Function words as a clue to social skills

It would surprise few people to learn that research supports the idea that the typical ways we write can reveal our personalities and social skills.

But research also shows, as James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin reports in “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” an article published by New Scientist on September 7th,  that it’s not just general writing style that’s revealing. The specific kinds of words we choose when we write point to different personality and social characteristics.

Pennebaker divides his claim into several parts, each dealing with a different aspect of his thesis. Pronoun type and frequency indicate one’s general state of health. The frequency of function words vs. content words tells us something about personality type. And the resulting writing styles — formal, analytic, and narrative — are used by different kinds of people.

In the original study that led Pennebaker to dedicate his career to the study of word use and writing styles, trauma patients who wrote about their experiences with a preponderance of first-person singular pronouns were healthier than were other patients who used other personal pronouns. It’s not that using “I” and “me” makes you healthier; rather, it seems that healthier people use first person pronouns more often. As Pennebaker writes, “Their word use reflected their psychological state.”

Starting here, Pennebaker began to study word use more generally. He found that “function words” — pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, negations, conjunctions, quantifiers like “few” and “more,” common adverbs like “very” and “really” — account for less than 0.1 percent of English words, yet make up 55% of the words we use everyday.

In other words, more than half of our language is composed of words which structure or facilitate our use of “content words” — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. In the simple sentence “I did not steal your wallet,” four of the six words are function words, and only “steal” and “wallet” are content words.

All of the top twenty most common words in English are function words. Just those twenty words account for almost a third of all the words we typically use.

Setting aside Pennebaker’s work for a moment, there is a related feature of English vocabulary that reinforces his findings. English is primarily a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and French. Most of the “function words” in English, and all of the most common irrregular verbs, have Anglo-Saxon roots. They are fundamental to the way we speak, and their constant daily use has kept them “alive” while most other archaic Anglo-Saxon words have disappeared, so that they persist to this day.

Once Pennebaker began studying word choice as an indicator of personality and social traits, he found that it was a factor in many areas:

Not only was gender a factor, there were large differences in language style as a function of people’s age, social class, emotional state, level of honesty, personality, degree of formality, leadership ability, quality of relationships and so on. Word use was associated with almost every dimension of social psychology I studied.

In clinical patients, Pennebaker notes that people with certain kinds of damage to either Broca’s or Wernicke’s Area became deficient in their abilities to use function and content words, respectively. To him, this “points to the fact that the distinction between content and style words is occurring at a fairly basic level in the brain.”

Noting that Broca’s Area is associated with several social functions, Pennebaker argues:

The ability to understand a simple conversation packed full of function words demands social knowledge. All function words work in this way. The ability to use them is a marker of basic social skills – and analysing how people use function words reveals a great deal about their social worlds.

Finally, Pennebaker distinguishes among formal, analytical, and narrative writing styles. Using essays written by his own students as data, Pennebaker’s team were able to discern concrete differences in the personalities of the writers: “By watching how people use function words, we gain insight into how they think, how they organise their worlds and how they relate to other people.”

Formal writers “tend to be more concerned with status and power and are less self-reflective.” Analytical writers “attain higher grades … and are more open to new experiences. They also read more and have more complex views of themselves.” Narrative writers “tend to have better social skills, more friends and rate themselves as more outgoing.”

Interesting as this may be, it does raise the question of how groundbreaking any of it is. Of course it’s valuable to confirm our intuitive assessments empirically, and studies like Pennebaker’s are steps in that direction.

At the same time, is there really anyone out there who didn’t know before reading Pennebaker’s article — or this one, for that matter — that formal people are more authority-seeking, that analyzers are keen observers, or that story-tellers are socially adept?

The ability to “spot” personality types and social behaviours is a crucial and universal human skill. We humans are very good at judging such distinctions, both innately and because of long experience. If we weren’t, we couldn’t function as effectively as social animals as we do.