Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fun with Pronouns (No, really!)

Check out this New York Times book review, a follow-up article, and a PBS interview all about University of Texas social psychologist James W. Pennebaker's new book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

I know what you're thinking: "Pronouns? What's next? A book on those little plastic shoelace tips?"

Pennebaker, however, makes the case that pronouns reveal secrets about our modes of consciousness. He spends some time exploring the lyrics of the Beatles, the differences between the sexes, and, in this excerpt from the interview, the ability to predict how college students will perform based on their word choice:

One of the most fascinating effects I've seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people's college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students' major.

To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people's attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?

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