The secret life of pronouns


Here’s a truly interesting article written by social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, on those little words that we never put much thought into – pronouns. Pronouns are the short words that we often substitute for other nouns – “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, “they”, “we”, etc. What started as a study into how we use pronouns and other ‘function words’ – especially when talking about dramatic or traumatic events – became a life’s work for Pennebaker.

‘Function words’ (pronouns, articles (‘a/an’ and ‘the’), prepositions (like ‘to’, ‘for’, ‘from’, etc.), auxiliary verbs (like ‘is’ or ‘has’), conjunctions (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, etc.), quantifiers like ‘few’ or ‘many’, and basic adverbs like ‘really’ or ‘very’) are those small words that don’t mean much by themselves, but are processed by the brain in a different way from ‘content words’ (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs).

Here’s an excerpt – you can find the full article here.

By understanding language style, we gain a far clearer sense of the social and psychological processes affecting our behaviours.

What do I mean by style? In any given sentence, there are two basic types of word. The first is content words, which provide meaning. […] The other type are “function” words. These serve quieter, supporting roles – connecting, shaping and organising the content words. They are what determines style.

Why make such a big deal about these [function] words? Because they are the keys to the soul. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but bear with me.

Function words are psychologically very revealing. They are used at high rates, while also being short and hard to detect. They are processed in the brain differently than content words. And, critically, they require social skills to use properly. It’s about time that these forgettable little words got their due.