The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker


James Pennebaker studies computational linguistics, a field which could only exist in the modern world. He uses the abundance of online content and the power of computing to count the frequency of words. It sounds dry, especially since he focuses on the most forgettable words: pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and other “function” words. What can the frequency and patterns of these words possibly tell us about someone? A lot, in fact. Words like I, he, you, that, in, the, with, and but are used around 30 percent of the time, yet we barely notice them. But these “hidden” words can reveal more than nouns and verbs do.

By simply ignoring content and counting the function words, Pennebaker discovered that men and women use language very differently. So do elders and youngsters, truth tellers and liars, and sad or happy or angry people. Use of pronouns can show when a leader is preparing for war or when a couple is in love. For example, honest people use “I” at a higher rate than liars. They own their stories. Sad people tend to use words indicating past tense while angry people focus on the here and now.

The most surprising finding is about those of high versus low status. People of high status use more nouns. People of lower status use more verbs and pronouns, especially the word “I.” You’d expect just the opposite, but upon reflection, it makes sense. Those in power pay attention to the task at hand. Those who are less secure in their position self-consciously focus on themselves. Pennebaker reprints a pair of emails he wrote, one to a student and one to his boss, showing how his use of first person pronouns shot up when he wrote to someone of higher status.

Everyone who wants to write realistic characters should study THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS. Readers may not be able to pinpoint exactly why, but they’ll complain if your honest character sounds like a liar, or your grandmother sounds like a teenager. However, the best writers instinctively know this stuff. Shakespeare and Dickens didn’t have a computer to count words or access to Pennebaker’s vast database. They just knew how real people talk. Pennebaker gives an example from the beginning of KING LEAR and from the end. Lear’s use of function words changes dramatically as he falls from power. You can see an equally huge change in Ebenezer Scrooge from powerful and angry at the beginning of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to humble and optimistic at the end.

As you can see here and here, I love popular science books that use hard data and real research to come to unexpected conclusions. In the case of THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS, that research is something I will turn to again and again for the rest of my career.


THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS can be found here.


Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: advanced writers


I recommend this book.

10 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

  1. Interesting. I’m especially intrigued by your statement regarding reader expectations. I recently read a book that’s been getting rave reviews, but I detested it. Because of her language and actions, the 25 year old heroine sounded and behaved like an obnoxious 15 year old boy. I found her very unsympathetic and unrelate-able which I don’t believe was the author’s intent.
    It was primarily a matter of word choice. I see that now.

    • Interesting! Now that I’ve read THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS I’m very attuned to when authors get it wrong. It’s especially noticeable when characters tell lies. Most authors are honest people and don’t really have a feel for the ways in which liars talk. But when an author gets it exactly right, I want to stand on my chair and cheer!

    • You’re welcome, Bridget. I hope you like the book as much as I did. Pennebaker lays everything out in such a clear fashion, I was slapping my own forehead, wondering why I’d never seen such things before.

  2. Based on your recommendation, I used up a gift card and bought it. Subtleties of language use are more and more where I look for improvement in craft.

    As you said, we do this instinctively, but the sample showed a writer with command of the English language, so it should be a good read as well an informative.


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