The secret life of pronouns

The smallest words in our vocabulary often reveal the most about us, including our levels of honesty and thinking style

James W. Pennebaker

STOP for a moment and think about your most recent conversation, email, tweet or text message. Perhaps you think you said something about dinner plans, domestic chores or work. And you probably did. But at the same time, you said much more. The precise words you used revealed more about you than you can imagine.

Hidden inside language are small, stealthy words that can reveal a great deal about your personality, thinking style, emotional state and connections with others. These words account for less than 0.1 per cent of your 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 see their subtle power.

I’m a social psychologist whose interest in these words came about almost accidentally. In the early 1980s, I stumbled on a finding that fascinated me. People who reported having a traumatic experience and who kept the experience a secret had far more health problems than people who talked openly. Why would keeping a secret be so unhealthy? If you asked people to write about their secrets, would their health improve? The answer, I soon discovered, was yes.

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Small, but not insignificant (Image: Wordle)

Small, but not insignificant (Image: Wordle)

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