Pondering Pronouns . . . and Prepositions
Pennebaker, James W. 2011. The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 290 pages, plus a 9-page “Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild,” as well as endnotes, bibliography, and index.
I was eager to read what Prof. Pennebaker had to say about pronouns because, over more than 30 years of teaching college-level courses in humanities, anthropology and English composition, I have become fascinated with the diverse ways students use prepositions in writing.
Now, pronouns are not, of course, prepositions. But, like prepositions, they are “function words,” short, generally two-to-five-letters, and we rarely think about them as we speak or write. Nouns, verbs, even adjectives and adverbs: these we consider carefully (or should) when we use them. Do I refer to someone I work with as an office partner? Colleague? Co-worker? Was the choir singing or chanting? Do I check my email often? Frequently? Daily? Regularly? Hourly?
We may pause in our speech or writing to consider these choices. Rarely, however, do we even think that there might be a reason to consider pronouns or prepositions. They flow automatically, unconsciously.
Nonetheless, my students, many of them, use prepositions differently than I do. I write “about” landscapes, while my students write “of” or “on” landscapes. I go “to” a friend’s house, while they go “by” a friend’s house. They walk “in” a classroom, while I walk “into” a classroom. I regularly encounter usages like these:
“This is all the governments fault in how we eat.”
“This component within itself is not healthy.”
“For my experience watching TV shows, many of them are violent.”
“These fall hand and hand.”
“The plants were grown on bad soil.”
“We want to prevent those animals for feeling pain.”
“How you eat is just as important to what you eat.”
Despite my fascination with these non-standard preposition usages, however, I have never thoroughly investigated them. I have, however, distributed lists of our 100+ English prepositions. In one class, I even devised an exercise for students to act out “on the table,” “at the back,” “into the room,” “around the table,” “in the doorway,” “over the desk,” and a few more of those 100+ prepositions.
Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, using a computer program he developed (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, LIWC), Pennebaker has analyzed texts upside down and inside out (letters, novels, emails, and essays) to assess psycho-social differences in the use of pronouns and other words (e.g., articles, emotion descriptors, subjective tense, and multi-syllabic words. Statistically, Pennebaker has found that these (subconscious) word choices can signal differences in hierarchical status, gender, relationship status, honesty, emotion, and geographic regions.
Now, Pennebaker would be the first to agree that these differences are statistical, not absolute. So we can’t necessarily rely on pronoun analysis of a friend’s emails to assess her psychological state. But his work does grant us great insight into yet another way we send socio-psychological signals to each other. As well as signaling our statuses with our dress, posture and gestures, handwriting, and speech pronunciation, we really might want to watch our Ps and Qs—at least the Pronouns!
In the great tradition of scientists who are not reluctant to use themselves as experimental subjects (cf. Altman 1998), Dr. Pennebaker offers up some of his own emails (p. 179), asking us to note that people of lower status tend to use more I-words, and those of higher status use more you- and we-words. First, his correspondence with one of his students:
Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’ve learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by to talk about this?
This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30? It will be good to see you.
But note the shift when Pennebaker corresponds with a professor of greater status and fame:
Dear [Famous Professor]:
The reason I’m writing is that I’m helping to put together a conference on [topic] . . . I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come . . . The only downside is that we can’t pay for any expenses . . . I think the better way to think about this gathering is as a reunion rather than a conference . . . I really hope you can make it.
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one . . . and the conference idea will provide us with a semi-formal way of catching up with one another’s current research . . . Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
Of course, the most fascinating applications of Pennebaker’s computer-aided analyses are to discover the true identity of anonymous writers, and to separate out liars from truth-tellers. And, can pronoun analysis help with these questions? Yes, it can. Is it 100% fail-proof? No.
And, for the rest of the story, you’ll have to read the book. But you will find it, I assure you, an enjoyable experience!