It's all about 'me': what pronouns reveal about us

The Takeaway

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Nouns and verbs get a lot of the attention when people pay attention to speech. But function words, like pronouns (I, me, him), articles (the, a, an), prepositions (in, on, by), can reveal a lot about a person. "They're the smallest words in our vocabulary, and there's only about 150 of them," social psychologist James Pennebaker told The Takeaway, "but they account for almost 60 percent of the words that we say and hear every day."

"They're processed in the brain differently," according to Pennebaker, who recently wrote the book "The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us." "You just don't hear them, but they shape what we're saying."

During natural disasters, for example, politicians will often start using the term "we" more, Pennebaker says. "And actually, a lot of people will use 'we.' Somehow, natural disasters have this ability to give us a sense of community."

Some people have criticized President Obama for using first person singular pronouns like "I," "me," and "my," too much. In fact, though, Pennebaker found that the opposite was true. He says:

It turns out [Obama] uses the word I or first person singular pronouns, 'I, me, my,' at the lowest of any modern president. And by quite a bit. He rarely uses I, me and my, compared to others, compared to George Bush, compared to Reagan, compared to Clinton.

"One of the interesting issues is that the use of 'I, me' and 'my' actually suggests being more personal," according to Pennebaker, "being more self-attentive, being more self-focused. Someone who's actually arrogant or cold or distant or even who is viewed as a leader, tends to use these words at a lower rate."

The use of pronouns can even reveal if a person is lying. Pennebaker says people should look to the use of "I" words. People who tell the truth tend to use them more. He's even gone back through his own letters of recommendation, to see if he could find out how much he liked the people he was recommending. And, he says, he can. He says that the language people use can reveal hidden aspects of that person, whether or not they know it.

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