The smallest words in our vocabulary often reveal the most about us, including our levels of honesty and thinking style
STOP for a moment and think about your most recent conversation, email, tweet or text message. Perhaps you think you said something about dinner plans, domestic chores or work. And you probably did. But at the same time, you said much more. The precise words you used revealed more about you than you can imagine.
Hidden inside language are small, stealthy words that can reveal a great deal about your personality, thinking style, emotional state and connections with others. These words account for less than 0.1 per cent of your vocabulary but make up more than half of the words commonly used. Your brain is not wired to notice them but if you pay close attention, you will start to see their subtle power.
I'm a social psychologist whose interest in these words came about almost accidentally. In the early 1980s, I stumbled on a finding that fascinated me. People who reported having a traumatic experience and who kept the experience a secret had far more health problems than people who talked openly. Why would keeping a secret be so unhealthy? If you asked people to write about their secrets, would their health improve? The answer, I soon discovered, was yes.
As part of this work, we developed a computer program to analyse the language people used when they wrote about traumas. We made numerous discoveries using this tool, such as the value of using words associated with positive emotions.
However, our most striking discovery was not about the content of people's writing but the style. In particular, we found that the use of pronouns – I, me, we, she, they – mattered enormously. The more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, she, they) from one piece of writing to the next, the better their health became. Their word use reflected their psychological state.
This was the prelude to a more substantial discovery that has become my life's work. I found myself reading endless reams of text to analyse language style. For example, I wondered if there were any gender distinctions and found that yes, there were significant differences.
As I played with more and more words, certain patterns kept recurring. Not only was gender a factor, there were large differences in language style as a function of people's age, social class, emotional state, level of honesty, personality, degree of formality, leadership ability, quality of relationships and so on. Word use was associated with almost every dimension of social psychology I studied.
I'm now convinced that by understanding language style, we gain a far clearer sense of the social and psychological processes affecting our behaviours.
What do I mean by style? In any given sentence, there are two basic types of word. The first is content words, which provide meaning. These include nouns (table, uncle), verbs (to love, to walk), adjectives (blue, mouthwatering) and adverbs (sadly, hungrily).
The other type are "function" words. These serve quieter, supporting roles – connecting, shaping and organising the content words. They are what determines style.
Function words include pronouns (I, she, it), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (up, with), auxiliary verbs (is, don't), negations (no, never), conjunctions (but, and), quantifiers (few, most) and common adverbs (very, really). By themselves, they don't have much meaning. Whereas a content word such as "table" can trigger an image in everyone's mind, try to imagine "that" or "really" or "the".
Why make such a big deal about these words? Because they are the keys to the soul. OK, maybe that's an overstatement, but bear with me.
Function words are psychologically very revealing. They are used at high rates, while also being short and hard to detect. They are processed in the brain differently than content words. And, critically, they require social skills to use properly. It's about time that these forgettable little words got their due.
In November 1863, four months after the devastating Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most significant speeches in American history:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Close your eyes and reflect on the content of the speech. Which words occurred most frequently? Most people say "nation", "war", "men" and possibly "dead". Not so. The most commonly used word is "that", followed by "the". Only one content word is in the top 15 – "nation". It is remarkable that such a great speech can be largely composed of small, insignificant words.
But this is typical. A very small number of function words account for most of the words we hear, read and say. Over the past 20 years, my colleagues and I have analysed billions of written and spoken words and compiled a list of the most common. Every one of the top 20 is a function word; together they account for almost 30 per cent of all words that we use, read and hear. English has about 450 common function words in total, which account for 55 per cent of all the words we use.
To put this into perspective, the average English speaker has a vocabulary of perhaps 100,000 words. More than 99.9 per cent of this is made up of content words but these account for less than half of the words we use. This split is comparable in other languages.
Function words are both short and hard to perceive. One reason we have trouble spotting their high rate of usage is that our brains naturally slide over them. We automatically focus on content words as they provide the basic who, what and where of a conversation.
This distinction can also be seen in people with brain damage. Occasionally, a person will have a brain injury that affects their ability to use content words but not function words. Injuries in other areas can produce the opposite results.
The two brain regions of interest are Broca's and Wernicke's areas. If a person with damage to their Broca's area were asked to describe a picture of, say, a girl and an old woman, he or she might say, "girl… ummm… woman… ahh… picture, uhhh… old." Someone with a damaged Wernicke's area might say, "Well, right here is one of them and I think she's next to that one. So if I see over there you'll see her too." To say that Broca's area controls style words and Wernicke's controls content words is a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless, it points to the fact that the distinction between content and style words is occurring at a fairly basic level in the brain. Interestingly, Broca's area is in the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls a number of social skills.
Brain research, then, supports the conclusion that function words are related to our social worlds. To see just how social, imagine finding this note on the street:
HE IS AROUND BUT I DON'T KNOW WHERE. I WILL BE BACK SOON. DON'T DO IT!
The note is grammatically correct and is understandable in a certain sense, but we have no real idea what it means. Every word is a function word. Whoever wrote the note had a shared understanding with its intended recipient of who "he" is, where "here" is, and so on.
Now you find out the note was written by Bob to Julia, who had the following phone conversation a few minutes earlier:
Bob: Hi, you caught me at a crazy time. I've got to go out but I'll leave a note on the door.
Julia: Great. I need the accountant to sign my expense form. Do you know where he is?
Bob: I'll see if he's in.
Julia: Did I tell you that I'm thinking of taking up smoking again? I know it annoys you.
Bob: Are you nuts? Let's talk about this.
All of a sudden, the note makes sense.
Function words require social skills to use properly. The speaker assumes the listener knows who everyone is and the listener must know the speaker to follow the conversation. The ability to understand a simple conversation packed full of function words demands social knowledge. All function words work in this way. The ability to use them is a marker of basic social skills – and analysing how people use function words reveals a great deal about their social worlds.
That is not to say a single sentence is particularly revealing. If you mention "a chair" versus "that chair", it says very little about you. But what if we monitored your words over the course of a week? What if we found that you use "a" and "the" at high rates, or hardly at all?
In fact, there are people who use articles at very high rates and others who rarely use them. Men tend to use them at higher rates than women. Gender aside, high article users tend to be more organised, emotionally stable, conscientious, politically conservative and older.
Now things start to get interesting. It seems the use of articles can tell us about the ways people think, feel and connect with others. The same is true for pronouns, prepositions, and virtually all function words.
One area this is useful is in personality research. As you might guess, different patterns of function words reveal important parts of people's personalities.
In one experiment, we analysed hundreds of essays written by my students and we identified three very different writing styles: formal, analytic and narrative.
Formal writing often appears stiff, sometimes humourless, with a touch of arrogance. It includes high rates of articles and prepositions but very few I-words, and infrequent discrepancy words, such as "would", and adverbs. Formality is related to a number of important personality traits. Those who score highest in formal thinking tend to be more concerned with status and power and are less self-reflective. They drink and smoke less and are more mentally healthy, but also tend to be less honest. As people age, their writing styles tend to become more formal.
Analytical writing, meanwhile, is all about making distinctions. These people attain higher grades, tend to be more honest, and are more open to new experiences. They also read more and have more complex views of themselves.
Narrative writers are natural storytellers. The function words that generally reveal storytelling involve people, past-tense verbs and inclusive words such as "with" and "together". People who score high for narrative writing tend to have better social skills, more friends and rate themselves as more outgoing.
By watching how people use function words, we gain insight into how they think, how they organise their worlds and how they relate to other people.
This work on personality only scratches the surface. We have also found that function words can detect emotional states, spot when people are lying, predict where they rank in social hierarchies and the quality of their relationships. They reveal much about the dynamics within groups. They can be used to identify the authors of disputed texts, and much more.
The smallest, stealthiest words in our vocabulary often reveal the most about us.
Pennebaker, James W. 2011. "The secret life of pronouns". New Scientist. Posted: September 7, 2011. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20848-the-secret-life-of-pronouns.html