Wednesday, August 12, 2009

We Are What We Write

by Sandra Parshall

How much do you think you might reveal about yourself in describing a simple plastic water bottle?

You would be amazed.

Social psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has devoted his career to the study of human speech habits, and his web site, The World of Words, is crammed with fascinating information about the way we reveal ourselves in our choice of words. For a fiction writer striving to create realistic characters who spout realistic dialogue, this site is a treasure trove – if you’re willing to make your way through lengthy and intricate scientific articles. For fun, you can tackle one or all of three short writing assignments, including the bottle description, and get a quick assessment of what your words say about you. Pennebaker’s site also offers some capsulized conclusions based on decades of speech and writing studies.

A few examples:

Women in general use more pronouns and references to other people, while men are more likely to use articles, prepositions, and big words.

Despite the common perception of old people as being a little cranky and anchored in the past, studies show that as most people age they talk about themselves less and use more positive than negative words. They also use more future tense verbs and fewer past tense.

Those who enjoy high status tend to be the most loquacious, but they talk more about others than themselves and use fewer emotionally-charged words. People of low status talk about themselves more.

When people tell the truth, they tend to use first person singular pronouns and don’t hesitate to use words like except, but, without, and excluding, which convey complex situations and concepts. A liar is more likely to keep it simple.

In two studies, a high testosterone level correlated with fewer references to other people.

The way people speak and write can provide a reasonably good indication of what kind of music, cars, and other consumer goods they prefer.

In the time following a cultural upheaval or a disaster, people use the word “I” less and the word “we” more often.

Perhaps the most intriguing conclusion researchers have reached is that it’s not the content words – nouns, regular verbs, most adjectives and adverbs – that give away a person’s mental and emotional state and attitudes toward others; it’s the “style” words -- pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs and articles. A person’s choice of pronouns, for example, may not only alter the factual meaning of a statement but can convey the speaker’s perception and attitude. To use a simple example, a reference to the house becomes something quite different when it changes to my house or her house. Pennebaker cites numerous studies that assessed both physical and psychological health based on the word choices people made in essays.

Pennebaker and his colleagues used decades of research to create a computer program called Linguistics Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC – nicknamed “Luke”) that can analyze speech and text quickly, saving humans many hours of laboriously counting words in various categories and assessing their use. LIWC was used last fall to analyze the speech of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and the results were posted at, where you may still read them.

The three brief writing analyses offered to The World of Words visitors will give you an idea of how LIWC works in analyzing verbal thinking, visual sensitivity, functional thinking, tactile sensitivity, and contextual thinking. I was surprised at first that most of my scores were far above average. After thinking about it, though, I realized that I’m neither a genius nor the most sensitive and perceptive person on the planet. I’m just a writer, and I notice everything around me to a greater degree than the average person does because noticing things and translating them to the page is my business. According to LIWC, my description of the water bottle demonstrated extremely high sensitivity to color, texture, depth and shape, but I also appreciated the practical functions of the object (not that there's much to appreciate about a water bottle). I suspect that most fiction writers would score high on this exercise. The other two exercises are more challenging and personal, and I’ll let you discover them for yourself. You’ll find the links to them at the top of the site’s opening page.

The LIWC software is now available to the public in two versions, full and lite, at fairly low prices, and I can imagine writers running dialogue through the program to make certain it will create the desired impression of their fictional characters. If you don’t want to go that far, you can do the free exercises on Pennebaker’s site – not in your own voice but in that of your protagonist or another character whose dialogue is giving you trouble. Let me know if you try it. I’d love to hear what you learn!

13 comments: said...

thanks for information

Sheila Connolly said...

This sounds fascinating, and you had me up until the end when you mentioned that one (a writer) could buy the software and screen dialogue through it--which sent up all sorts of Rules flags. Can you reverse it if, say, you want to write a ditzy female character or a hard-boiled PI, and request a vocabulary list or a paragraph template?

It also reminded me of Deborah Tannen's book, You Just Don't Understand (and don't ask me how long ago I read that), which looked at gender differences in speech. Wonder if much has changed?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This subject has always been really interesting to me--I love reading about handwriting analysis and that type thing. I loved reading your post...thanks for sharing.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, the software wasn't created for writers -- but I think some writers would find it useful. It was developed as tool to help make linguistics studies more manpower efficient. Everything it comes up with is based on decades of research by humans. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have great misgivings about the design and underlying assumptions of this work. I'll pass, thanks. I'm not signed in, but this is Lyn.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. Thanks for making me aware of it.

Sandra Parshall said...

One statement I hear a lot about certain male writers is, "His women don't sound real." And I hear "She can't write convincing male characters" about certain female authors. It would be fascinating to study the dialogue those writers put into their characters' mouths and determine whether simple word choices are throwing off the reader's perception of them. Often the problem goes much deeper, into behavior patterns, but the words the characters speak make up a major element of the total portrayal.

Anonymous said...


Very interesting post! However, this doesn't resolve for me:



Sandra Parshall said...

The Wordwatchers link is working now. Try again.

Avery said...

Sandy, thanks for the information. I'm going to check it out.


Kaye George said...

Sandy, you have thrown my schedule so far off! I sat here and did all those fascinating tests. Loved it! But now I'm way behind. Have to shop and write!! Another night of meteors tonight, too.

Maria Hudgins said...

Fascinating idea here. I wonder if readers would subliminally pick up on these subtle quirks in a character's choice of words. Also, I've heard that more educated people describe an event as if seen from a camera overhead whereas the less educated describe it as if their own eyes were the camera.


Intriguing post and information. One thing I've always known is that men tend to speak in shorter sentences than women, and that they use fewer adjectives. Still...the implications of all this research is mind-boggling.

I'm definitely going to investigate this in more depth.