I just got home, when you stepped into the kitchen and we hugged each other tightly. Then you told me something so shocking, that I could hardly believe it was true. ‘Did he really say that?’ I asked, incredulously. ‘Well, actually, she said it but then he told me his version of their story,’ you answered seriously. I took your hands in mine, gazing deeply into your soft blue eyes. ‘Thank goodness that we will never need to worry about such things, my darling love.’ You kissed me gently. Then we sat down and had a cup of tea.
Pronouns are everywhere! We use them all the time without giving them much thought. When we were schoolchildren we learned why we use them (to replace having to always use the person or objects’ name) and the basic grammar rules surrounding them (I is first person singular, they is third person plural) but how many of us have considered the possibility that those of us who switch among different pronouns regularly are better able to see different points of view and hence become healthier, both physically and emotionally?
According to professor and psychologist James Pennebaker, free writing and the particular choice of words (such as pronouns) that we use can help us to change our moods, alter our perspective and basically improve our lives. He has written a book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, which is an exploration of how we use words and the effects that our speech and writing has on our health. Turns out that Pennebaker has been studying this subject for about 30 years down there at the University of Texas, and through my google search of him, he has been a busy man. Last year he published his Pronoun book as a kind of compilation of a lot of his research. I read an article about him and his book in the latest Ode magazine, and wanted to share it with you, Dear Readers, because as writers, this is a fascinating subject! Here are some excerpts from the article (Ode magazine May/June 2012, Inge Schilperoord):
Writing as do-it-yourself therapy– intuitively makes sense. You share your experiences with a diary and are freed from them. But to truly benefit from writing, you have to do more than express your feelings. Pennebaker’s research shows that the relationship between writing-as-venting and better health is a lot more complicated than that. So Pennebaker developed a software program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) which counts words in particular categories, including negative and positive emotions, those indicating causality and forms of insight.
Pennebaker realized that the most beneficial form of writing included both negative and positive words, and especially included causal and insight words. He said that it is important to accept and find a place for the events that have happened to you. Sometimes you can glean life lessons from difficult situations; other times, you just need to give a name to what happened and then explore the causes and consequences.
The use of causal-words means that the writer is making a story out of what happened. When someone writes a sentence like “I now realize that” or “I understand why…” it means the experience has become more comprehensible. And that brings emotional distance. Pennebaker says, “We’re naturally inclined to try to bring order to chaos. As long as a difficult event remains formless and meaningless, we’ll keep brooding over it, and the incident and its feelings will keep washing over us. But if we explore the causes, consequences and personal meanings of that experience and begin to give it a shape, our stress will gradually decrease. And that will free up room in our heads for new things.”
Now comes the pronoun part. His research shows that people who benefit most from writing regularly look at problems from different perspectives. This is apparent in the number of first person singular pronouns they use (I, me, myself) as opposed to other personal pronouns (we, us, you, he, she, they). He says, ‘When you look at a problem from a range of different points of view, you begin to separate yourself from it. That helps you create distance from painful emotions.”
Pennebaker suggests that we “just sit down and write– experience your thoughts and emotions. Yes, it’s paradoxical. There are rules. But one of them is that you don’t give yourself many rules. When you are writing, focus on what is bothering you. Caring about word choice, sentence structure, style of spelling is distracting.” He suggests that beginning ‘freeform writers’ promise themselves to write at least 15 minutes for three or four days. But keeping it to 20 minutes max. means you won’t have a chance to ruminate– and brooding is bad for you. And keep it up for several days time. If after this time, you aren’t making progress or feeling worse, then stop writing. It’s possible that writing might not be the most effective therapy for you.
I went to Pennebaker’s website, secretlifeofpronouns.com, and there found some fun and interesting tests that you can take to gain insight into your style of writing. I took a test called Perceptual Style, or the Bottle test. You see a picture of an empty plastic water bottle and are supposed to write about it without stopping for 5 minutes. Then Pennebaker’s magical software program analyses your word choices and gives you the results. Here’s what it said about my writing style:
Based on very little evidence, one could imagine that your description of the bottle might mean something about you. This analysis is based on virtually no knowledge of you or of bottles in general. Take what is said with a grain of salt.
Words on the label: Verbal thinking. People who score high on this dimension tend to focus on the label and what the words actually say. Your score is lower than average. Your not mentioning the specific words or letters on the label may mean that you aren’t particularly interested in words themselves. If you noticed the words but didn’t write about them, you may be someone who doesn’t need to discuss the obvious.
Colors and text: Visual sensitivity. Some people are particularly sensitive to colors and styles associated with writing. Your score on this dimension is below the average. You may be interested in what words say but not how they are presented. Graphic design may not be a wise career choice. (This is particularly amusing, given that I was a graphic designer for over ten years!)
Bottle contents: Functional thinking. The purpose of a water bottle is to hold water. Duh. People who score high on this dimension focus on the bottle as a container of something. In other words, they are thinking about the function of the bottle. Your language use in describing the bottle suggests that you are someone who thinks about the functions of objects. When you looked at the picture, your eyes probably wandered to the contents of the bottle. Most people didn’t do this. Perhaps you have deep philosophical thoughts. Perhaps you are an aspiring engineer. Perhaps you are thirsty.
The bottle itself: Tactile sensitivity. Someone who is high in tactile sensitivity likes to touch things. They have an appreciation of the dimensionality of objects. In describing the bottle, high scorers paid attention to the surface and contour of the bottle itself, perhaps thinking of it like a sculpture. Your writing suggests that you have a healthy appreciation of form. In looking at the bottle, you may have mentioned its surface structure, imagining how it would feel in your hands. You are a normal human being along this dimension
Light and shadow: Contextual thinking. If you look closely at the picture of the bottle, you will see that the lighting casts a shadow on the table through the bottle. Your score indicates that you are in the normal range of contextual thinking. In your writing, you made reference to some features of the background surrounding the bottle. This is healthy in the sense that it suggests you can stand back and look at objects in a broader perspective.
Dear Readers, if you have any interest in this subject, I highly suggest you take a little time to check out Pennebaker’s website and take some of his tests. You may find the results enlightening, or at least fun.
As a dedicated journal keeper since the age of about fourteen onwards, I have spent a lifetime practicing writing as therapy and for healing of my personal wounds along life’s twisting path. Some years back I read another wonderful book on this same subject, Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo. In the introduction she writes, “This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. But to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story. And to share the gift of your work with others and, so, enrich and deepen our understanding of the human condition.”
This book is full of wisdom from a woman who has spent years teaching others the value of writing for healing themselves of every imaginable trauma. Her voice is compassionate and practical; she gives many suggestions and ideas for using writing to tell your story in a way so that you can work through the pain and sorrow associated with it. For those of you who may be interested in this subject, I recommend finding and reading her book.
The next time you write a blog post, or a private journal entry, take a second look at your use of pronouns, and notice how much you use first person singular, second person and third person plural. It may surprise you, and by changing how often you use them, could change your worldview, or at least your own personal view of yourself and others. We love pronouns, and I especially love it when you use many different ones, but then again they also love my use of you, yours and ours!