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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us Hardcover – August 30, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“Penetrating …lively and accessible …Paying closer attention to function words [Pennebaker] advises, can help us understand the social relations that those words reflect. Unfortunately, we might not be able to pay proper attention until we're all equipped with automatic word counters. Until that day, we have Pennebaker as an indefatigable guide to the little words that he boldly calls ‘keys to the soul.'” ―New York Times Book Review

“Anyone who reads his book will become much more conscious about how he or she uses words when talking to friends, when talking to the public, or when writing for the public … Pennebaker's new book is fascinating and fun.” ―Austin American-Statesman

“Provocative … eye-opening … The Secret Life of Pronouns is studded with muse-worthy examples of language's hidden power.” ―Dallas Morning News

“Ingenious” ―Slate

“Interesting and provocative … A good nonfiction book often feels like a new lens prescription: You marvel at suddenly being able to see what was always there. On this count The Secret Life of Pronouns succeeds. You find yourself paying a greater degree of attention to even the least-regarded words of daily interaction … It is an apt reminder that we express ourselves in more ways than we know.” ―Wall Street Journal

“[An] intriguing treatise…accessible, entertaining…Pennebaker's take on the unexpected importance of throw-away words isthe kind of fun pop linguistics readers devour.” ―Publishers Weekly

“An extraordinary look at ordinary words.” ―Booklist

“The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words--I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this--play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion … Convincing and compelling…Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection between language and human behavior, emotion and perception.” ―Kirkus

“Is it possible for a psychologist to hear just a few words from you and immediately know what makes you tick? Could this psychologist use cutting-edge science to detect your inner desires from subtle patterns in your use of language--beyond anything you were conscious of saying? The answer to both questions is Yes. James Pennebaker is this psychologist and you really ought to read his remarkable book.” ―Daniel Wegner, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, author of The Illusion of Conscious Will

“In this entertaining and sharply illuminating book, James Pennebaker shows that the words you use in everyday talk reveal surprising insights into personality, social relationships, status, leadership, sex, and human nature. I suspect that Pennebaker could decode the pronouns and the functions of words I write now to describe him in such a way as to reveal deep secrets about me! But I will write them anyway, and here they are: He is one of the smartest, funniest, and most creative psychologists you will ever meet.” ―Dan P. McAdams, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, author of George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait

About the Author

James W. Pennebaker is the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Writing to Heal and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, which has been translated into a dozen languages. You can analyze your own language using his Web site,

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; First Edition edition (August 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608194809
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608194803
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #298,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

119 of 123 people found the following review helpful By John M. Ford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 31, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
James Pennebaker studies words. Originally interested in the beneficial effect of writing about personal trauma, he and his students developed software to analyze this writing. Their investigation soon expanded to include spoken conversations, emails, political speeches, and other language samples. They discovered that much can be learned from the short "stealth words" that we barely notice, but that make up more than half of our speech. "Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words broadcast the kind of people we are."

Pennebaker summarizes his trauma research, noting that "people who benefit from writing express more optimism, acknowledge negative events, are constructing a meaningful story of their experience, and have the ability to change perspective as they write." Searching for reliable linguistic indicators of these processes identified writing style rather than more substantive content words. The resulting LIWC software works well regardless of a text's content.

Using both research findings and representative everyday examples, Pennebaker reviews what he has learned. Topics addressed include gender, status and social class, personality, leadership style, deception, interpersonal attraction, and group solidarity. The author not only presents conclusions from his own research, but links to supporting findings using non-linguistic methods. Specific findings include:

- LIWC correctly identifies an author's gender 72% of the time using writing style. This increases to 76% when content words are included. (Human guesses range from 55 to 65%.)

- On detecting depression: "Sadness generally causes people to focus inwardly.
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103 of 106 people found the following review helpful By Susan Woodward on October 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Provoked by the reviews in the WSJ and NYTs, I bought this book while I was away. It was there when I got home and disrupted my readjustment to local time by keeping me up late.

The writing is clear and lively. There are appealing little eruptions of playfulness. The story is put together from lots of research findings from the author and his buddies and probably some enemies. Here's a tiny sample of riveting facts you will learn:

If you ask people to fill out a survey, they use more "I" words (I, me, mine) if you put a mirror in front of them. 2. People believe that women talk more than men. Not true, the numbers say we all talk the same amount, but women use 12% more pronouns. 3. Shakespeare's characters, including the women, all talk like men. Woody Allen's all talk like women. 4. Writing about emotional topics improves the physical and emotional health of those who do it.

Even the notes at the end are worth reading. Only here do you learn that defendants who use "I" a lot are more likely to be innocent, but "me" is used more by the truly guilty, and get suggestions for further reading like "The Psychology of Secrets" and "Strangers in a Strange Lab" (argh, but yes I will buy it).

It must be thrilling to be a Pennebaker student or colleague. He is so engaging, he loves them so much.
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78 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Ohioan on March 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First, I enjoyed reading much of the information in this book, particularly the parts on who uses the "I" pronoun, when and why; and who uses "we" and when and why.

Second, the information could and should have been presented in a much shorter book, whose impact would have been stronger for being more succinct. There's a lot of repetition here and a lot of padding.

Third, there's something about this book and the information in it that I find unsatisfying. That's this: the articles, prepositions, and pronouns that signify where the speaker ranks in status, that signify whether the person is telling the truth or not, that signify whether the person is up to no good or not, that signify whether the person loves the one being spoken to -- these small words, we're told over and over, go by us so quickly that we can't grasp how many times they were used. The little words just don't register in our brains. It takes a computer program, we're told, to analyze the percentage of usage of these words. So, then . . . this book merely presents information. It doesn't provide tools with which we as listeners can assess what we're hearing. I found that dissatisfying.

The author didn't promise that I would be able to use what I learned, so I can't say there was deceit involved: there wasn't. And, despite the fact that I apparently can't use this knowledge, I still found the information interesting. Intriguing, even. So I am glad that I read this book, and I do recommend it, with the caveats listed above.
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55 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on October 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title of James Pennebaker's excellent new book, "The Secret Life of Pronouns", is a bit misleading as it involves so much more than pronouns, themselves. It is a book about language with pronouns playing an active role and one about interaction and comparison.

Pennebaker is a social psychologist and, as one might expect, offers many charts to illustrate his findings. The first few chapters deal with a high degree of word analysis with "function words" being a particular favorite of his. This can be a bit of a slog, but when the author gets into a chapter on lying words, the book really takes off. I highly enjoyed his delving into the national political scene and reading about how John Kerry's advisors suggested he use "we" instead of "I" in his campaign speeches. Pennebaker also compares the social-emotional language of past presidents with regard to their State of the Union addresses and relates his discoveries of who might have authored some of the anonymous Federalist Papers.

There is much to be found in "The Secret Life of Pronouns"...again, more than the title implies. The author has an engaging writing style which helps to add color to his anaylses. While this is not a fast read, it's a solid one. I highly recommend it.
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