Friday, August 10, 2018

Stealth Words: A Writer’s Overlooked Weapon

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

The title did it. Compelled me to halt the project I was intent on and head straight to the library. I was familiar with The Secret Life of Beesand The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but The Secret Life of Pronouns?What on earth could these unremarkable little words be doing behind the scenes that warranted such attention? 

According to the author, social psychologist and language expert James Pennebaker, pronouns belong to a class of words identified as function or style words. Besides pronouns, function words include the short, forgettable ones we tend to skip over when proofreading—the prepositions, conjunctions and articles. But these “stealth words,” unmemorable as they may be, says Pennebaker, are “windows to the soul.” And our use of them is as revealing as our fingerprints, leaving a trail of clues about our gender, personalities, social and emotional states.

 His examples and illustrations are so compelling I feel as though every word I write here is exposing secrets of my psyche. However, assuming most of you are unlikely to be counting how many times I use a,or the, or and, I press on. 

Although word-use frequency is a standard analytical tool of linguists and marketers, as all of us in a Google-driven world know, attention to the importance of function words has been overlooked. 

Pennebaker raises questions across a broad and bold spectrum of social and psychological issues: 
  • Could an analysis of function words predict whether or not a relationship is likely to last? 
  • A person’s ability to cope in life after a stint in prison? 
  • The age/gender/status profile of the person behind an anonymous letter? 
  • The confidence level of a leader or the mindset of a terrorist?
  • A truth-teller from a liar or a male author from a female one?

Yes! he says, and more. 

As a writer, I was particularly interested in his claims about words of sex, age and power and how they apply to authorship. Although gender is a much-politicized issue, Pennebaker illustrates ways men and women use words differently and dismantles some of the long-held stereotypes. For fun, here is part of a quiz he includes. 

Who do you think—male or female—uses the following more? Or do they both the same? 
(Answers at end of post)

a. Who uses first-person singular pronoun (I, me, my) more?
b. Articles (a, an, the)?  And why does it matter?
c. Cognitive words (think, believe)?
d. What is most used word in spoken English?
c. More pronouns in general?

So how does this information help you as you craft your fictional characters? 

Pennebaker wondered if great writers had an innate ear for dialect and differences in speech between their male and female characters. In one of his studies, he analyzed plays and movie scripts to see if the authors, both male and female, used words appropriate for the gender of their lead male and female characters. 

He found that in the movies, Sleepless in Seattle,andYou’ve Got Mail, written by Nora Ephron, both leads talked like women. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fictionand Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, both men and women talked like men. (Even on the balcony) However, the men in Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town,talked like men and the women like women.

Who knew what those little stealth words were revealing behind our backs.

As people who use and love words, I think you will be intrigued with his research and be able to use it to craft dialogue more true to the gender of your characters. But ifyou don’t agree with Pennebaker’s conclusions, don’t throw your tomatoes at me, get the book or go to the website where you can even participate in some of the quizzes.

And here are the answers to the above:

a. Women
b. Men. They use more nouns, concrete objects (trucks, cars, snowblowers) than women because they talk more about things and women talk more about relationships. And nouns are prefaced by articles.
c. Women. These words reflect insight and causal thinking related to social words, which women use more.
d. I (Used more by women than men and truth-tellers than liars)
e. Women (“In the course of a year, women will say about eighty-five thousand more pronouns than will men.”)


An intriguing way to look at word usage and what it says about each writer - @MarciaMoston on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Thanks, Marcia. Great post.
    Now I must read Pennebaker's book.
    Who knew pronouns were so important?

  2. Amazing and interesting. I'll have to look at my own stories. Does the male and female use of pronouns apply to middle grade kids speaking in my stories, I wonder?

    1. Good point Jackie. You'll have to do your own study!

  3. An excellent article. Thanks for sharing it. I can glean a great deal from it to help my writing.

  4. Marcia,
    I always learn so much from you. I’d like to follow you around for a week and gather the pearls. Thanks for an informative, insightful, and fun post.

    1. I'd love to have you follow me around--because I'm sure you'd be dropping your own nuggets as we went.

  5. I'm a bit late, but this was great. Thanks, Marcia. ;)