Article published: December 15th 2011
Your use of pronouns reveals your personality
The finding: A person's use of function words-the pronouns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs that are the connective tissue of language-offers deep insights into his or her honesty, stability, and sense of self.
The research: In the 1990s, James Pennebaker helped develop a computer program that counted and categorized words in texts, differentiating content words, which convey meaning, from function words. After analyzing 400,000 texts-including essays by college students, instant messages between lovers, chat room discussions, and press conference transcripts-he concluded that function words are important keys to someone's psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.
The challenge: Can insignificant words really provide a "window to the soul?"
When we began analyzing people's writing and speech, we didn't expect results like this. For instance, when we analyzed poems by writers who committed suicide versus poems by those who didn't, we thought we'd find more dark and negative content words in the suicides' poetry. We didn't-but we did discover significant differences in the frequency of words like "I." In study after study, we kept finding the same thing. When we analyzed military transcripts, we could tell people's relative ranks based on their speech patterns-and again, it was the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other function words that made a difference, not the content words."
In English there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. Content words-nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs-convey the guts of communication. They're how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language. People require social skills to use and understand function words, and they're processed in the brain differently. They are the key to understanding relationships between speakers, objects, and other people. When we analyze people's use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class.
Here's a simple, pronoun-heavy sentence: I don't think I buy it.
Ooh. You just revealed something about yourself in that statement. Why did you say "I don't think I buy it," instead of "I don't buy it," or even "That's ridiculous"? Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun "I," it's a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks "What's the weather outside?" You could answer "It's hot" or "I think it's hot." The "I think" may seem insignificant, but it's quite meaningful. It shows you're more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word "I" much more often than