Outside of high school English class, most people don't give much thought to pronouns, prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs, and other "function words" (e.g., I, to, of, am, the). They seem to be no more than fillers for our more important content words—the who, what, where, and why of language. But it turns out that our use of these invisible words has psychological significance. In his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, psychologist James Pennebaker describes findings from his research on the relationship between natural language use, personality, and social life. Much of this research is conducted using a computerized linguistic analysis program that calculates the percentage of words in a given text that fall into a range of grammatical, emotional, and topical categories.

On his website, Pennebaker offers six linguistic exercises that have the potential to reveal aspects of your personality and your compatibility with others.

I tried out a few:


1. The Water Bottle Test. (Take it here.) The way people describe a simple object—in this case, a water bottle—can reveal something about how they see the world and how they think. Without giving too much away, I will say that my results were mostly in the average ranges, meaning that they couldn't tell me much about how I'm different from other people. But one piece of feedback in particular was right on: "I'm going out on a limb here, but I don't think engineering is a good profession for you." I can't argue with that.

The linguistic tool used for analyzing these descriptions is called "meaning extraction." The researchers first had hundreds of people describe the water bottle, then determined the most commonly used words, and finally factor-analyzed the words to find clusters of words that tended to be found together. These clusters provided the basis for each of the assessed personality dimensions. Though the connection to personality (and career aptitude) is based partially on research evidence, it does involve some extrapolation; hence the warning to take the results with a grain of salt.


2. The "I" Exam. (Take it here.)

Spoiler Alert: Don't read this section yet if you want to take the quiz yourself first.


In this quiz I was asked to guess who uses the word "I" more often—men or women, Bush or Obama, truth-tellers or liars, and so on. Many of the answers will surprise you (I'm familiar with this research and I still got a few wrong). For example, you might expect powerful people in leadership roles to say "I" more often than others, since "I" seems to be a word that signifies agency and control. It turns out, however, that the use of "I" is associated with a lower power role. If this seems strange, look back to emails you've exchanged with a higher-power person, such as a professor or supervisor, compared to someone you instructed or supervised. Who used more first person pronouns (this includes me, my, and mine)? Pennebaker gives the following example:

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:

I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I've learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?



Dear Pam - 

This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30? It will be good to see you.

—Jamie Pennebaker

In addition to signifying low power, first-person pronouns are associated with self-consciousness (they suggest that attention is focused on the self), insecurity, and depression. An analysis of poetry, for example, showed that well-known poets who went on to commit suicide tended to use more first-person pronouns in their poems.

To illustrate, here is the first stanza of Mad Girl's Lovesong, a poem by Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at age 31:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

And here is the first stanza of The Ache of Marriage, a poem by Denise Levertov, who did not commit suicide:

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,

are heavy with it,

it throbs in the teeth.

Most people do not do very well on the "I" quiz because in everyday life we pay little attention to people's use of first-person pronouns. But they are clearly far from meaningless, and it's possible that they still influence our social judgments without our explicit awareness.


3. The 'N SYNC Assessment. (Take it here.) This test allows you to compare two people's IMs, emails, or other writing samples to determine compatibility. Pennebaker's research suggests that similar language styles can predict romantic success. In a speed dating context, the extent to which potential pairs used pronouns, prepositions, and other seemingly trivial words in similar ways predicted the likelihood that the pair would decide to go out on a date. This match also predicted the likelihood that an early-stage dating couple would still be dating three months later. These results are presumably due to engagement and interest, not just general similarity. Language patterns (like nonverbal behaviors) tend to shift to align with the speech patterns of our conversation partners, especially if we like them. Keep in mind that this test is still in an experimental stage, so don't be disheartened if you and your loved one are given a lower than average compatibility score.

If you took any of these tests yourself, did the results seem accurate?


This post previously appeared in Psych Your Mind.

About the Author

Juliana Breines

Juliana Breines, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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