The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker is a strange romp through our world of speech habits which ferrets out those little words we hardly notice for special examination. He finds and explains how the little words — like I, we, you, and, but, of — reveal much more than anyone could have imagined before computer-based text analysis delved into the inner workings of our minds. His findings are not based on armchair speculations, but upon analysis of huge databases of actual conversation, writings by professional authors, essays by students and stories by convicts being released from prison.

Millions of words are analyzed in context using computer algorithms to check for the word frequency in different types of settings. For example, people who are lying use far fewer words that refer to specific things and actions and speak in generalities which do not include a normal number of references to themselves. This is because they are distancing themselves from the actions which they do not wish to associate with themselves. People speaking the truth want to identify themselves with the positive actions they have performed and so they use a relatively large number of personal words. This is all unconscious to the speaker and difficult for even a trained speech analyst to spot, and thus these patterns only show up when the speech is run through a sophisticated computer analysis.

When people are talking rapidly using relatively long sentences with lots of I words, big words, and insight words, especially when associated with detailed information about time, place and relationship, they are probably telling the truth as they understand it. However, when they laden their speech with distancing words, which associate responsibility with others it is a marker of possible deception.

Pennebaker’s book has an abundance of these kinds of unanticipated observations which give insights, not only into current affairs, but also to historical events. He analyzes American presidential State of the Union addresses, and shows that Obama uses remarkably few I words, and that Bush senior and Truman used quite a lot. Hmm? And yet again I discover, as Shakespeare mentioned long ago in Hamlet I v

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.