The Secret Life of Pronouns

contact James Pennebaker

a book by James W. Pennebaker

Your Results from the "I" Exam

We hear people talking all the time. It should be extremely easy to pick out who uses the words "I", "me", and "my" more.


Keep in mind that there were 10 questions. The higher the number, the more questions you got right.

Your I-Test Score is: 0

Oooooh. This is not good. Not good at all. The ways people use first person singular pronouns is almost exactly the opposite of what you thought. We all have stereotypes of who uses I the most but these stereotypes are simply wrong. It might be a good idea to study the answers below so that you can be better informed the next time you and your friends start talking pronouns.

The I-Exam Answer Sheet

Even though we hear people using 1st person singular pronouns all the time, our brain has trouble registering these little words. In daily speech, the word "I" is the most commonly used word in English. When and why do we use it?

Focus of attention. People's use of pronouns tells us where they are paying attention. If they are thinking and talking about friends, they will use words like he, she, and they. If they are thinking and talking about the group or relationship they are in, they might use words like we and us. And if their attention is drawn to themselves, they use I, me, and my.

People pay attention to themselves if they are in pain, self-conscious, or self-aware. However, if they are completely immersed in what they are doing or are psychologically distancing themselves from the topic of discussion, they are not paying attention to themselves and will not use 1st person singular.

Ownership of the topic. If individuals feel extremely close to an object, event, or other person, they tend to link their sense of self to it. "Did I tell you about my trip to the beach?" has a very different feel from the more distant"You heard about that trip to the beach?" When people tell the truth, for example, they use much higher rates of "I" than when people lie. Immediately after witnessing a distressing event, people psychologically distance themselves and drop in their use of "I" words. However, people who are clinically depressed or suicidal tend to use "I" words at very high rates -- almost as though they are embracing their unhappiness.

Social hierarchy: Leadership, dominance, and status. A common mistake is that people think that high status people use 1st person singular more than low status people. In fact, the high status people tend to be more comfortable with themselves and are less self-conscious than the more insecure low status people.

Does changing your I-word use make you more dominant, less depressed, richer, and more Obama-like? Sadly, no. The ways people use pronouns reflects their psychological state more than changing it. Once you snap out of your depression, your I-word use will drop. But changing your I-words probably won't affect your depression.


Who uses I-words more:

1. Women (not men)
2. Bush (not Obama)
3. Followers (not leaders)
4. Truth tellers (not liars)
5. Young people (not old)
6. Poor people (not rich)
7. Depressed (not happy)
8. Afraid (not angry)
9. Poor students (not good students)
10. Sick (not healthy)