my usage of pronouns and prepositions because people can dissect my words and possibly find loose connections to my actions or perspective of situations. So I know I must think before I speak. I would not recommend this book to others because it gives a new paranoia to life, not just your actions but the usage of your words which could hurt you years later. Also who would want friends and family to deduce everything you do with what you said, this could become annoying and possibly dangerous in the hands of abusers of this knowledge. I don’t believe that this book is a complete explanation of the secrets in our words, but we should invest more research in this type of linguistics.
153 reviews8 followers
February 10, 2012
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, emotional connection, how truthful someone is being, and the gender of a writer. There was a big emphasis on reminding the reader that language is a reflection of the underlying feelings, so changing the words you use probably won’t change your underlying feelings or status. You can use the analysis to help get a better feel for dynamics, and make changes to the underlying causes, thus changing the resulting structure of speech. One of the things that was covered that I found most interesting was the discussion of Language Style Matching (LSM). People tend to mimic the function word usage of the other person they’re talking with. This was especially prominent in people that loved each other, people that hated each other, and a pair where one person is lying to another. It’s not all good! I thought it was interesting how the extent to which the words people used could be used to identify issues in a relationship and signal disconnects.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book that went into word usage and did statistical analyses on written works in ways that I had never really thought of. I would suggest it for anyone that wants to look at how words can signal compatibilities and differences between people, and like to use statistics to see things that are otherwise difficult to detect.
Profile Image for Oscar.
84 reviews11 followers
January 22, 2012
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 that person. The book argues that the manner in which people use pronouns such as “I” and “we” provide insights into that person’s social class, education level, levels of depression, gender, and other factors. The book then provides chapters focusing on different ways that pronouns affect language and their implications when it comes to how one is perceived by others, in their ability to interact, and express themselves in a variety of situations.

I really enjoyed the book’s discussion and its emphasis on the psychological affects that pronouns has on language, particularly, how one’s pronoun’s use can shed a light into a person’s personality and state of mind. The book does not argue that analyzing one’s pronoun use is a perfect science, but rather, that there are tendencies when it comes to how pronouns are used within specific types of people or during specific communicative purposes. The book, then, in my opinion makes one take notice of pronouns in a manner that goes beyond simply seeing them as those parts of speech that go between more interesting content words. The only detraction that I have towards this book is that the writer’s style is not the most engrossing or entertaining, but the arguments throughout the book are well made and worth reading.
Profile Image for Kater Cheek.
Author 34 books261 followers
October 29, 2013
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, because your function words say different things in different circumstances.

Best parts of this book: as I've already mentioned, it was first-hand research. Most of it deals with using computers to statistically analyze proportions of function words between different speakers in different circumstances. Some of them have creepy potential uses (can tell if you're depressed, if you're talking to your mother or your boss, or if you're at a sporting event by the frequency and word choice). I also liked the story of how he came into this branch of sociology/linguistics. I'd be willing to read books about his other research (using writing to help people who have been through traumatic experiences).

Worst part of this book: It briefly describes some of the terms uses, but for other terms, the author expects you'll know what he's talking about. I would have appreciated a glossary. Also, it gets a little predictive and repetitious. Maybe I'm colored too much by self-help books, but I kept expecting the "this is what you should do with this information" but it never got past the "this is cool" stage.

That said, this is an interesting book with an easy, readable style. I recommend this for people who like linguistics, statistics, or social psychology.
Profile Image for P. Kirby.
Author 5 books68 followers
February 25, 2015
The kind of book that makes you self-conscious of the manner in which you write a review.

Case in point, I'm feeling uneasy about any instances of the word "I," since this denotes possible mental illness and someone with no leadership ability.


Okay, I am a tad, erm, unstable, but I don't lack leadership ability. I lack the desire to lead. Big difference.

Anyway, an amusing read for writers and possibly actors, the kind of folks who traffic in the nuance of language. There was a lot of interesting food for thought, or at least, topics of convos around the dinner table, but the tone of writing sometimes felt a bit too smug. One assumes (see, what I did there? Avoided "I") that the author believes in his research, but there's too much cheerleading for his computer-based methods. This lent the writing a sense that the findings were anecdotal, and not based on the scientific method. Maybe "fluffy" is the word I'm looking for?

The author is proud to note that his word analysis programs often have success rates of 75-percent, which is all well and good, except it begs the question: "What about the other 25-percent?" A key aspect of this kind of research would be to attempt to understand not only why the algorithms worked, but why they didn't. Are the language styles of some people too varied for the programs? Are the algorithms too simplistic; are more complex, fuzzy-logic style approaches required? The book's focus on successes and avoidance of the discussion of failures adds to the anecdotal flavor of the research.

Nevertheless, recommended to my fellow wordsmiths.
Profile Image for Jennifer Rivera.
3 reviews1 follower
August 29, 2015
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 if the author was lecturing you by giving a point, an example, tying it to the whole theory, and then moved on, along with a few sprinkles of his personality.
Since I read this book, I have been more interested in my own speech, and that of others. One of my advisors is a police officer, and sometimes when we speak, he corrects me or questions me sometimes about the words I choose and now I understand why he does it. I need to think more about how I send my message correctly than just trying to get it out there simply with any words I can come up with. I wish other people did this too so they know exactly what they post on social media. I especially recommend this to politicians and people persons so they know how to effectively get their jobs done.
Usually listening to a person speak and pay attention to their stealth words (like we, them, the, a, etc) is very difficult, but not impossible to do when trying to strengthen relationships with your co-workers, boss, friends, spouse, etc.
That is why I recommend this book to any and everyone so as a whole, we are able to understand each other and effectively communicate with one another.
September 5, 2015
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 examples and points). I learned that there are several uses for the word “we” that I knew about, but never gave thought until he pointed it out several times. The book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, gave me a different perspective of the words we use and how it can be as different from one person to another like the fingerprints

That basically fascinated me the most about the book. The other thing that interested me was how each person can speak differently. For example, the amount of times you say “I” can hint that you are depressed, you are social, and etc. You can even learn if the author of a work is male or female, an adult or teenager, and etc, by looking at the specific words that they use in an essay, an email, etc, I'm not sure if I completely agree with this but however i thought it's pretty cool.

I can also use this information to better understand my favorite songs, and maybe even the authors in my Literature class.

I highly recommend this book to my friends it's a good read
Profile Image for Diane.
1,216 reviews
December 22, 2014
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 pronouns that seem to indicate the speech/writing differences between genders, depressed/non-depressed people, liars and truth tellers, etc. I was most interested in the chapter on court room language and differentiating truth and lies on the witness stand. Computer word analysis is able to tell who lying and who is telling the truth with 75% accuracy (a lie detector has about 65% accuracy). Unfortunately, neither is accurate enough (yet) to be used as evidence.

I also liked the author. He is careful to credit his co-workers and students and has an almost humorous attitude toward the importance of science.
Profile Image for Clayton.
46 reviews
August 10, 2016
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 the point of the book is lost because the focus within the topic seemed to change frequently. In some ways it feels like a very high level view of the author's body of research and it comes off as if the author is trying too hard to make his book seem interesting/engaging.

I wanted to like this book since I had looked into information about LSM(Language Style Matching) before reading it. I haven't found the takeaways from the book (so far) to be incredibly valuable to me personally.
Profile Image for Rachel B.
773 reviews40 followers
June 12, 2017
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 depressed, or are just being honest. If you're interested in linguistics as a hobby, this book will be a fun read. Others may just get bored.
Profile Image for C.A..
Author 1 book25 followers
November 7, 2011
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 you who loved "The Tipping Point" or "Freakonomics" this is your next book.
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