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Do little words give big insights?

In a new book, James Pennebaker argues that people reveal vast amounts of information about themselves through their use of pronouns.

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If I were going to write a whole book about a part of speech, I'm not sure I'd go for pronouns. Verbs, yes. Nouns, too, though that might be too obvious. Prepositions would be a dark-horse candidate, with all the subtleties they reveal about relationships.

But James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has just published a book called "The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us."

"Hidden inside language are small, stealthy words that can reveal a great deal about your personality, thinking style, emotional state, and connections with others," he writes. "These words account for less than 0.1 percent of our vocabulary but make up more than half of the words commonly used. Your brain is not wired to notice them, but if you pay close attention, you will start to notice their subtle power."

This book is rooted in work Dr. Pennebaker did during the 1980s. He and his researchers discovered that if people who had been through traumatic experiences kept them secret, they were likely to have more health problems than people who were more open about their traumas. This led Pennebaker to experiment with having people write about the troubling chapters in their lives. He found that this exercise really did help.

Along with this insight came another set of findings. Pennebaker and his team developed a computer program to analyze his subjects' use of language and discovered that patterns of use of pronouns revealed vast amounts of information about them. "Word use was associated with almost every dimension of social psychology I studied," Pennebaker writes.


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