How to put words together in the way that best gets the message across is a subject of consuming interest to writers. We spend hours thinking about the best way to combine them. But few of us, I’m guessing, spend a lot of time thinking about our choice of pronouns.
Well perhaps we should.
The way we use pronouns and other function words – like articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs – reveals a lot about us, according to a fascinating piece in the Harvard Business Review.
James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Bloomsbury Press, 2011), has analysed over 400,000 texts and found that function words actually reveal more about the writer’s psychological state than content words, the words that convey meaning, do.
Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.
That’s interesting enough on its own. What if we combine it with Malcolm Gladwell’s thinking about the unconscious mind and priming in his book Blink? He argues that people take away subconscious messages from the content words.
A simple example would be the use of word boring.You might say “This is far from boring” but the reader may still pick up the negative connotation. Far better to say “This is exciting”. That’s the way I interpret priming and language, anyway.
Put those two strands together and marvel at the power of language. No wonder effective writing takes a lot of thought.