Pronouns Have a Secret Life?

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I’ve been in Sweden visiting at the University of Orebro, where we talked about gender neutral language in general and gender neutral pronouns in particular. Teachers and scholars there are as concerned with language equity as we are in the U.S. so we traded stories about “singular they” and alternative pronouns. One colleague remembered reading a study that rewrote a passage to use gender neutral language throughout and reported that readers had a harder time understanding and remembering the gender neutral message, which seemed to have lost specificity. I was fascinated by this study—but my Swedish colleague could not remember where she had read it or any further details: if anyone knows of this study, or any others like it, I would be very grateful to have that information.


While I’ve been focusing on gender neutral pronouns and how to advise students to think carefully about their use of pronouns and about preferences those they address may have, I completely missed a book by James W. Pennebaker—though it’s been out nearly a decade. In The Secret Life of Pronouns, Pennebaker, who is Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a well-known researcher on the relationship between writing and health, studies low function words (like pronouns and articles) to see what they may reveal about the social and psychological states of speakers who use them. Pennebaker and his team use analytical programs like the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to analyze very large bodies of text and determine correlations. For example, when pundits criticized President Obama, saying that he was overly-fond of “I words” and suggesting that this signaled self-centeredness, Pennebaker went to work. As he reported, his research showed that Obama used fewer instances of I words than any other modern President. Further, this research revealed that people who are confident and self-assured (like President Obama) generally use fewer I words than insecure speakers, who rely on them much more heavily.


Of special interest to me is Pennebaker’s study of speakers/writers who shift between first and third person pronouns. These people, Pennebaker finds, tend to be able to shift perspectives, looking at an issue from other people’s points of view. This is a very intriguing finding, one scholars in writing studies and writing programs might well pursue. We now have enough large collections of student writing to carry out analyses using Pennebaker’s tools (or ones of our own design). Doing so could give us new information we could share with students about their own pronoun usage—at the very least. So perhaps it’s time to broaden and deepen our interest in pronouns: who knew they had such an exciting secret life?!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 623167 by nile, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.