Are There Hidden Messages in Pronouns?

James Pennebaker says computers reveal secret patterns.

Juliet Lapidos

James Pennebaker. Click image to expand.James Pennebaker

Some 110 years after the publication of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Sigmund Freud analyzed seemingly trivial slips of the tongue, it’s become common knowledge that we disclose more about ourselves in conversation—about our true feelings, or our unconscious feelings—than we strictly intend. Freud focused on errors, but correct sentences can betray us, too. We all have our signature tics. We may describe boring people as "nice" or those we dislike as "weird." We may use archaisms if we’re trying to seem smart, or slang if we’d prefer to seem cool. Every time we open our mouths we send out coded, supplementary messages about our frame of mind.

Although much of this information is easy to decode ("nice" for "boring" won’t fool anyone), linguistic psychologist James Pennebaker suggests in The Secret Life of Pronouns that lots of data remain hidden from even the most astute human observers. "Nice" and "weird" are both content words; he’s concerned with function words such as pronouns (I, you, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, for, of), and auxiliary verbs (is, am, have). We hardly notice these bolts of speech because we encounter them so frequently. With the help of computer programs to count and scrutinize them, however, patterns emerge.

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