Ep: 166: The Secret Life of Pronouns – an Interview with James Pennebaker

What do you reveal about yourself in the way you use the smallest and seemingly most insignificant words you use every minute? That’s the focus of Dr. James Pennebaker‘s fascinating book and one of the most interesting psychology books of 2011: The Secret Life of Pronouns. If you’re fascinated by language then you’ll find this episode especially interesting.

When we’re trying to find out what people are thinking and feeling we usually focus on what Pennebaker refers to as “content words”, examples of which are nouns, verbs and adjectives. Do you say that you’re “happy” or “sad” or “angry”?


But what about the tiny words you use in between these content words? What do they reveal about you and others? What does the way you use function words:

  • pronouns: I, me, you, he, she
  • prepositions (to, for, of)
  • negations: no, not, never
  • articles: a, and, the

reveal about how you feel and how you think about the world?

Function words make up a small percent of our vocabulary, but we use them at a very, very high rate. How could you speak without them?

In this fascinating interview with Dr. Pennebaker he discusses some of what you’ll find in The Secret Life of Pronouns: the differences between men and women, our emotional states, indeed our very personalities are revealed in our use of these seemingly insignificant words.

James Pennebaker and The Secret Life of Pronouns


Comments

  1. AJ Jack says

    Wow, when I first listened to this I wondered if it was the same Michael Britt.
    I think two things made it sounds different. You were talking much softer than normal (as if you were recording it on public transport and not wanting to disturb your fellow passengers).
    It also had more bass than normal, with your voice sounding deeper it made you sound less happy.
    I was glad when I listened to Ep 167 to hear your normal higher cheery voice again.

  2. Michael says

    Hey AJ: not sure yet what caused this deeper than usual sound. Hmm. Gotta think about that. Now I remember: I recorded my part in the morning when the kids were asleep and I didn’t want to wake them. I sound like I have a cold or something!

  3. says

    What a great interview. Thanks very much for bringing this to my attention, Michael. I have a number of colleagues who are interested in language and psychology, so this will be a nice treat for them.

    I’ve occasionally thought about the difficulty to extracting meaning from tweets, especially with the abbreviations, hashtags, and links that muddy the waters, so to speak. I’d love to work on some of that stuff.

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    PS, I noticed your voice was a little quieter in this episode too – nothing major, but noticable. I figured it was due to Skype doing something funny.

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