Pronouns Are the Window to the Soul


SecretsIf your writing is sprinkled liberally with first-person pronouns (I, me, myself), you’re probably a pretty honest person. If, on the other hand, you eschew what The Secret Life of Pronouns author James W. Pennebaker calls “I-words” and use lots of articles (the, a, an) and prepositions (up, with), you might be hiding something. That is Pennebaker’s conclusion after 20 years of language research from a psychosocial perspective, he reports in New Scientist:

Hidden inside language are small, stealthy words that can reveal a great deal about your personality, thinking style, emotional state and connections with others. These words account for less than 0.1 per cent of your vocabulary but make up more than half of the words commonly used. Your brain is not wired to notice them but if you pay close attention, you will start to see their subtle power.

Pennebaker began his pronoun studies in the 1980s after discovering that people who had kept secret a traumatic event in their life experienced more health problems than those who experienced similar trauma but didn’t cover it up. When he prompted patients to write about their secrets, he found that their health improved—and their pronoun use changed remarkably:

[O]ur most striking discovery was not about the content of [traumatized] people's writing but the style. In particular, 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.

To read more about Pennebaker’s findings—and get a sense of where you stack up on the scales of honesty, health, and other personal characteristics—read his article in New Scientist.

Source: New Scientist 

Image by wheat_in_your_hair, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Janus Daniels
9/13/2011 10:30:37 AM

Thanks for the link to the New Scientist article; well worth reading, and it confirms many of my own impressions.

9/12/2011 4:03:06 PM

Not all pronouns are "first person" (I, me, my). I think the author means to include all pronouns when talking about clarity of communication (as opposed to vague or generic wording), and means to point out that health improves when our pronouns are more inclusive (we, us, our) and less self-centered (she, they). As a therapist, I agree with the author's ideas and often find that the way we "language" things gives a wealth of information about our emotions and viewpoint even when we're talking about something else.

Kate Griffin
9/12/2011 9:26:12 AM

Now wait a minute; I am confused about the use of I misreading that the beginning of the article says that I, me, myself, reflect honesty and yet when trauma victims stop using these pronouns in favor of others their health improves? Help me out here. Thanks,Kate

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