The Secret Life of Pronouns – Feature Guest Review

by Ted Dyck
with permission. The review was originally published in Transition magazine,  linked at

Pennebaker, James. The Secret Life of Pronouns:What our Words Say about Us.
New York, Bloomsbury, 2011. 353 pp. Hardcover. $35.

James Pennebaker makes a very large claim in The Secret Life of Pronouns: a writer’s use of pronouns reveals her/his personality type, gender bias, leadership qualities, capacity for love, and – most important for purposes of this review – mental health (x).

The claim rests on research[1] Pennebaker and his associates have done using a computer program they developed called LIWC. “Luke,” as it’s pronounced, counts and classifies word usage according to some eighty “dictionaries” which link words to psychological states, cognitive processes, mental health, and so on. The program can be adjusted to tabulate a writer’s use of function words (articles, auxiliaries, prepositions, pronouns, etc. 22). When these tabulations of function words are correlated with the larger dictionaries above, the role of, especially, the pronouns emerges.

Nobody will be surprised that writing reveals the writer; the surprise is that the use of pronouns reveals as almost much about the writer as her/his use of all other words. In part, this may reflect the fact that function words, which constitute only 0.04% of the typical adult vocabulary , account for over 55% of adult word usage, and personal pronouns are the most important function words (27). For example, I is the most frequently used word in almost every language. But who could have predicted that the person who uses I to the exclusion of we is perceived as humbler and more personable? Doesn’t I signify the self-centred, egotistical, even narcissistic personality? Isn’t we more inclusive than the exclusionary I? But, no – I turns out to be the sign of the folksy, every-day, approachable, ordinary you and me (28).

Chapter 1, “Discovering the secret life of the most forgettable words” (1-17), begins with Pennebaker’s explaining how he came to the study of pronouns – he was searching for answers to the question, “Why does writing improve mental health?”, that it does so having been answered by his and others’ research. The major explanation – that writing was, in effect, a form of the talking cure so beloved of psychoanalysis – overlooked what people actually said and how they said it in the writing that helped them. To study the what and the how required the computer-based analysis, and thus LIWK was born. With the help of LIWK, the analysis quickly identified three characteristics of so-called “healthy writing”: the expression of increasingly positive emotions; the construction of a coherent story; and changes in narrative perspective (10-13). All three characteristics, it turned out, could be statistically predicted by the writer’s use of pronouns. The more people changed their use of personal pronouns in writing that satisfied the three characteristics noted, the healthier they became (12).

Of course this finding doesn’t quite answer Pennebaker’s and our question: do the changes in  writing effect changes in mental health – or merely reflect them? Before does not imply because, and here Pennebaker is very careful, as he should be. “Word use generally reflects psychological state rather than influences or causes it”; yet “the findings point to ways we can now use word analyses to change people’s thinking” (14). In brief, and with reference to the characteristics of healthy writing, we can encourage the writer to view themselves more objectively (and therefore positively as well as negatively), to construct ever “better” (more meaningful) stories, and to try writing using different perspectives (pronouns). Such encouragements are or should be part and parcel of the writing for therapy workshop, which, is the standard writing workshop plus. Pennebaker’s final view that, though writing doesn’t cure mental illness, there are nevertheless techniques for enhancing mental health through writing.

I have necessarily omitted many fascinating parts of the book. Chapters 1 and  concern writing and mental health, which is my interest here, but the book also details the applications of Pennebaker’s research in several other areas, each constituting a chapter – e.g., one chapter deals with personality, another with emotions, and the book concludes with “A handy guide for spotting and Interpreting function words in the wild” (291-299). This guide is mostly a fun section of this otherwise serious study – quick: which  of the following words are used more by truth-tellers than by liars – but, or, except, without, not, never?

His online “Bottle Test” is bit of fun.

V’s note: see also Jack Halbertstam’s blog with a pronoun Bizarro cartoon, and a riff on gendered pronouns.



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