Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Funny Little Words

Sharon Wildwind

On the way to exploring the value of writing for defusing traumatic experience, Dr. James Pennebaker discovered some unexpected functions of small, innocuous words. Link to his recent article in Scientific America here.

In the early 1980s, Pennebaker, a social psychologist, wondered if writing about a traumatic experience, particularly a traumatic experience that a person previously had kept secret, would improve the person’s mental and physical health.

If he’d asked those of us who write a lot would have responded with an unqualified, “Yes.” But since he didn’t ask us, and anyway, scientists like to find things out for themselves, he went on to develop a computer program to analyze language people used to write about trauma.

This and other projects amassed a huge amount of text which Pennebaker and his colleagues analyzed over some thirty years. They discovered a lot about the nuances of language. For example, mentally healthy people tend to use fewer I, me, my pronouns, while people with mental health issues use those pronouns more frequently.

There is a gender difference in the way men and women use words. I got to admit that, for me, this was another “duh” finding. Anyone who has tried to have a serious discussion with a person of the opposite gender probably already figured this out.

What I did find is surprising that word patterns can also identify emotional state, level of honesty, and leadership ability.

Consider these words: boy — chair — sister — hid

Even with no context, people form images of those words. We have mental images of what a boy looks like, what a chair looks like, what the action to hide something looks like and so on. My chair may not look like your chair, but we can communicate by saying, “chair.”

How about this list: it — with — the — never — most — very

It’s a lot harder to form images of those words, and almost impossible to communicate concepts with just those words.

Pennebaker called nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs content words. 99.9% of the words we know are content words, but those words are used to make only 45% of what we say or write. Function words—pronouns, articles, prepositions , auxiliary verbs, negations, conjunctions, quantifiers, and adverb helpers—make up less than 0.1% of any language, but are used 55% of of the time. How the function words are used is what makes language, language.

The boy hid his sister under the chair, but the intruder still found her.

The boy was angry because his sister hid his chair.

Same nouns and verbs — boy, sister, hid, chair — but two sentences with very different meanings.

It’s the function words that

-- are style determiners. If you’re given two pages, one written by Tess Gerritsen and one by S. J. Rosen, you’ll come to the conclusion of who wrote what because of the function words, not the nouns and verbs. Try this experiment: have someone get a book by each of those authors and photocopy any page at random. Let’s say page 46 of each book. They should use a black marker to mark out proper nouns, like character names or locations. Then you take those two pages and, looking only at the function words, make a guess of who wrote which one. Chances are that you’ll be right.

- are words that our brains are not wired to notice. They flow through our consciousness almost without notice.

- require social skills to be used properly because the speaker and listener have to have shared assumptions and knowledge in order to engage in a conversation loaded with function words. This conversation is almost entirely function words. These two people obviously know what they are talking about, but we can only guess.

“Was he in?”
“What do you think?”
“What did he say?”
“To ask her.”
“No way.”

So, all that advise to writers to use descriptive adjectives and nouns, and strong, action verbs might just be wrong. There might be as much value in watching what pronouns our characters use, and how often and paying a lot more attention to function words.

Instead of a quote this week, here is a neurological factoid I picked up this past week.

If you are stuck on a problem, let’s say you can’t figure out how to get your protagonist to recognize the importance of the yellow rose as a clue, do exercises that involve cross-body movement. Swing your arms from one side to the other or do a little dance step that involves one foot stepping behind the other foot.

Cross-body movements integrate both halves of the brain and often result in unlocking solutions to problems.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon I'm with you all the way except for the bit about mentally healthy people using fewer personal pronouns. That's one of those statistics that imho is meaningless without a whole lot of other information. I'd have to know all the variables and read the whole study before I'd be impressed.

As a therapist, I've spent a lot of time listening to intellectualizers with heavy armor over feelings they don't want to acknowledge. The therapeutic work (to oversimplify greatly) is to get them to say "I," as in "I feel scared," "I feel sad," or "I feel angry." Not to mention "he," as in "He molested me," and "she," as in "She didn't do anything to stop it."

My immediate association with your "boy--chair--sister--hid" was domestic violence, btw. I've worked with plenty of traumatized people, but offhand, I can't think of any for whom the problem was an intruder, though there were probably a few.

J.P. Hansen said...

There has been a lot of poetry that deals with the issue of small words. Louis Zukofsky named his longest and greatest book "A" as distinct from "The." He saw it as making all the difference in thinking: moving from general to specific. "So much depends / upon a red wheelbarrow..."

Anonymous said...

Liz, as near as I can figure out Dr. P was commenting on the use of first person pronouns in journals, reports, essays, etc. that people had written.

Things totally unrelated to therapy such as, "I suggest that we adopt my plan because my data suggest this would be the best course of action for the company."

. . . in the rain. Dr. William Carlos Williams
One of my absolutely favorite poems.

There was a hugely funny dialog in Dr. Who a couple of years ago. Someone introduced themselves to the good doctor, as "I'm Doctor So-and-so.

Who replied, "You might be a doctor, but I am THE doctor, you might say, the definitive article."