The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker
(Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 352 pages)
A research book on pronouns? Really? I had my doubts when I picked up this book from our new book display. It’s not a quick read for sure, but I enjoyed it. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been using computer programs to count and categorize language over the past 20 years. This new interdisciplinary field is called computational linguistics. Here is the definition from our SCC Library’s Oxford Reference’s New Oxford American Dictionary Online Version 2012:
Computational linguistics: the branch of linguistics in which the techniques of computer science are applied to the analysis and synthesis of language and speech.
Pennebaker wrote this book based on his studies on function words. Function words are grammatical words that hold sentences together – words such as: I, You, He, This, That, The, An and And. Pennebaker states that function words are not just the filler words that we don’t pay attention to; they are the ones that can help us better understand relationships between speakers, objects and other people. Pennebaker presents numerous interesting projects and examples that we all can relate to. By counting the frequency of function words we use, Pennebaker and his colleagues and graduate students analyze written documents, conversations, tweets and many other language formats to uncover surprising insights.
Pennebaker discusses Craigslist advertisements, high school seniors’ admission essays and the argument between Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Rosie O’Donnell on the TV show The View. Many of his findings are fascinating. In some communities, people use similar language style; the more similar the community’s use of language, the more cohesive the city. Would you have predicted that the high school seniors who use too many verbs in their admission essays are likely to make lower grades in college? You’ll have to find out the analysis on The View argument between the two hostesses yourself ;-). Another interesting case study is the use of first-person singular pronouns in press conferences among the United States’ presidents. Pennebaker also describes applications and tools used by law enforcement agencies. The chapters on linguistic fingerprinting and author identification are intriguing readings, too. It’s an informative and stimulating read.