Reub's journey

25 October 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Secret Life of Pronouns

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was a student of applied linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. The year was 1988, just on the cusp of the computer age. The university computer labs ran 24-7; without windows or anything resembling comfortable furniture, they looked like stuffy, oddly lit caves in which it was easy to lose track of time. They were like casinos without any fun lights, food,  or music. It was a lucky thing to major in a subject that required me to spend zero time in such places. 

But one day a syntax prof said, "Computers are the future of linguistics. In your lifetime there will be computers with whom you will converse, and computers that will try to understand the meaning of what you write. However, the nuances of language and social convention will make this very difficult to achieve." Twenty five years later, thanks to computational linguists, we have Siri answering questions on iPhones and Google analyzing email for possible ad targeting.  This month I read a book that describes how computers can psyche me out by counting the number of times I use pronouns and articles.

 



The Secret Life of Pronouns is a book easily devoured in a couple of sittings, but I hesitate to recommend it to anybody but the geekiest. It's written by a psychologist so passionate about his  computer analyses of a vast array of written English (Lady Gaga's tweets, Shakespeare's King Lear,  Lincoln's Gettysburg address, John Kerry's campaign speeches, Enron emails...) that well...you might tire of it. But for word buffs, James Pennebaker's faith in his number crunching of "stealth words" in a wide variety of contexts is interesting.



Pennebaker, image from Yale Scientific

 "Stealth words" are those little guys that we never pay much attention to: pronouns, articles, and the like. Merely counting the number of times that a writer uses the pronoun "I" can indicate  gender, state of mind, and social status. Pennebaker's computer analysis of poetry is scary-accurate in its ability to predict the authors' suicides. Depression, self-deception, honesty, love, support, and the language of power are all covered by computer word-counts of "stealth words." Could this become a psychologist's tool? Maybe.

Always skeptical of technological fixes for human issues, I thought I might hate this book. The prose was approachable, if a bit odd...why suggest that the reader could skip the first chapter, and then say you might regret it, for example? But I did not hate this book. It was fun, and that's a big thing for a non-non-fiction reader to admit. I enjoyed his analysis of Obama's much-criticized use of "I," and I loved what the computer thought of Woody Allen's male characters' lines.

Final word: if you're a word buff, read this book. If you're mildly interested but don't want to buy the book, go to the website and take some short quizzes and do the exercises!  You'll become part of the ongoing research in applied linguistics, and you may learn something about yourself.

And then come back and tell me how you did on the "I" test. :-)

 For some more book ideas check out Armchair Squid:


31 comments:

  1. I am in the middle reading Proust and the Squid. It is a little geeky and I have to read it in bits and pieces rather than long sittings. This book of your sounds like a good read as well.

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    1. Proust and the Squid would be an excellent book to review for Cephalopod Coffeehouse: please consider writing one when you finish it. Sign up at Armchair Squid, publish on the last Friday of the month.

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  2. This sounds like an excellent addition to my All About Words and Writing bookshelf. It can sit by Stephen King's On Writing :)

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    1. It definitely belongs on that bookshelf of yours!

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  3. Wow, what an interesting and provocative idea for a book.

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    1. Laoch, I think you would enjoy this book.

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  4. This reminded me of my first banking course in 1967. The professor told us that someday there would be little plastic cards that we could use everywhere to make purchases and the money would come right out of our bank account. Also we would be able to use these cards in vending machines and gas pumps. We would become a check-less society. You should have heard the laughter.

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    1. Oh man. What a prescient thinker in 1967. I wonder when the first credit card came out? I don't know! It seems as though they've been around forever!

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  5. It sound like a book I wouldn't mind reading -- at least in part.

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    1. This book can be read in bits and pieces, although I found myself trying to remember the details of the pronoun "I" and had to go back & review what had been said.

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  6. Ooh, this book sounds fascinating! I am one of the geekiest, so this sounds like fun reading, LOL. Great review!

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    1. Are you geeky RG? And interested in psychology & words? This book is for you!

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  7. I (!) went back and rewrote the first paragraph of my review last night because it had too many 'I's.' A beta reader alerted me to their overwhelming presence when you write a first-person narration and it's hard not to notice them, now.

    This book sounds like the kind that, if you're in the mood to go there, could be gratifying. What I loved best about your review, though, was the opener. Love your description of the memory of computer labs in 1988 so much I almost wish (no, I do wish) I had been climbing into a novel or a memoir. I would follow you down that rabbit hole. Your syntax prof sounds ace. Wonder where he is now--and what he thinks.

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    1. Upon reflection that first couple of paragraphs COULD be the opening to a novel! Wow. I hadn't thought of that, how cool. It makes me ridiculously happy.

      It's funny that you re-wrote the 1st paragraph of your post. For the past year or so I've been editing my posts for exactly the same thing: the pronoun "I." That's the thing that made me want to read this book, really.

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  8. Sounds like fun! Does it get into how language has changed as a result of technology?

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    1. No, not exactly, although he does write about Twitter. He says that volumes of info are revealed in just 140 characters. Gotta watch what and how you say things!

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    2. That's the sort of thing I meant. I love that stuff. I may need to seek this one out.

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  9. Wow, sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for recommending it!

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    1. It's a great book for word buffs, and quite cheap as an e-read.

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  10. I find it fascinating that he analyzes it so well that he can figure out gender through the repeated use of "I"! I'd never thought about that. You're probably right in stating it wouldn't be the most fascinating thing to read, but it's definitely an interesting topic. I kind of miss the cave-like atmosphere of computer labs and libraries of yore...

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    1. Reading that book made me super self-conscious about using "I."

      I bet you could find similar computer labs in a few third world countries, but otherwise they're pretty much extinct, eh? Maybe they got converted into mushroom farms or something?

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  11. Man, I bombed that "I test!" I got 3 right. To be fair, I was pretty sure I bombed it: I guessed I got 4 right. I felt I was just guessing randomly, but I did worse than I'd have done if I guessed randomly.

    I have this book; I will be sure to read it now! Thanks for a great review.

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  12. The "I" test is pretty interesting because it isn't at all obvious what the answers will be. Because I took the quiz after reading the book I should have gotten a perfect score, but I didn't, so don't feel too bad!

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  13. I don't have time to take the quiz right now, but the book sounds interesting. I'm going to have to add it to my list to look at.

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    1. The exercises and quiz & survey are good if you think you might never get around to reading the book, but of course the book will give you the best understanding of the research.

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  14. I had two thoughts while reading this post:

    1. Why are we so self-absorbed/obsessed with analyzing ourselves to the point of creating machinery to do this for us?

    2. What's the fascination with prediction and the future? (Author suicide predictions?) Before it was the oracle, Nostradamus and such, then it was psychics, palm/tarot readers, now it's computers counting pronouns? We're insecure creatures, aren't we? (Big sigh)

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    1. I'm glad that you bring up these points. Self-analysis/self-help books are usually insufferable. I grew tired of the author's fascination with computers, but since he is a psychologist I had to forgive him for his love of analysis because that's what psychologists do.

      We are insecure, I guess. It isn't bad to want to know some answers...but counting pronouns may be going overboard. Still I appreciated the author's fact-checking on Obama, who was accused of arrogance because of "overuse' of "I." Turns out he actually uses "I" less than any president since Truman. In that case I'm glad the pronouns got counted.

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  15. Sounds like an interesting read Kerry. I shall add this to my ever-growing list!

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  16. I got a whopping 4 on the test. I might see if my library has the book as it would be somewhat amusing to me.

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    1. I just requested it from my library! :)

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    2. Oh good! It is really quite interesting. And don't worry about the "4!" I read the book and still got one wrong.

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