Book Review: The Secret Life Of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

The Secret Llife Of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker - Header

You’ve probably guessed from the fact that I write a blog and read books that I like words. There is something magical about finding a synonym you’ve never seen before or how emotions and feelings can be so richly and vividly brought into being through simple expression and context alone. How language, whether used poorly or perfectly, can reveal so much about both reader and writer is something I find truly fascinating.

In the last of the book recommendations taken from a fellow blog, The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,  James W. Pennebaker takes a look through how the words we use, whether written or spoken, act almost as powerfully as fingerprints in being a definable marker to individual identity. Specifically how different types of word can reveal our mental health, our personality and even our location. The book is a demonstration that the power of words, and how the amount, order and structure in which we use them can reveal so much more about a person than you could ever realise.

James W. Pennebaker (Author) - The Secret Life Of Pronouns

The first thing that really hits you about the book is just how much Pennebaker obviously loves the subject of linguistics and words analysis. His writing style is friendly and relaxed yet littered with passion. You can almost see him sitting at the keyboard smiling, thinking, enjoying, as he wrote the chapters. This adds up to create a book that has a natural inviting flow to it, but also a friendly trustworthy quality. Together meaning that, as I read, I started to picture Pennebaker more as a friend and, therefore, I accepted without question what he was saying.

While the writing style put me at ease, Pennebaker’s absolute knowledge of the subject did create one issue. The book relies heavily on definitions: function words, pronouns and articles, for example, and while it would from time to time drop a pair of bracketed examples back into the text to remind you what each term meant, too often, it wouldn’t. This left me, in part, believing what I was reading but struggling to remember the exact type of word being analysed. I kept getting lost as to whether the topic meant increased use of “I, me, my”, less use of “we, us, our” or something altogether different.

Psychological Maze - The Secret Life Of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

The Secret Life Of Pronouns came recommended as a psychology book and while it does take a psychological view of the effects it’s explains it does so in a way that isn’t overly scientific. Pennebaker knows his audience and keep it approachable for the man in the street. It’s far more concreted in explaining the real world situations that are caused, created or cured by the different variations in word use than bamboozling the reader with technical jargon and complex scientific explanation.

Some sections of the book I found extremely interesting becoming truly immersed in the ideas they raised. The first third, especially, grabbed me. It essentially ‘sets the scene’ explaining how different groups can be identified by the quantity and variety of words used. This may sound obvious – of course age, gender and location alter the way we speak, but it was how this simple information can be refined and given real world uses that drew me in. The fact liars focus more of their own specifics than the environment as a whole, or that depression focuses the use of pronouns onto the author rather than the reader. Minute things, easily overlooked, that can be extrapolated when reviewing everything from political decisions, to historical scripts, to job application CVs. The most amazing part was how these idiosyncrasies even crossed language barriers. How patterns noticed in the English language would equally appear in German, Japanese or Swahili.

Language Across Age & Culture - The Secret Life Of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

Sadly though, not all of the book is as thought provoking. Too often the underlying patterns of word use that define the groups into which the real world subjects are being place are the same for various different ideas. Essentially the personality traits that give rise to different situations result in the same structure of speech. While the groups and explanations are still interesting this constant repetition of the underlying structure started to feel a little dull and stale. The book draws out into monotony and lifelessness. In fact, if I’m brutally honest, as the book worse on I actually became fed up of how repetitively shallow it became and by the end was glad it would soon be over.

I’m come away from The Secret Life Of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker having found a field of ideas and research that is fascinating but sadly is presented in a way that ultimately ran out of steam. This lack of narrative diversity dampens down it’s strengths, especially that it is written in a way that took a complicated subject – the structure/definition of words – and managed to make them accessible, interesting and even at times scary. I would happily recommend it to anybody with an interest in language, words, or psychology in general because it’s high points are strong enough to outweigh the low; just expect to be left a little frustrated when you reach the end.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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