Monday, August 29, 2011
Interesting and favorable review in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Book Review of a book — “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” — about what the pronouns and “style” or “function” words we use reveal about us. The book originated in “unexpected findings” arising from the use of “remarkably stupid” word-counting programs:
Pennebaker admits that word-counting programs are “remarkably stupid,” unable to recognize irony, sarcasm or even the basic contextual clues that allow us to distinguish which meaning of a word is intended. Yet these “stupid” programs have led to a series of unexpected findings ever since Pennebaker first saw the need for one 20 years ago. At the time, he and his graduate students were working through thousands of diary entries written by people suffering from depression, analyzing how people deal with traumatic moments. Writing about trauma seemed to help some people, but why? To answer the question, his team created a program to read the diary entries automatically and count words related to different psychological states, like anger, sadness and more positive emotions.
Helped by a grad student sleuth named Sherlock Campbell, Pennebaker looked past the content-related terms to discover that a change in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, was the best indicator of improved mental health. Recovery from trauma seemed to require a kind of “perspective switching” — reflecting on problems from different points of view — that shifts in pronoun use could facilitate.
“The Secret Life of Pronouns” outlines in lively and accessible detail how that initial discovery led Pennebaker to appreciate the many ways in which function words reveal our interior lives. He has found strong correlations according to such factors as gender, age and class. For instance, women, younger people and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs — words that supposedly signal both lower status and greater social orientation. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans.
The review suggests (to me, anyway) that the book highlights some fertile territory for those who teach legal writing to explore.
Ben Zimmer, The Power of Pronouns, N.Y. Times, Sunday Book Review, August 28, 2011, p. 16 (reviewing The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by James W. Pennebaker).
* CC Bloom [Bette Midler in Beaches]: “But enough about me, let’s talk about you... what do YOU think of me?”