Pronoun Use and Suicidal Poets

by Translation Guy on September 12, 2011

There is more to “I” than meets the eye. You are leaving a trail of pronoun crumbs that reveal your deepest thoughts and attitudes with everything you write. And James Pennebaker, UT psychologist, can read those hidden psychological meanings in the way you use words.

Pennebaker got started with his word analysis when he and his students discovered that people who were asked to write about emotional upheavals showed improved physical health. Putting experience to the pen changed how people viewed events. After analyzing text, Pennebaker discovered that the way people used pronouns predicted health outcomes. Pronoun use showed how easily writers were able to change perspective.

“I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts—blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.”

Men used articles (a, an, the) more often than women, and women used first-person singular pronouns and cognitive words more often than men. Surprisingly (for all the men out there anyways), men and women used emotion words at similar rates, but women did use social words (he, she, friend, cousin) more frequently than men. The study results were consistent across channel and culture. This is because “men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things.”

Status drives pronoun use too. In hierarchical communications, such as those between professor and student, or employee and boss, those with higher status use the pronouns I, me and my much less than those with lower status.

And now the scary part. These same textual analysis techniques can also be used to predict behaviors. Pennebaker was able to pick out the most suicidal poets in literary history by the frequency of “I” word use. By looking at college admission essays, Pennebaker was able to predict grade point averages. Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were strong and consistent, irrespective of the students’ majors.  The team is getting good at spotting liars too. “In controlled studies, we can catch lying about 67% of the time where 50% is chance. Humans, reading the same transcripts, only catch lying 53% of the time. This is actually quite impressive unless you are a person in the judicial system.”

Now, if you are as paranoid as I am, a textual analysis will quickly reveal my level of paranoia. Man, how long before Google gets hold of this and starts selling the data to the NSA? It’s like mindreading. Which means they already know. Damn. I mean…Damnation! More nouns. More nouns!

Thanks again to Gareth Cook of Scientific American for once more doing all the legwork on a Translation Guy post.


  1. Lettie says:

    Thanks for making me more aware of my own language!

  2. Cal says:

    Makes me want to watch “My Fair Lady” again…

  3. Stacy Floyd says:

    Not surprising at all to hear that men and women use language differently. I am surprised that they use emotion words at similar rates. Perhaps the men tend to use those words with the “I” as opposed to women who use emotion words more for others than just themselves!

  4. Lucy says:

    Is it really necessary to do these kinds of studies? I mean they are interesting and all but are they really useful??

  5. Lee Proctor says:

    Whether we like it or not, we judge others on the words the choose to utter, on their accent, on their delivery. Maybe people should take note of this and be more conscious of how they speak.

  6. Joe York says:

    Ahhh the suicidal poet… aren’t they more fun to read anyways?

  7. Brian Banks says:

    What?? Men are more interested in concrete objects and things?? I never would have guessed! Studies had to be done to figure this out? Come and meet my husband!

  8. Louie says:

    Very fascinating research! And once again, you made me laugh!

  9. I am curious, is this study consistent in young children as well, or are they pretty much the same at an early age (boys and girls)?

  10. Sophia says:

    I am surprised and I am glad to read information on my use of pronouns in all that I write. I am now understanding myself better. I am signing off now… from, me myself and I.

  11. Pope says:

    I think you should uncover more deeply the part about how writing about your emotiona experiences makes you physically healthier. Maybe more people would go back to journal writing and being more introspective.

  12. Yes, language is a learned thing, so why wouldn’t it reflect so much about a person’s personality and upbringing?

  13. The suicidal research makes perfect sense: if you are down and depressed you have a difficult time getting beyond your own life, to think about others. So in your word choice as well, you would talk about yourself (hence the I, me, my…)

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