The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us

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In "The Secret Life of Pronouns," linguistic and social psychologist Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics--in essence, counting the frequency of words we use--to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Kirkus Reviews (08/01/2011): A comprehensive investigation of how our...

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In "The Secret Life of Pronouns," linguistic and social psychologist Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics--in essence, counting the frequency of words we use--to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence.
Kirkus Reviews (08/01/2011):
A comprehensive investigation of how our words?what we say and how we say it?reveal important insights about our behavior, emotions and personalities.
Pennebaker (Psychology/Univ. of Texas; Writing to Heal, 2004, etc.) is well-known in psychotherapy circles for his work in the way language and mental health correspond. Here, the author continues exploring this connection between emotion, behavior, perception, cognition and language with a specific focus on what he calls "stealth words," or the small function words in our lexicon, like prepositions and pronouns, that are seemingly invisible in day-to-day speech. Pennebaker's own research and analysis of other linguistic and psychological studies is exhaustive and includes an immense amount of computational data via analytical programs like Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (or LIWC) and methods like LSM or language style matching detection. However, the author balances his data analysis with interesting and entertaining anecdotes, examples, narratives and dialogue, and his research sampling is vast: tweets by Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey, online dating profiles, King Lear, love letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning vs. the language of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, samples of instant messaging, scenes from The Godfather, presidential press conferences and more. The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words?I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this?play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion. In addition to these varied language samples, Pennebaker investigates a wide range of situations and topics including trauma from war or abuse, social and gender inequity and relationships of power, as well as daily self-perception or self-deception. Some assertions that seem like hasty generalizations?i.e., that couples who use parallel function words are more likely to have a happy marriage?are supported with such a preponderance of evidence that they become convincing and compelling.
Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection between language and human behavior, emotion and perception.
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(COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

Publishers Weekly (05/09/2011):
In this intriguing treatise on computational linguistics, Pennebaker (Writing to Heal), chair of psychology at the University of Texas Austin, probes innocuous "function words" such as pronouns, prepositions, and articles for clues to hidden states of mind. Deploying computer analyses of word-use frequency, he conducts an exercise in psychological and demographic profiling by means of verbal tell-tales: people who overuse articles, nouns, prepositions, and the word "we," for example, tend to be old, male, high-status, and cheerful, while people who overuse pronouns, verbs, and the word "I" tend to be young, female, low-status, and depressed. Pennebaker's accessible, entertaining account dissects a riotous assortment of language samples, from presidential speeches and Shakespeare to Beatles songs and Lady Gaga tweets, expounding on everything from the self-absorbed "language of suicidal poets" to the circumlocutions of liars. He's not always trenchant Osama bin Laden's rhetoric betrayed a "need for power," he reveals and he's sometimes overly reductionist; he speculates that poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "tend to use function words similarly... may explain why the two were so attracted to one another," and then graphs their relationship. Still, Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words is the kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour. B&w illus. (Aug.) Copyright 2011 Reed Business Information.

Booklist (07/01/2011):
Why does a truth-teller use the pronoun I more frequently than a liar? By exploring this sort of questionand relying on potent new computer technologies for analyzing languagePennebaker transforms simple words (pronouns, prepositions, articles) into revealing windows into the emotions and social relations of speakers and writers using them. Readers learn why men use more prepositions but fewer pronouns than women, why upper-class speakers use more nouns but fewer verbs than working-class speakers, and why people with strong social skills rely heavily on conjunctions. More broadly, readers see how simple function words (stealth words) create the threads that both hold our social fabric together and create tensions in that fabric. Though he draws insights from brain-imaging research into the neurological structures that govern linguistic behavior, Pennebaker keeps his focus on the social psychology of language, showing how that psychology plays out at the personal level among friends, neighbors, and lovers, and at the national level among prominent politicians and media commentators. An extraordinary look at ordinary words.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2011, American Library Association.)

Choice (04/01/2012):
Pennebaker (social psychology, Univ. of Texas) offers a breezy retelling of his academic work on the information provided by pronouns and other function words--he calls them "stealth words." For many years, the author and a legion of his students have been doing large-scale computer analysis of stealth words in a wide variety of texts and transcripts--from The Federal Papers to blogs. The research reveals how function-word use correlates with status, age, gender, emotional immediacy, and even truthfulness. Some results are what one might expect and some are surprising, and many of the experiments are quite ingenious. In the book's ten chapters, the author gives some background and recounts his studies of the stealth grammar of power, emotion, dissimulation, leadership, love, and community. He notes early on that the book may "disappoint or infuriate" serious linguists. In a way, he is right. The exposition often does a disservice to the research that underlies much of the work, and this reviewer found himself wanting things tied up more neatly. Still, the book makes one think about pronouns, auxiliaries, adverbs, and articles in a new way. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. -- E. L. Battistella, Southern Oregon University (Reprinted with permission of Choice, copyright 2012, American Library Association)

Review Quotes:
"Penetrating ...lively and accessible ...Paying closer attention to function words [Pennebaker] advises, can help us understand the social relations that those words reflect. Unfortunately, we might not be able to pay proper attention until we're all equipped with automatic word counters. Until that day, we have Pennebaker as an indefatigable guide to the little words that he boldly calls 'keys to the soul.'""--New York Times Book Review
""Anyone who reads his book will become much more conscious about how he or she uses words when talking to friends, when talking to the public, or when writing for the public ... Pennebaker's new book is fascinating and fun."--"Austin American-Statesman "
"Provocative ... eye-opening ... "The Secret Life of Pronouns" is studded with muse-worthy examples of language's hidden power.""--Dallas Morning News " "Ingenious"--Slate "[An] intriguing treatise...accessible, entertaining...Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words ist

Review Quotes:
"American American-Statesman" #1 Bestseller "Penetrating ...lively and accessible ...Paying closer attention to function words [Pennebaker] advises, can help us understand the social relations that those words reflect. Unfortunately, we might not be able to pay proper attention until we're all equipped with automatic word counters. Until that day, we have Pennebaker as an indefatigable guide to the little words that he boldly calls 'keys to the soul.'""--New York Times Book Review
""Anyone who reads his book will become much more conscious about how he or she uses words when talking to friends, when talking to the public, or when writing for the public ... Pennebaker's new book is fascinating and fun."--"Austin American-Statesman "
"Provocative ... eye-opening ... "The Secret Life of Pronouns" is studded with muse-worthy examples of language's hidden power.""--Dallas Morning News " "Ingenious"--Slate "Interesting and provocative ... A good nonfiction book often feels like a new lens prescription: You marvel at suddenly being able to see what was always there. On this count "The Secret Life of Pronouns" succeeds. You find yourself paying a greater degree of attention to even the least-regarded words of daily interaction ... It is an apt reminder that we express ourselves in more ways than we know.""--Wall Street Journal " "[An] intriguing treatise...accessible, entertaining...Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words isthe kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour."-- "Publishers Weekly" "An extraordinary look at ordinary words.""--Booklist """ "The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words--I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this--play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion ... Convincing and compelling...Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection between

Review Quotes:
"Is it possible for a psychologist to hear just a few words from you and immediately know what makes you tick? Could this psychologist use cutting-edge science to detect your inner desires from subtle patterns in your use of language--beyond anything you were conscious of saying? The answer to both questions is Yes. James Pennebaker is this psychologist and you really ought to read his remarkable book."--Daniel Wegner, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, author of "The Illusion of Conscious Will " "In this entertaining and sharply illuminating book, James Pennebaker shows that the words you use in everyday talk reveal surprising insights into personality, social relationships, status, leadership, sex, and human nature. I suspect that Pennebaker could decode the pronouns and the functions of words I write now to describe him in such a way as to reveal deep secrets about me! But I will write them anyway, and here they are: He is one of the smartest, funniest, and most creative

Brief Description:
Draws on groundbreaking research in computational linguistics to explain what language choices reveal about feelings, self-concept, and social intelligence, in a lighthearted treatise that also explores the language personalities of famous individuals.

Review Quotes:
American American-Statesman #1 Bestseller
"Penetrating ...lively and accessible ...Paying closer attention to function words [Pennebaker] advises, can help us understand the social relations that those words reflect. Unfortunately, we might not be able to pay proper attention until we're all equipped with automatic word counters. Until that day, we have Pennebaker as an indefatigable guide to the little words that he boldly calls 'keys to the soul.'"--"New York Times Book Review"
"Anyone who reads his book will become much more conscious about how he or she uses words when talking to friends, when talking to the public, or when writing for the public ... Pennebaker's new book is fascinating and fun."--"Austin American-Statesman"
"Provocative ... eye-opening ... "The Secret Life of Pronouns" is studded with muse-worthy examples of language's hidden power."--"Dallas Morning News"
"Ingenious"--"Slate"
"Interesting and provocative ... A good nonfiction book often feels like a new lens prescription: You marvel at suddenly being able to see what was always there. On this count "The Secret Life of Pronouns" succeeds. You find yourself paying a greater degree of attention to even the least-regarded words of daily interaction ... It is an apt reminder that we express ourselves in more ways than we know."--"Wall Street Journal"
"[An] intriguing treatise...accessible, entertaining...Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words isthe kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour."-- "Publishers Weekly"
"An extraordinary look at ordinary words."--"Booklist "
"The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words--I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this--play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion ... Convincing and compelling...Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection

Biographical Note:
James W. Pennebaker is the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "Writing to Heal and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions," which has been translated into a dozen languages. You can analyze your own language using his Web site, http: //www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/
We spend our lives communicating. In the last fifty years, we've zoomed through radically different forms of communication, from typewriters to tablet computers, text messages to tweets. We generate more and more words with each passing day. Hiding in that deluge of language are amazing insights into who we are, how we think, and what we feel.
In "The Secret Life of Pronouns," social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics-in essence, counting the frequency of words we use-to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.
Using innovative analytic techniques, Pennebaker X-rays everything from Craigslist advertisements to the Federalist Papers-or your own writing, in quizzes you can take yourself-to yield unexpected insights. Who would have predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that a world leader's use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he led his country into war? You'll learn why it's bad when politicians use "we" instead of "I," what Lady Gaga and William Butler Yeats have in common, and how Ebenezer Scrooge's syntax hints at his self-deception and repressed emotion. Barack Obama, Sylvia Plath, and King Lear are among the figures who make cameo appearances in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying-whether we mean them to or not.

Review Citations:
Publishers Weekly 05/09/2011 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
Booklist 07/01/2011 pg. 10 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
Kirkus Reviews 08/01/2011 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
New York Times Book Review 08/28/2011 pg. 16 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
New York Times Book Review 09/04/2011 pg. 26 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
Choice 04/01/2012 (EAN 9781608194803, Hardcover)
New York Times Book Review 03/03/2013 pg. 24 (EAN 9781608194964, Paperback)
Contributor Bio: Pennebaker, James W
James W. Pennebaker is the author of "Opening Up", "Writing to Heal, " and "The Psychology of Physical Symptoms".

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