Today I’ve got a bit of psychology of language for you, dear readers. You may have come across in the news articles about U.S. presidents’ use of pronouns & what it says about their personality. Now it seems to me that a lot of these journalistic pieces are just a bunch of fluff, but I did come across something a bit more substantive in a New Scientist article called The Secret Life of Pronouns. The article is based on research in Dr. Pennebaker’s book of the same name. He claims that little words like pronouns & articles, collectively called function words, can say a lot about the way we “think, feel, & connect with others.”
[… we] found that the use of pronouns – I, me, we, she, they – mattered enormously. The more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, she, they) from one piece of writing to the next, the better their health became. Their word use reflected their psychological state.
I was very intrigued by this claim. How is it possible that our use of such seemingly insignificant words could offer insight into something so complex as our psychological state?
Individual differences in language style, particularly pronoun use. Function words represent, on average, a surprising 55% of discourse, with content words accounting for the remaining 45%. Additionally, the top twenty most commonly used words in English are function words. How are we able to communicate a content-rich, meaningful message to our listeners using such a great number of words that, while indeed serving a grammatical purpose, do not always express much actual meaning?
The answer is social context.
Ah hah, I thought. I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this after having completed a seminar in experimental pragmatics. Things like the relationship between speakers, environment, & many other things all contribute to how language is used & understood. It is also in observation of Grice’s conversational maxims that our manner linguistic expression is influenced. So this means at least three things. First, it means that we don’t need to be as wordy in order to get our message across as compared to if the context weren’t there. Second, getting back to the topic of the article, variation in function words’ use & frequency can be readily observed when context reduces the need for extra content words. And finally, it means that in order to carry out & understand a conversation more than half full of “meaningless” function words, speakers have to possess a great awareness of their social milieu.
The ability to use [function words] is a marker of basic social skills – and analysing how people use function words reveals a great deal about their social worlds.
While we may not give these humble words much thought, there’s a lot of insight to be gained by studying their use. So what are some of the things that researchers studying usage of pronouns have found?
[…there] are people who use articles at very high rates and others who rarely use them. Men tend to use them at higher rates than women. Gender aside, high article users tend to be more organised, emotionally stable, conscientious, politically conservative and older.
Using his students’ essays as data, Dr. Pennebaker of UT-Austin identified formal, analytic, & narrative writers by noting differences in stylistic use of function words. He was able to show that each writing style was associated with a different set of personality traits. I’ll let you read the article to get a run-down of each writing style, but here’s his breakdown for analytic writers:
Formal writing often appears stiff, sometimes humourless, with a touch of arrogance. It includes high rates of articles and prepositions but very few I-words, and infrequent discrepancy words, such as “would”, and adverbs. Formality is related to a number of important personality traits. Those who score highest in formal thinking tend to be more concerned with status and power and are less self-reflective. They drink and smoke less and are more mentally healthy, but also tend to be less honest. As people age, their writing styles tend to become more formal.
As you can see, there’s a lot to be gleaned just by looking at how a person uses function words! Makes me wonder what my writing style says about me. If you’re wondering about what your writing style might say about you, check out the exercises associated with Dr. Pennebaker’s book here. You’ll be asked to do things like spend 5 minutes describing an object & you’ll then be given feedback on what your response says about your personality. It’s pretty neat & I suggest having some fun with it!
Megan L. Risdal