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94 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science Writing at its Best
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...
Published on October 12, 2011 by Susan Woodward

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61 of 68 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Information That Can't Be Used?
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...
Published on March 27, 2012 by Ohioan


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94 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science Writing at its Best, October 12, 2011
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This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
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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112 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's the Little Words That Count, August 31, 2011
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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. Pronouns tend to track people's focus of attention, and when in great emotional or physical pain, they tend to use I-words at high rates. Sadness, unlike most other emotions, is associated with looking back into the past and into the future. In other words, people tend to use past- and future-tense verbs more when they are sad or depressed compared to other strong emotions."

- "No system has ever been shown to reliably catch liars at rates higher than 65 percent. And even those with hit rates in that neighborhood (including me) have done so in highly controlled and artificial circumstances."

- "Linguistic style matching" across nine categories of function words occurs within the first 15 to 30 seconds of an attentive conversation. It is generally beyond conscious awareness. LSM profiles can predict a number of things better than chance, including whether a "speed dating" couple will pursue a further relationship after their initial four-minute discussion.

Pennebaker clearly wants to share, not just his insights, but the methods used to achieve them. Much of his research was done collaboratively, not just with students and fellow researchers, but with public figures, professionals in other fields, and anyone else with interesting documents. Readers are pointed to web sites that let them experiment with Pennebaker's techniques and a version of his LIWC software is available for more in-depth investigations. An appendix includes "A Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild."

This book is an accessible summary of James Pennebaker's work with helpful citations of similar research by others. It serves as a guide to more technical discussions of text analysis through an extensive Bibliography and References section--and pointers to downloadable research reports from the author's web site. Interested readers might also enjoy Roderick Hart's Campaign Talk or one of the other related books the author mentions.
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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "We" are amused!, October 6, 2011
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This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
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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61 of 68 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Information That Can't Be Used?, March 27, 2012
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This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
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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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars We talk pretty one day, May 2, 2013
Word choice matters. But you already know that, right? The book presents some interesting hypotheses and backs them up with data: Using words like "I" a lot can indicate youth or lower social status. But it can also indicate depression. Or truthfulness. Or self-obsession. Or being a woman. Using words like "we" a lot can indicate leadership or higher social status. But it can also indicate deception. Or a sunny disposition. See, there are at least five different types of "we" in social language - "we" as in you and me, as in me and other people, as in just you, as in just me, or as in society in general.

Sound squishy? I thought so too. It's an enjoyable book - there are a lot of interesting nuggets and reflections in the book but ultimately not a lot of useful takeaways.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just be careful not to overgeneralize, November 11, 2011
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This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
Free review copy. Basic thesis: knowing how often people use pronouns, articles, helper verbs, and other countable things can predict a lot about them. This is an easy read, and has some surprises: people who use "I" a lot are more likely to be low-status than high, whereas "we"-users are more likely to be high-status. As is usual with pop science, while Pennebaker is open about the fact that his results are bell-curved, there's pressure to take more away than the science really supports: women talk like this and men like that, which is true only in gross, and "good" predictions of gender from analyzing written text run in the 65%-75% range, where 50% is chance. He's clearest about this when he's discussing lie detection: in situations where there is external validation of truth-telling or lying (people convicted of perjury v. people initially convicted whose convictions were overturned based on DNA or other evidence of innocence), analyzing what kinds of words people use and how complex their sentences are again predicts truth about 70% of the time, again better than chance but hardly a magic bullet. His results also show the importance of context: not only do people talk differently in different situations, they routinely mirror each other's styles (at least when things are going well), and when you assign them a high status they start talking like high-status people (and vice versa). So, he suggests, our ways of talking are more diagnostic than they are anything else; he's skeptical of deliberate attempts to change ways of talking without more direct intervention into ways of thinking, though that would be an interesting set of experiments and one I'd definitely like to read about.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great gift for that special liar in your life. Must read for stalkers., March 6, 2012
This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
James Pennebaker's book examines the writings of individuals under various circumstances. His premise is that how an individual uses words can indicate their education, truthfulness, mental health, and class.
Pennebaker's book is not Earth-shattering, but his findings are surprising and counterintuitive. Throughout his book, the author compares writing samples and prompts the reader to draw conclusions about the speaker's mental state. One point that Pennbaker makes is that even after understanding the basic principles of his thesis, a human--but not a computer--is terrible at surmising falsehoods. I certainly found this to be true in some instances. Especially stark was the example of Stephen Glass, the writer for the National Review who fabricated over 20 stories. One can't help but wonder if had Glass read Pennebaker's book, would he have been better able to fashion his words to cover his lies? Of course, if a live person cannot discern truth/falsity when analyzing writing, can the speaker, aware of his lies, articulate a better lie and preempt slips? Pennebaker's numbers provide interesting answers to these questions.

That said, Pennebaker acknowledges that while his research generates findings that are statistically significant, his experiments are often performed under controlled circumstances. And the reader can't help but approach Pennebaker's conclusions with caution. But once you finish this book, you won't receive or use language the same way as before.

For the stalker or liar who doesn't have time to read this thought-provoking book, I recommend going to Pennebaker's site (I can't type the URL because Amazon will remove it, but it's secretlifeofpronouns . com).
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Light Reading, June 24, 2013
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Dadybo (Raleigh, NC) - See all my reviews
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Dr. Pennebaker tries, but he's no Bill Bryson. The subject is counting types of words in various kinds of communications to see if things like gender, age, social class, etc. make a difference in the way words, especially small common words like pronouns and articles are used. The findings are interesting but not gripping. The book describes many different studies that cover a wide range of factors. It is written well, but I can't read more than a little of it at a time. If you are a linguist, this would be an informative book for you, but for most people, even those interested in language in general, it is not an easy read.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thrilled with the book!, September 23, 2011
By 
Jenny E. Sanderlin (Hornell, New York, US) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
I am reading this book right now and taking some of the tests online. It is absolutely fascinating! The words we use can tell a lot about our psychological state, status, age, gender, etc. This is the book for you if you like smart, funny and creative authors writing on weighty subjects. I think I will have to read it several times.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More computer enhanced psychology than linguistics, October 17, 2011
By 
Jaylia3 (Silver Spring, MD United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Hardcover)
Linguist buffs take note because this is not your typical word book. Its subject is not word origins, the evolution of language, or the fine points of grammar. Instead The Secret Life of Pronouns is more psychology than etymology. It explores and analyzes the little words we use, and author James W. Pennebaker makes the case that it's these tiny, forgettable words that tell a lot about our personality, emotional state, style of thinking and connections with other people. These "little words" are not just the pronouns of the title, they are all function words, including articles like "a", "an", and "the" and prepositions like "of", "from" and "toward", that connect and organize the larger, more apparently important words like nouns and verbs. Using a computer program that took three years to write Pennebaker investigates and draws conclusions from the little function words in movies, of politicians, in college application essays, of lovers, of liars, in literature, of people in groups, and of leaders vs. followers. The results are not always intuitive, for instance it's better for a politician to use "I" rather than "we", but the conclusions are often interesting and sometimes fascinating.
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The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker (Hardcover - August 30, 2011)
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