Posts tagged “function words”

It’s the little things

The secret life of pronouns [] – James Pennebaker’s studies show that the use of small, seemingly insignificant “function” words reveal a great deal. We cognitively focus more on the “content” words, which provide meaning and provoke the imagination. Function words are used more unconsciously.

Function words serve quieter, supporting roles – connecting, shaping and organising the content words. They are what determines style… 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 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…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…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.

He then turns it on himself!

Using a recording device programmed to switch on for about 30 seconds once every 12 to 14 minutes, I have been able to analyse my family’s interactions. The first weekend I wore it seemed uneventful. But when I transcribed my recording I was distressed to see the way I spoke to my 12-year-old son. My tone was often detached. I used big words, lots of articles and few pronouns. My language was warmer with my wife and daughter. The experience had a profound effect on me. Thereafter, I made a conscious attempt to be warmer and more psychologically available to my son. I have also analysed my language in emails, classroom lectures, articles and letters. Sometimes my language is predictable, sometimes it isn’t. And when it isn’t, I learn something about myself.


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