Book Review: The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

My review for Rappahannock Magazine

What’s in a word? Apparently (or maybe not so), a lot argues Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Pennebaker is a psychologist—as such, he is not interested in the study of language for its own sake but rather in how language gives us an insight into our psychological states. While discourse analysis presently seems to be the realm of communications scholars and anthropologists, Pennebaker breaks with that pattern and offers a rather unique and lively take on a research method that has been used far too long to be novel per se. The Secret Life of Pronouns reads like a sleuth piece (all the more amusing that his research assistant is named Sherlock Campbell)—it wryly reads in a “bet you didn’t expect this” way, all the more so because the book is focused on function words, which lack the pizazz of style words. “Style” or “function” words, along with pronouns, include articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions — all of the connective tissue of language. The nuts and bolts, if you will. People are reasonably good at picking up on “content words”: nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. “Function words are almost impossible to hear,” Pennebaker explains, “and your stereotypes about how they work may well be wrong.” These sneaky lexicon bytes offer an interesting look at our individual psyche and identity, the book demonstrates. Pennebaker and his team created a computer program named LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). His initial interest was in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, as an indicator of improved mental health. Recovery from trauma seemed to require a kind of “perspective switching” that shifts in pronoun use could indicate. The Secret Life of Pronouns is rife with curious discoveries—for example, Pennebaker reveals that Secretary of State John Kerry’s advisers made that mistake during the 2004 presidential race in encouraging him to use “we” more often so as to appear more personable. Kerry was already using “we” too much and unlike with every day people, “When politicians use them, we words sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant.” Or the book opines on why some cultures drop personal pronouns and others don’t (for example, in Spanish, Yo estoy triste vs. estoy triste)—maybe because more tightly knit collectivist cultures tend to drop pronouns, whereas individualist cultures keep them. In the chapter on analysis of poets’ work, Pennebaker discovers that the chairwoman of the “Depressed Poets Society,” Sylvia Plath, uses a lot more “I” words in her poetry, as though taking us closer to the edge of her personal melancholia. The book also uncovers the strong effects that factors such as gender, age, and class have on our language. Women use “I” words a lot more than men and they use cognitive words and social words at much higher rates as well. “The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy”—in other words, when people converse with higher-ups, they felt diminished and compensated for that by focusing on their agency. Women, younger people, and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans. Pennebaker even discusses “language style matching,” which should pique the curiosity of most online dating hackers out there! The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is incredibly comprehensive in scope, yet written in an accessible, charming way that will make an armchair psychologist out of you. This is not the stuff of stodgy discourse analysis your college professor may or may not have purveyed. Pennebaker also explores how writing can be used to improve mental health. Three aspects of emotional writing are associated with improvements in people’s physical and mental health: 1) accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, 2) acknowledging the negative parts, and 3) constructing a story over the days of writing. Also, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pronouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health became, again illustrating that an internal focus is not necessarily a bad thing for depression; the flip side of anger turned inward is the “I am capable” more agency-driven aspect. The book will truly leave you dazzled by computational linguistics (yes, dazzled)! For example, Pennebaker’s work proves that lying shows rather clearly in people’s words, and that Paul McCartney proved to be a more creative writer than John Lennon. McCartney’s lyrics were far more flexible and varied both in terms of writing style and content than John Lennon’s.