The power of pronouns

I’ve just finished a fabulous book called ‘The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us’ by James Pennebaker.

It’s a fascinating look at how the structural words in our language (pronouns, articles, prepositions, and so on) reveal a lot about the way we think and connect with others.

We don’t even notice these words as we speak or write. But Pennebaker says that they broadcast the kinds of people we are. They reveal things like our perceived status and power, whether we’re lying, and how we relate to other people. They can even predict how well students will do at college, how well we’ll cope with emotional upset, and the likelihood of politicians making certain decisions.

I was taken by the way that structural words can reveal things about authors – like whether various pieces of text are likely to have been written by the same author, and whether people collaborated with others in their writing. And structural words also help to explain whether an author has managed to ‘get inside the head’ of their fictional character – such as whether a female author is able to successfully write the narrative of a male character.

One thing that Pennebaker doesn’t discuss is how we learn to use structural words and whether anything about our learning environment is likely to influence the way that we use them in the future. One thing about pronouns, in particular, fascinates me:

  • How do children learn about pronoun use? Presumably they just absorb it as they master the language. But the way that adults talk to children seems to make the task of pronoun learning difficult. Parents seem to have a habit of assuming that their children are incapable of understanding and using pronouns – particularly understanding pronouns from the speaker’s perspective? Listen to parents talking to their children, and you’ll hear an irritating use of the third person, which surely must delay their child’s learning of pronouns. You’ll hear: ‘Come to Mummy.’ ‘Mummy needs that now.’ ‘Sam shouldn’t do that, should he?’ and so on.