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Publisher's Summary

We spend our lives communicating. In the last 50 years, we've zoomed through radically different forms of communication, from typewriters to tablet computers, text messages to tweets. We generate more and more words with each passing day. Hiding in that deluge of language are amazing insights into who we are, how we think, and what we feel.

In The Secret Life of Pronouns, social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics - in essence, counting the frequency of words we use - to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.

Using innovative analytic techniques, Pennebaker X-rays everything from Craigslist advertisements to the Federalist Papers - or your own writing, in quizzes you can take yourself - to yield unexpected insights. Who would have predicted that the high-school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that a world leader's use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he will lead his country into war? You'll learn why it's bad when politicians use "we" instead of "I", what Lady Gaga and William Butler Yeats have in common, and how Ebenezer Scrooge's syntax hints at his self-deception and repressed emotion. Barack Obama, Sylvia Plath, and King Lear are among the figures who make cameo appearances in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying - whether we mean them to or not.

©2011 James W. Pennebaker (P)2012 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A comprehensive investigation of how our words... reveal important insights about our behavior, emotions and personalities." (Kirkus)
"Penetrating … lively and accessible … Paying closer attention to function words [Pennebaker] advises, can help us understand the social relations that those words reflect. Unfortunately, we might not be able to pay proper attention until we’re all equipped with automatic word counters. Until that day, we have Pennebaker as an indefatigable guide to the little words that he boldly calls 'keys to the soul.'" (The New York Times Book Review)

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Interesting exploration of language subtleties

I enjoyed Pennebaker's research and insight into how the "little words" we use, those sly little buggers like articles and pronouns, have such a big impact on the messages we convey and receive, and how we process them primarily through our subconscious mind. The dissection of corporate and political communications he used as examples throughout helped to clarify and reinforce his points.

The narration was a good match for the material. The narrator's pace, diction and inflection complemented the content and gave it life, delivering Pennebaker's subtle humor in just the right manner and reading more like a story than a dry research paper. There were a few areas, such as where he touched upon forensics, that started down the academic path, but for the most part the writing was as entertaining as it was informative and enlightening.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Sticks and Stones and Words Can Really Help You

James Pennebaker has surprised me with a little book titled, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. I got through the first chapter or so and discovered that it is a really informative book. Stay with me now! This book is not about pronouns, per se, but about what our use of pronouns says about our behavior. He reports his empirical research in the field of words and applies his findings to everyday work and life. Along the way, he reveals how writing our thoughts can help alleviate tension, improve health, and relieve depression. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on words in organizations where Pennebaker distinguishes between “I”, “we” and “they” organizations. Valuable as well is the chapter in which he provides short-cuts to using the insights he has covered to understanding daily encounters with colleagues and friends. The audio book is read by Rober Fass to advantage. There are numerous refereces to PDFs which are readily available. I just kept listening and could follow the basic arguments and ideas readily without them. This book is well worth your time. Turn a few pages and see if there isn’t insight you can use.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Jim Fuqua
  • Hendersonville, TN United States
  • 02-15-15

Great Book!

This is an informative book that is a bit difficult to take at one time.

It would be easy to say that the author could have presented the same material in a much shorter book. That would be possibly true for the general thrust of this book, but there were so many very good bits and pieces that would have been omitted, that I prefer it as written.

I listened to this book about thirty minutes at a time. When I started thinking I was hearing more that I wanted to know I shifted to another book for the day. In hindsight, I can say that I am glad that I listened to the entire book.

This author obviously had the help of a large number of graduate students helping or extending his research. He is also extremely knowledgeable about many facets of human behavior.

This is a book about how we use language and what our choice of words says about how we think, but it is much more. This is as much a book about people and how they behave as it is about pronouns and other simple English words.

Jim Fuqua

2 of 2 people found this review helpful