Junk Words: What the, above, he, and I say about your lovelife

Wise Readers, today I’m interviewing Jamie W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., author of more than 250 scientific articles and the new book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.  Dr. Pennebaker is the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University Of Texas, and he has graciously spoken with me to give us all insights into what our words can tell us about others as well as ourselves.


DW: Every Intro Psych student knows you as the guy who did the research on “Don’t The Girls Get Prettier At Closin’ Time”.  In that study, you found that men find women more attractive with each half-hour that closing time draws nearer at bars, regardless of how much the fellas had had to drink.  So it’s not just beer goggles!  Did you do that research here on 6th Street in Austin?

JP: (laughs) No, that’s when I was a new assistant professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville  in the 1970’s.  We did that at three bars there. 

DW:  But it’s really your more recent research that should capture everyone’s attention.  For a couple decades now, you’ve been studying how the ‘junk words’—filler words that aren’t nouns or verbs—tell us a great deal about differences between men and women, who’s likely to date whom, and even whether our partner may be lying to us.  In your book, you point out that these words—words like ‘I’, ‘an’, ‘the’, ‘but’, ‘except’, ‘over’, and ‘about’—are basically unconscious to us, yet have a lot to say about who we are.  Since they’re unconscious, how did you become aware of them?  What made you want to study these junk words? 

JP:  Those words are hard for us to hear.  [How I became aware of them] was a fluke, really.  I had done some research where we had people do some writing every day, about 15 minutes, and it turned out that writing had a big impact on health.  So I wondered what else language could tell us.  I assumed at the time—this was the early 1990’s—that there would be a program that could analyze the language, but the technology wasn’t there.  So one of my graduate students at the time, Martha Francis, had a background in computer programming.  She and I created a program we call the ‘Luke’, LIWC, which stands for the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. 

 At first, we started by looking at the content words people were using, words about religion or beliefs or things like that, and it just didn’t tell us anything about people.  Those words didn’t distinguish between people.  But then we decided to use LIWC to analyze these function words, and all of a sudden, here were these big differences being revealed, about personality, about how people use words differently with age or sex, about power, about whether or not people were telling the truth. 


 DW: That’s really fascinating; I know LoveScience readers and I are interested in differences between men and women.  Could you say more about that?

JP: Sure, well basically, I had assumed what a lot of people thought, that men would use ‘I’ a lot more than women do, but the data were opposite.  I did a study, and that one showed women using ‘I’ more, and I questioned that, but across study after study, it’s the women who say ‘I’ more.  In fact, women use pronouns more in general, and men use articles such as ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’ more than women do. 

DW: What do you think is behind that?

JP: Pronouns tell us where our thoughts are directed.  Women are thinking about other people, talking about other people, more, and women are also discussing their own emotional state more than men are.  A lot of times when women are using ‘I’, it’s to express an internal state, “I feel”.  Men are more focused on things, which articles like ‘an’ and ‘the’ relate to.  Women are being more relational.  That sounds kind of obvious maybe, but other people and I were guessing that women would use the word ‘I’ less than men. 


DW: Your work has also shown that people who use the word ‘I’ are more truthful than people who avoid that word.  What’s going on there?  I receive a lot of letters from folks wanting to know if their partner is telling them the truth.  Does your work have bearing on that?

JP: Well, since I started doing this research, people have become a lot more careful in using pronouns around me, especially ‘I’. 

DW: (laughs)  Yep, I found myself trying to construct an entire interview without referring to myself!  As we can see, I’m failing at that.

JP: But ‘I’ isn’t a bad thing.  When people don’t use the word ‘I’ much [if at all], they’re sometimes seen as arrogant, and if people use ‘I’ too much, they can be seen as obsequious and insecure.  But when people use the word ‘I’ [sometimes, not too much], they’re being human and genuine, and our research has also shown they are being more honest.  When people are telling the truth, they use the word ‘I’, they speak specifically in detail about their actions, and they use ‘but’ and ‘except’ and other words that show not just what they did do, but what they didn’t do. 

We did a study where we had people find money in our lab, and then someone told them to steal the money and not to admit to it even if they were caught.  Half the people stole the money, and half didn’t, but we arranged it so all of them were asked if they had stolen money.  Of course this meant that all the people said they hadn’t taken the money, but half really had, so half were lying.  It was only about a dollar, but LIWC found different speech patterns depending on whether the person was lying or not.  The people who were lying would say things to distance themselves from the action, maybe tossing the accusation back: “How could you say I’m lying?”  The people who…were telling the truth would say things like, “I went into that room, and I saw the money, but then I closed the book and left it there.”  People who are telling the truth talk about what they haven’t done, not just what they have done; talking about what you haven’t done is hard for liars to do because it’s hard to construct an action you haven’t taken.  Also the people telling the truth use more prepositions: ‘under,’ ‘over’.  Again, it’s hard to describe what you haven’t seen, so using prepositions is harder for people who are lying.

DW: That’s really interesting, and of course what I’m wondering is how we can use this in our intimate relationships.  I noticed online that you’ve got free samples and exercises using LIWC—anyone can put in text from what their partner is saying, or even buy your program, to see if their partner is lying, right?  Or is that putting too much faith in LIWC. 

JP: (laughs) Well, they could [use LIWC to detect partner lies], but if you’re buying an $89 program to find out if your mate or date is lying to you, you probably have issues in the relationship.  You might be better off spending the money on some couples therapy!

DW: (laughs) Agreed! 

JP: Also, although LIWC is more accurate than chance and more accurate than someone’s guess, it’s not accurate enough all by itself to tell for certain if someone is lying to you.  I think if someone’s worried [their partner is lying to them], that’s an issue in itself to be dealt with. 

I tell people it’s a messy world.  Chemotherapy, for instance, is only marginally better than not using chemotherapy for many cancers, but that doesn’t tell what is happening or going to happen specific to you, so there are a lot of factors to consider. 


DW: Yes.  You know, what really got me interested in your more recent work was an interview you did on NPR recently.

 JP:  Alix Spiegel did a great job on that.

 DW: (nods) It made me want to read your book.  And one of the things you talked about there and in your book was that how we use junk words can even tell us whether we’re likely to continue a relationship or not.  In fact, LIWC was better at predicting what people would do, as far as continuing to date someone, than people themselves were!  Can you talk more about that?

 JP: We did a few studies of speed dating.  In speed dating, people meet up and rotate from one person to another in brief discussions, and then they rate one another about how much they’d like to go on a real date.  If both people rate one another highly, they go out.  And the LIWC was better at predicting who had made a connection than the ratings the people gave.  We also analyzed instant messaging that couples engaged in over a 10-day period of time, and again LIWC was better at predicting who would still be together in three months than the people in the relationships.  Again, it came down to these [throw-away] words.

DW: Did it matter what the words were, for instance, who said ‘I’ more?

JP: It was more about whether they used the [junk words] in the same way, a kind of mirroring.  People who used the words the same way were making a deeper connection.  They were listening more deeply, they were more connected to each other. 

DW: Is this like physical mirroring?  It’s well-known that people who are into each other will mimic one another’s body movements and positions, albeit unconsciously.  Is this a linguistic version of that—linguistic mirroring?

JP: Yes, I think it is. 


DW: What LoveScience readers and I want to know, always, is how to take research and apply it to our own lives, especially our own relationships.  And I’m feeling a bit hopeless about that right now, because it’s hard to imagine changing things we have no conscious awareness of. 

JP: Our brains are working on the information even though we’re not conscious of it.  A lot of times, a person will be reading an email and thinking something like, “Wow, he’s kind of arrogant,” and they won’t be able to tell you why, but the story is there in the pronouns—the lack of “I”. 

DW: So we’re getting the information even though we’re not exactly manipulating it?

JP: (nods) A lot of people want to know if they can become aware of their language to change it, but it doesn’t really work that way.  Instead, the thing to do is to change how you’re connecting with others, instead of what you’re saying.  Change your connections with others and the language will follow. 

A few years ago when my son was 12, I was starting to learn more about natural language through the use of a new language recording system we were developing. One weekend, I wore the digital recorder at home while talking to my son, daughter, and wife.  The following week, I transcribed the recordings and noticed that I said “I” with him a lot less than with my wife or other family members, and it occurred to me that the way I was treating him could be behind some of our distance at the time. I realized that I needed to change the way I connected with him.

DW: Did you use ‘I’ more?

JP: No, I focused more on him.  My language was a clue that I needed to get closer, more connected to him.  Recent studies we’re doing show that LIWC can monitor online conversations and then give feedback every few minutes to the whole group: “You need to listen to each other more,” “You could try giving everyone a turn to speak,” and so forth.  Or the feedback can be to individuals: “Talk more,” or “Wait a few moments longer to give someone else a shot at speaking.”  It’s helping to show people how to connect in conversation. 


DW: Wow, I think that could really be helpful in marriage therapy, or maybe even in place of marriage therapy?   A primary complaint couples have is that they don’t communicate well, so if your LIWC program could analyze couples’ conversations in real-time and help them to communicate better…

JP: Finding the funding for that research has been touchy.  The [major funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health] are more focused on the health model right now, not so much on [happiness in relationships].

DW: And yet it’s now well-established experimentally that couples who are fighting have higher levels of stress-hormone cortisol after the fight, and they even heal more slowly from wounds.  It’s not much of a leap to say that helping people become happier *is* helping them become healthier, and that good communication would be part of that, is it?

 JP: No, but the funding isn’t there right now; maybe it will be.  There are just so many directions LIWC and this [language research on pronouns] can take us in. 

DW: Either way, it’s safe to say I’d like your career to span a hundred years or more.   You’re just getting started on this, and your research on these small words can tell us such big things about our relationships—with everyone, not just our mates and dates— and ourselves.  Thank you so much.  

JP: Thank you.





This interview was conducted in-person on May 14th, 2012.  All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media, 2012. 

Do you have a question for Duana? Email her at Duana@LoveScienceMedia.com, and a free, confidential response shall be yours.  If your letter is ever used on-site, it will be edited and your name changed to protect your identity. 


Want to try out the LIWC program for yourself and analyze your—or your sweetie’s—language style?  Here are some free, fun ways to do it:

Analyze anyone’s Twitter feed, including your own: http://www.analyzewords.com/

Test out the LIWC on your own writing samples—about pictures, your thoughts about your own life, or just your description of a bottle— here: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/Faculty/Pennebaker/Home2000/Words.html


The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources:

James W. Pennebaker, for his expertise, his science, his interview, and his book. 

His book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.  The book’s scope incorporates everything from this interview, plus how our words reveal who has the most power in a relationship, how you can tell who’s likely to buy a particular product based on their words, whether a person lives in a (very) particular neighborhood based only on their junk words—and much more.  Highly recommend. 

The LIWC program and its creators, including James W. Pennebaker and Martha E. Francis. 


Related LoveScience article:

Using body language to tell who’s into you:  http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/love-science-media/how-to-tell-shes-just-not-that-into-you-or-captain-clueless.html

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Reader Comments (5)

Fascinating! I'm surprised about the usage of "I," or, rather that the lack of using "I" indicates arrogance. I would have thought that the more people use "I," then the more arrogant they are.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaula

Hi, Paula,

That struck me as odd, too. In the interview and in the book, Dr. Pennebaker also spoke/wrote about how 'I' can be a test of one's political leanings. To wit, how often do you think President Obama says 'I'?

(pauses while people guess)

As it happens, people's answer depends more on their party than on fact. Republicans --including some prominent pundits-- routinely say Obama says 'I' excessively. Democrats guess he says 'I' less. In reality, LIWC analyses of existing speeches from all presidents since speeches have been recorded showed Obama says 'I' less than any former president.

Dr. Pennebaker doesn't construe these findings as indicative of lying, btway; 'I' associated with lying deals with being directly queried about a falsehood, not how often one says 'I' in general. Nor did he say Obama was arrogant. Instead, he conceptualized this as aloofness and cool detachment.

At any rate, what 'I' really shows is where people's attention is focused. Men focus more on things than people, usually--which the articles 'a', 'an', and 'the' show. People who are dominant in a given social interaction use more articles and fewer first-person pronouns too. People who are more relationship-oriented (usually women) and those more depression-prone (also usually women) use 'I' more in general. And, of course, when a person is lying, 'I' is the single most-predictive word indicating truthfulness. Or lack thereof.

Ultimately, since we're all largely unconscious of how often anyone says 'I', our perceptions tend to be based more on stereotypes and personal beliefs than reality~hence the 'I' political test and hence researchers thinking men (and perhaps the arrogant) use 'I' more than women, even when studies began finding the reverse.


You know, this sort of thing seems like palm-reading to me. Just sayin,' trying to tell someone's truthfulness via syntax is a gamble at best. It worries me that people already predisposed to superstition might cause their relationships real harm because they think they know enough about their significant others' pronouns to tell if they'd been cheating or not.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Knipe

Dear Dan, thanks for writing in. When I teach Intro Psych each semester, we go over various methods of lie detection, such as the polygraph and 'brain fingerprinting'. The polygraph is well-known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygraph) --most students have heard of that--and it's inadmissible in American courts today precisely because it's so imprecise. It only differentiates guilt from innocence around 65% of the time.

The brain fingerprinting method presumes that if a person recognizes images from a crime scene, as shown by brain-wave changes, then that person is guilty. A version of brain fingerprinting has been used to convict people of murder in India...with no other evidence brought to bear. And the PhD-level psychologist who created the method, Lawrence Farwell, seems supremely confident of its efficacy--both in this article (http://www.brainwavescience.com/LegalIssuesinAdmissibility.php) and this interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REqfGFKxBzU).

Problem? For good reason, it would seem nearly all other social scientists, including great thinkers in neuroscience such as Michael Gazzaniga (http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/~gazzanig/), share your skepticism of lie-detection methods--whatever methods are used. And so does Dr. Pennebaker(http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/home2000/jwphome.htm). And for what it’s worth, so do my students and I.

In the interview Dr. Pennebaker gave me, (http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/love-science-media/junk-words-what-the-above-he-and-i-say-about-your-lovelife.html), he noted that while his language word-count method (http://www.liwc.net/) detects lies at better-than-chance levels, it’s not strong enough to use as stand-alone evidence. That’s because life is messy: Many factors are brought to bear in any one person’s life, and no one lie detection method satisfactorily measures and accounts for all of those~not yet, and perhaps not ever.

Dr. Pennebaker elaborates the point in his book The Secret Life Of Pronouns (http://www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/), which expounds on his research in word counting and what it tells us about many things, including lie detection. Basically, accuracy of his method has been experimentally tested by having the program analyze word use in persons who are randomly assigned to lie and tell the truth; then, the program’s accuracy is compared to the accuracy of bystanders who are asked to say whether others are lying.

Results? The LIWC program has occasionally detected lies at the 75% accuracy rate, but much oftener it’s about as accurate as other lie-detection methods—around 65%. That’s a 15% gain over human beings, who only perform at 50/50, aka chance. But it’s not nearly sufficient as a stand-alone method of conviction—either in court, or in a personal relationship.

That said, Dr. Pennebaker implies a necessary question in his book: Since lie detection methods are about as accurate as eyewitnesses, why should we exclude polygraph evidence but keep eyewitness accounts?

"If polygraph, nonverbal, eyewitness, brain scan, and any other type of evidence can help classify the guilt or innocence of a witness, it should be introduced in court. However, it should be introduced in a way that calibrates its accuracy to the jury. Each type of evidence is simply something else for the jury to weigh, knowing that there are problems with each type. Life is probabilistic--courtroom evidence is no different" (p. 155)."

In other words, let's say someone really did use the LIWC to test their sweetie's honesty. At best, it'd be a piece of all the information they already knew.

At worst, it'd be just what you indicated: a dangerous misuse of technology that could seriously undermine relationships.

Thanks again for the great question.


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