A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.

For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.

SecretLifeOfPronouns_coverAlthough the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.

Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.

Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.

What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.

exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.

But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?

So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.

Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.

Pennebaker_portrait
Very nice portrait of James W. Pennebaker, provided by Pinterest – Thank You.

In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.

There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.

But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.

Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

One thought on “All About Function Words(?): Pennebaker’s Secret Life Of Pronouns

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s