In his recently published book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” University of Texas social psychologist James W. Pennebaker describes how the frequency of the words, phrases and punctuation marks we use, can reveal our inner feelings, self-concept, social intelligence, and even mental health.
Pennebaker’s work focuses on what he calls “function words.” These include pronouns, articles, prepositions and other seemingly insignificant words which are often more revealing than the intended meaning of what we say. Function words account for only a fraction of our vocabularies, but comprise about 60 percent of the language we use.
People are extraordinarily inaccurate in estimating their own and other people’s word frequencies so in order to objectively study these patterns, Pennebaker and his associates developed a software application called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). The LIWC calculates how frequently people use various categories of words. Researchers have examined a wide range of texts, using the LIWC, including e-mails, speeches, tweets, historical documents, college essays, and even suicide notes. You can use a lite version of the LIWC to analyze tweets at www.analyzewords. com, by simply entering a Twitter handle.
Much of what the LIWC reveals is counter-intuitive. For example, President Obama was criticized by several commentators for overusing the pronoun “I” in his speeches. After a careful analysis of press conference transcripts, Pennebaker, concluded that, Obama actually had the lowest use of “I” words of any modern president. While Obama’s speech contained 2.6 percent “I” words, George W. Bush averaged 3.4 percent, Clinton had 4 percent, and George H. Bush’s speech yielded 5.2 percent. Pennebaker notes that Obama’s lack of “I” words, however, does not reflect humility, but rather signals self-confidence, emotional distance, and possible rigidity. According to Pennebaker, commentators were wrong about, not only how many self-references the President made, but also about what his pronoun use signified.