The Secret Life of Pronouns, etc…

My Dad sent me an interesting article from New Scientist magazine recently called “The Secret Life of Pronouns”. It’s based on a book of the same name by James W. Pennebaker. Now the article was fascinating (I’ll get to it in a minute), but I just wanted to put in a quick plea first.

Please, no more books called “The Secret Life of…” The most well-known is of course The Secret Life of Bees, but we’ve also had in recent years, among many others:

  • The Secret Life of Lobsters
  • The Secret Life of Puppets
  • The Secret Life of France
  • The Secret Life of Cowboys
  • The Secret Life of Nuns
  • The Secret Life of Husbands
  • The Secret Life of Water
  • The Secret Life of Germs
  • The Secret Life of Wombats
  • The Secret Life of Plants
  • The Secret Life of Words
  • The Secret Life of Food
  • The Secret Life of It Girls

Yes, these are all real books. Have I missed any? Please add to the list if you know any more! I think you get the point, anyway. Enough with the not-so-secret secret lives, please. It was a great title for one book, but please don’t apply it to every noun in the English language.

Now, on to the actual article. It seems that our use of pronouns can reflect our psychological state. Pennebaker studied people who had suffered a traumatic experience, and discovered that the more they changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using others such as we, you, she and they, the better their health became. Pronoun use reflected psychological state. It was also influenced by gender, age, class and other factors.

I was also interested in the separation of language into “content” words and “function” words. Function words are the small, unobtrusive words that we naturally skip over. In the last sentence, for example, “the” and “that”. Our brains naturally focus on content – the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that describe the things we are seeing, doing or thinking. But the 450 function words in the English language account for an extraordinary 55% of all the words we use. So although the average English speaker has a vocabulary of 100,000 words and more than 99.9% of those are content words, the content words still account for less than half of all the words used.  (The 100,000-word vocabulary stat also shocked me, by the way – do I really know that many words? When did I learn all these words and what on earth are they?)

Click here to see a list of all the books I’ve reviewed on this site.

I liked the example in the article of a note you find in the street: “He is around but I don’t know where. I will be back soon. Don’t do it!” Sounds like the start of a short story right there. In fact it is a sentence composed entirely of function words, and so without content it is impossible to understand. Function words require social skills to use and comprehend properly –  if content words are missing, the listener often has to piece together knowledge based on context and assumptions.

What do you think of this? Are you interested in dissecting language like this, or do you prefer just to use it? And do let me know of any more “Secret Life of” books you’ve come across!

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There are 8 comments

  1. Nice post, Andrew! I enjoyed knowing about function words and content words. It is amazing that function words comprise 55% of all the words we use!

    Your thoughts on ‘The Secret Life…’ series made me smile 🙂 I think when someone comes up with a title like that the first time, it looks so interesting and novel. But then everyone else starts milking the cow. I remember a few years back, novels having titles like ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ etc. It was a combination of + . There were also books whose titles went like this – ‘Biology’, ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ – which worked with a different formula. I haven’t seen a lot of such titles these days – the fad may have died out.

  2. @Vishy

    Looks like one of the sentences in my comment didn’t make it. “It was a combination of” should read as – “It was a combination of ‘Someone’ + wife, daughter, mother, son, sister”.

  3. The Secret Life of Publishers – not a real book, but a reality in which publishers quietly try to make every book resemble another…. It’s interesting what you say about pronouns and trauma. I found it to be the other way around. I realised that I had removed my own subjectivity from daily life when I was suffering from chronic fatigue and practically never said ‘I’. All my sentences were like ‘you know when you do so and so, you feel like…’ I remember making a conscious effort to say ‘I’ and not to talk to myself or about myself as if I weren’t there, or another person entirely. I still catch myself out sometimes and have to make the effort to own myself.

  4. Very interesting.
    Funny list of “secret life of”…
    I’m also surprised by the 100 000 words, I won’t do it –too lazy — but it would be interesting to count the number of different words you used in your post.
    In French we say “parler pour ne rien dire” (to talk without saying anything), that’s what sentences with only function words sound like.

    As an aside, I find writing in another language liberating because for me the words don’t have the same emotional charge than in French.

  5. Hi Vishy, nice examples! You’re right, there are always fads in publishing! This “Secret Life” one seems to have been going on for a long time, though. I also found the function words stat interesting, and am examining my own language now to see how much is actually content. Sorry my blog swallowed some of your words – not sure what happened there 🙂

    Ah litlove, The Secret Life of Publishers – as weary as I am of Secret Life books, I don’t think I’d be able to resist reading that one! That’s interesting about the pronouns, and talking about yourself as if you weren’t there. I remember being surprised at the time that it was that way round in the article – I can see how talking about yourself, or ‘owning yourself’ as you so aptly put it, would be a step forward.

    Hi Emma, yes 100,000 is amazing! I’d be interested also to see a graph of my vocabulary over the course of my life – I’d imagine there’d be a huge growth in early childhood, and a steady levelling off. Hope there hasn’t been a decline 🙂 It’s great that you can write in English and feel liberated. I know a couple of other languages, but not well enough to be able to write with anything other than difficulty. I’d love to be able to, though – maybe one day!

  6. The Secret Life thing is funny.

    I have a five year old son and his language development is quite impressive. I think he is typical of most small children who are involved with adult conversation. I noticing huge jumps in his vocabulary. I’m now convinced that he knows more words and is able to use them only when the opportunity presents itself. It’s quite an amazing process to watch, especially since he is also bilingual. So I can believe the 100,000 figure.

    I had no idea about function and context words. A note of all functions words will probably make sense to spies or secret lovers. thanks for the post.

  7. Hi Kinna, that must be an amazing thing! I was thinking that I don’t remember learning so many words, but it must have been around that time. I read somewhere that we don’t add much at all to our vocabulary after the age of 18, and I think that’s been true for me – I’ve learned new words, of course, when I have a reason to do so, but I don’t take them in as easily as I used to. If I just see a word once, I’ll probably skip over it if I don’t know the meaning. As a child, though, I was like a sponge, soaking up anything and everything. Interesting that you raise that point about the function words – I think that sort of thing is a staple of spy novels, mystery novels, etc. The cryptic note, that only makes sense when you know all the context. I found it very interesting, glad I wasn’t the only one 🙂

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