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The hidden meaning of pronouns
August 24, 2011 4:58 PM   Subscribe

The hidden meaning of pronouns. I particularly liked the counterintuitive bit about men's and women's use of pronouns. Also fascinating about the declining use of the 1st person as status increased: "When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached -- hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free."
posted by anothermug (66 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ich und mich. Ich fühle mich—sind zwei Gegenstände. Unsere falsche Philosophie ist der ganzen Sprache einverleibt; wir können so zu sagen nicht raisonnieren, ohne falsch zu raisonnieren. Man bedenkt nicht, daß Sprechen, ohne Rücksicht von was, eine Philosophie ist. Jeder, der Deutsch spricht, ist ein Volksphilosoph, under unsere Universitätsphilosophie besteht in Einschränkungen von jener. Philosophie ist Berichtigung des Sprachgebrauchs, also, die Berichtigung einer Philosophie, und zwar der allgemeinsten. Allein die gemeine Philosophie hat den Vorteil, daß sie im Besitz der Deklinationen und Konjugationen ist. Es wird also immer von uns wahre Philosophie mit der Sprache der falschen gelehrt. Wörter erklären hilft nichts; denn mit Wörtererklärungen ändere ich ja die Pronomina und ihre Deklination noch nicht.
posted by kenko at 5:01 PM on August 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


I use I, me, and my all the time. I always figured it was because I'm an egotistical bastard, but apparently I just have an inferiority complex. Huh.
posted by phunniemee at 5:04 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


We approve.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:06 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


The editorial we?
posted by jonmc at 5:09 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


This might just be schoolyard rumour (though kenko's quote supports it), but I've heard that other languages have pronouns too and they're different from the ones we use in English. But since that rumour isn't referenced EVEN ONCE in this article, I'm going to assume it's not true and that kenko just fell asleep on his keyboard.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 5:13 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status.

I don't find this surprising. The idea that using the first person is egotistical (which people use as a criticism of Obama) has never made sense to me. If you're egotistical, you probably think your views are The Truth, so you won't need to qualify them by saying, "This is just what I think."

If I say, "I'm a vegetarian for ethical reasons," this is a comment about myself, so I'm leaving the broader issue of "vegetarianism" open to debate. If you insist that I rewrite this to leave out the first person, I might say: "Vegetarianism has a strong ethical basis," So then it sounds a lot more like I'm declaring that my own diet is the objectively right one.

Of course students email professors humbly saying, "I was just wondering if it's OK if I do this." And of course the profs write back, "That is/isn't the right way to do it." I'm surprised they're surprised about this.
posted by John Cohen at 5:18 PM on August 24, 2011 [38 favorites]


"Never in a million years would I have thought that pronouns would be a worthwhile research topic."

One would've thought that that was as good a point to stop as any.
posted by vidur at 5:20 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


jonmc may be on to something there. When the student emails the professor, the student is representing him or herself. When the teacher responds, the professor is representing the institution and the profession.

The same is true for the professor querying the dean.

It would be interesting to compare the individual student's email with, say, an email written by a student on behalf of a student association and sent to the professor (as well as the professor's email as an individual versus one written by the professor on behalf of the professors' union).
posted by notyou at 5:20 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


In Hindi, there is no he or she. You refer to people as "this" or "that" -- or if you are being respectful, "these"/"those". I don't know what implications this would have for this research, but I bet Hindi-language CRPG companies save a ton on voiceovers.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 5:22 PM on August 24, 2011


We approve.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:06 PM on August 24


The editorial we?
posted by jonmc at 8:09 PM on August 24


IRFH has a mouse in his pocket, evidently.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:24 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just happy to see you.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:24 PM on August 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


Thanks, notyou, you said that better than I was about to. It sounds to me like they did some preliminary research on "institutional status", not "status" in general.
posted by uosuaq at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2011


jonmc may be on to something there.

I am on something, but that's none of your...

(actually I was just quoting the Big Lebowski, that's all, and no I don't live in Flo's pocket)
posted by jonmc at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


When undergraduates wrote me,

Gah! How about inserting a to in there! Wrote to me!
posted by wilful at 5:26 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


From the article: Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words.

If it were more socially acceptable for men to talk about human relationships, methinks a few more boys and men would talk about them. The ones in my life say they talk about relationships, if at all, mostly with their female friends. Maybe one deeply trusted male friend. That's it.

As far as academic status, well, IME you generally have it drilled into you early in undergrad to depersonalize your assertions in your essays. It's such second nature to me now that my spouse has commented on how rarely I use "I" or "me" even in personal conversations, as in, "MyThis ankle is sore."
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:26 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Gah! How about inserting a to in there! Wrote to me!

Why? It's perfectly correct and idiomatic as is.
posted by kenko at 5:29 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why? It's perfectly correct and idiomatic cromulent as is.
posted by uosuaq at 5:41 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


This confuses Christoper L. Jorgensen.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:43 PM on August 24, 2011


"Pronouns were reflecting people’s abilities to change perspective."

This sentence is hilarious. It's totally over-engineered and so ends up being a backwards and complicated way of stating the obvious, like saying "Cars reflect how people are capable of driving." I think I love it.

Anytime something is tautologous or meta-funny like that, I hear Keanu Reeves' voice in my head, from the movie Parenthood when he's explaining to the mom why her son had pornos (to masturbate). And so it goes, "That's what little dudes* do."

*And by 'dudes', I mean 'pronouns'.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:45 PM on August 24, 2011 [12 favorites]


Darn it, I wrote a long thoughtful post and accidentally deleted before posting.

Long story short, in business writing, the use of pronouns also indicates informality and comprehensibility. Emails to clients say "I reviewed X sent by Bob and suggest Y." Followup emails to the larger group say "client organization reviewed documents from sending organization and has the following comments: Y". Same content, but the first email is easier to read and much friendlier.

Interestingly, in reviewing (the deleted almost post) my editing instinct tried to delete the Is.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 6:03 PM on August 24, 2011


This is like when one of my classmates in undergrad discovered that you could reliably separate satirical articles from news by counting the adjectives and adverbs. It sounds so obvious in hindsight, and yet, it's not.

Language, and natural language processing, is fascinating.
posted by Xany at 6:05 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Of course students email professors humbly saying, "I was just wondering if it's OK if I do this." And of course the profs write back, "That is/isn't the right way to do it." I'm surprised they're surprised about this.

But the students could just as easily have asked, "Is it OK to do this?" (it will be presumed that they mean, is it ok if they do it).

If I went in for such things I would say that John Cohen has part of the explanation right but that another part is that the "I wondered if …" or "I wanted to ask if …" serves as a temporizing device; it softens the question. It's less blunt than just asking straight away, and that helps with the humble presentation. You get the same thing with uncomfortable statements between peers: "I just wanted to tell you p" (or some other preface) rather than "p".
posted by kenko at 6:15 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


But the students could just as easily have asked, "Is it OK to do this?" (it will be presumed that they mean, is it ok if they do it).

True, and I'm sure that happens sometimes. We're just talking about general tendencies here.

As you said, the prof will assume students are referring to themselves, so the students might as well use first person anyway. And as you and I both suggested, people in weak positions tend to soften their queries by prefacing them with "I wanted to ask..." or "I was just wondering if..."

Put that all together, and you get: "I was just wondering if it's OK if I turn in my paper a day late because I have a doctor's appointment/I'm having printer problems/etc." The prof feels no need to soften their response with "I was just thinking that it wouldn't bother me if you turn in your paper late." They'll just say: "That's fine," or "No, there will be no extensions." Which means exactly the same thing as "I am fine with that" or "I will not be granting any extensions," but that might seem like pointless verbiage to a prof who has the unquestioned final say in these matters.
posted by John Cohen at 6:26 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Xany: which way does the difference go? (I'm guessing satirical articles have more adjectives and adverbs, but I'm not totally sure.)
posted by madcaptenor at 6:31 PM on August 24, 2011


This commentator didn't think the bit about men's and women's use of pronouns counterintuitive.
posted by pompomtom at 6:35 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Actually, I would expect satirical articles to have fewer adjectives and adverbs.

A surefire way to be unfunny is to emphasize adjectives and adverbs, rather than verbs and especially nouns.

For instance, there's an episode of The Office where Dwight Schrute tries to tell the famous "Aristocrats" joke. If you watch the show, you know that Dwight has no sense of humor. Of course, he's saying lines that were written by people who do understand how comedy works. So, this is Dwight's version (source):
The Aristocrats. A man and his wife and his children go into the offices of a talent agency. And the talent agent says, "Describe your act." And the man says something really, really raunchy and the talent representative says, "What do you call yourselves?" And the man says, "The Aristocrats!"
See? If you take away concrete details (verbs and nouns) and replace them with vague modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) — instant comedy death.
posted by John Cohen at 6:38 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


John Cohen, I definitely agree with what you're saying re students emailing professors. I had that same thought and came in here to say so, but no need! You've already expressed it better than I would have.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:06 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


See? If you take away concrete details (verbs and nouns) and replace them with vague modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) — instant comedy death.

According to Charna Halpern (from whom I was taking a class when she related this anecdote), when Mike Meyers was just starting out doing improv, he figured out (and eventually taught in his classes) that the more specific you were, the funnier it was. So you'd never hear him say "won't you please pass the ketchup", for instance; he'd always say "won't you please pass the Heinz."
posted by davejay at 7:17 PM on August 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


We are told in my profession not to use the word "I" in our shift notes. Instead we are to write "this staff." Needless to say writing shift notes is always an embarrassment.
posted by jwhite1979 at 7:25 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is hardly necessary to suggest that their are psychological forces involved in choosing first person "I" over second person "you" vs. third person styles (and include also passive voice.)

But as a quick synthesis, consider the metafilter post four below this one on detecting deceptive reviews. What suggests a fake review: greater use of "I" and "me", greater use of verbs over nouns, use of "I" related modifiers (where "I" was, who "I" was with, etc). These are the same things the SciAm article found predicted lesser power/status, suicidality (in poets), lying, etc. So it seems that the I/verb style is used when the writer is trying to portray himself as something, i.e. that the really important thing to the writer isn't describing what he wants to describe, but describing how he fits into that.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 7:44 PM on August 24, 2011


Dammit.

In the paper about deceptive reviews, it uses the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program to detect personality traits and deception. That program was invented by Pennebaker, the guy in the SciAm article. So it isn't surprising that there's an overlap. Doesn't mean the overlap isn't legitimate, but it does require a higher degree of skepticism, and now I have to go read all the papers.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 7:50 PM on August 24, 2011


I know I will be watching the language in my emails much closer over the coming days. I'm not aware of doing this, but I'd bet that if someone dug into my work email archives and did an analysis, the same patterns would show up.
posted by Forktine at 8:06 PM on August 24, 2011


madcaptenor: Exactly right, the satire articles had more. Not a great deal more, but enough to make a difference.
posted by Xany at 8:23 PM on August 24, 2011


James Pennebaker contributed a guest post to Language Log a couple years ago, about Obama's use of the first person singular pronoun.

There was also a Language Log post about Pennebaker's work on the role of function words in predicting relationship success.
posted by ootandaboot at 8:27 PM on August 24, 2011


Interesting. Pronouns are sort of a pet peeve of mine - a lot of miscommunication is caused by improper or ambiguous pronoun usage. I'll leave it at that.

My ex business partner has Aspberger's. It was weird the way he would use pronouns, often in place of names. He would start a conversation with "She [whatever it was she did]". I'd have to stop and try to identify who it was he was talking about from the context, which wasn't always easy, as our staff was about half women. It seemed that he did that more with women than men, and he had a reputation as being a bit of a misogynist; I suspect that he wasn't really, but he was sort of cemented in a male outlook and had little empathy or sympathy for anyone , thus making women more alien to him than men.

There was an article here on the Blue within the last year or two about pronoun usage in public statements made by CEO's and other public corporate officials. The basic gist of it was that CEOs who used "I" and first person references more tended to be more honest about their company's prospects, while those who used third person or neutral references tended to be less forthcoming about their state of affairs. After reading this, I sort of became hyper aware of Obama's frequent use of the word "I". He uses it a often. I'd like to think that's a sign he is being honest.
posted by Xoebe at 8:59 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


"When undergraduates wrote me"

This is one of my least favourite Americanisms. That glaringly missing "to" always makes me squirm like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.

Carry on.
posted by Decani at 10:04 PM on August 24, 2011


That's an Americanism? Huh, nobody told to me.
posted by BurnChao at 10:12 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


This was super interesting, but I really wish the interviewer would have asked some follow-up questions...or at least a summary of what the research PROVES. Telling me that they can tell that someone is lying is no good to me. Tell me how/why. Tell me where I can read his entire theory if need be.

I was actually most interested in the part about verb/nouns in college entrance essays. I teach HS English, and for the high school exit exam, getting them to use strong verbs and construct sentences around those strong verbs gives a student a better chance of passing. Ironically, it also gives them less of a chance of getting into college. That's education for you.

An assignment I do with students is having them highlight all the pronouns in an article (we actually did it in class today...as usual, perfect metafilter timing!) to see how meaning is conveyed. It's cool that it's a Thing.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:29 PM on August 24, 2011


I first read this interview about a week ago, and it was this part at the end that really stuck out to me...
"One of the most fascinating effects I’ve seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people’s college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.

To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?"
See, I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son with a rather eclectic set of special needs, and the primary one of them is MERLD. I usually just describe that to people as severely delayed speech and language, but that's not wholly accurate -- he actually has a normal vocabulary of nouns (in two languages, at that -- English and ASL), but only a moderate command of adjectives and pronouns, and no concept or implementation of any past-tense verbs whatsoever. So he can tell you (or sign to you) the names of a lot of stuff around him, and he can use a decent but not quite age appropriate set of adjectives (especially if they are adjectives that can categorize stuff, like colors or numbers), but he cannot answer the questions "what did you have for breakfast today?" or "did you like that?" He has never used or answered a question that contained past tense verbs. As you can imagine, this limits our ability to have quite a few kinds of conversations.

His doctor and speech language pathologist say that his better understanding of verbs will hopefully come in time -- after all, he now knows how to handle present tense gerunds (the *-ing verbs). But I just thought it odd to be reading this interview last week and see something similar to his weird language quirks suddenly pop up in a paragraph about people's college essays, of all things.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, I dunno. My head is so wrapped up in speech and language issues (and special needs issues more generally) these days that maybe I'm just seeing my own stuff reflected in places where it doesn't really exist.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:53 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is one of my least favourite Americanisms. That glaringly missing "to" always makes me squirm like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.

Do you also object to "an undergrad wrote me a letter", or would you exclusively say one of either "an undergrad wrote a letter to me" or (horrible-sounding) "an undergrad wrote to me a letter"?

What about "an undergrad gave me a present"; do you insist on a preposition there, too?

Incidentally the OED entry for "write", def'n 4(a), notes that it occurs "Also with to, unto (a person), or indirect personal object", not pausing to note that the last-mentioned is an Americanism (which it does do in other cases). A citation from around 1300 reads "We sal yow write‥All þat we herd and sagh.", employing an indirect object some time before Americanisms were widely attested on English shores.

Def'n 4(c) also mentions indirect objects (using other terminology): "To convey (tidings, information, etc.) by letter; to send (a message) in writing. Freq. with to or unto, or with dative of person; also with how, that, etc., and clause." Someone named J. Evelyn wrote around 1706 the following: "She writes me‥what Conflicts she had indur'd.", employing an indirect object at a time when it is admittedly true that there were speakers of English in America. Between 1750 and 1850 there are three citations using the phrase "write me word" and one with "write me an account". Again, it is barely possible that this reflects some nefarious American influence.

It does not, however, seem likely.
posted by kenko at 10:54 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you also object to "an undergrad wrote me a letter", or would you exclusively say one of either "an undergrad wrote a letter to me" or (horrible-sounding) "an undergrad wrote to me a letter"?

What about "an undergrad gave me a present"; do you insist on a preposition there, too?


Speaking for the Commonwealth...

"an undergrad wrote me a letter" is fine, because the letter is the thing that they wrote (similarly: 'wrote me word' or 'write me an account'). "Writes me what conflicts" sounds odd, because really they wrote an account of the conflicts. Not the conflicts themselves, and not me. I am not a thing one can write.

"an undergrad wrote a letter to me" and "an undergrad gave me a present" both sound fine to my ears.

I'm not all going to pull out a better dictionary or historical treatise, but I concur with the other subjects of Her Majesty that it grates on the ears. I don't know that anyone is ascribing malice to the usage, but to many it sounds wrong - even when one has grown up hearing it fairly regularly on the telly.
posted by pompomtom at 11:07 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


So "he wrote me a letter" is ok but "he wrote me" isn't?

What about this dialogue:

A: Did I hear correctly that you got an email from Steve Jobs?
B: Yes, he wrote me last week!

where the thing written is already conversationally salient?

(I assume in the "conflicts" quotation the full thing is something like "she wrote me concerning what conflicts she endured"; certainly just "she wrote me what conflicts she endured" is incorrect but (a) there is that ellipsis there and (b) not for reasons that are relevant.)

It is true that you can't just say "he gave me" and leave it at that, but IME in the normal case for "he wrote me" without a direct object the situation is like the above dialogue, except the specific thing written is implicit, or unimportant, rather than already named. (Nevertheless it is interesting that the following dialogue is wrong to my years as well:

A: This computer was a present from C, right?
B: Yes, he gave me last week!

HMMMM.)

Fascinating!
posted by kenko at 11:18 PM on August 24, 2011


Lots of things online seem to insist that in English you can't have an indirect object without a direct object. Golly, is it possible that I was … wrong?! and that this construction really is an Americanism?

It's almost too horrible to contemplate.
posted by kenko at 11:25 PM on August 24, 2011


B: Yes, he wrote me last week!

Still sounds weird to me. I'd say "Yes, he wrote to me last week!".

Further to this, what if he were in the room? He wouldn't "talk me", he'd "talk to me".
posted by pompomtom at 11:43 PM on August 24, 2011


PDF of a 2003 paper by Campbell and Pennebaker:

The Secret Life of Pronouns : Flexibility in Writing Style and Physical Health
R. Sherlock Campbell and James W. Pennebaker
posted by stonepharisee at 12:16 AM on August 25, 2011


There was an article here on the Blue within the last year or two about pronoun usage in public statements made by CEO's and other public corporate officials. The basic gist of it was that CEOs who used "I" and first person references more tended to be more honest about their company's prospects, while those who used third person or neutral references tended to be less forthcoming about their state of affairs.

One of my challenges adapting to writing business English describing technical work I do is that I have enough of a background in academic science to be convinced that the Right Way to describe experiments is the passive voice, and naturally flow into that when describing the results of stress testing (for example); in business English (in New Zealand, anyway), this is a huge no-no since it makes me sound evasive.

Oh, and kenko, arguing for descriptivism by attacking someone's right to hold an opinion about the euphony of a grammatical construct just makes you look silly.
posted by rodgerd at 12:20 AM on August 25, 2011


"My ex business partner has Aspberger's. It was weird the way he would use pronouns, often in place of names. He would start a conversation with "She [whatever it was she did]". I'd have to stop and try to identify who it was he was talking about from the context, which wasn't always easy, as our staff was about half women."

This is interesting. It seems like less a problem with your ex-biz-partner choosing a pronoun and more about him not specifying an antecedent. He has an idea who he's referring to with the anaphoric pronoun 'she', but isn't attuning to the fact that you don't.

This reminds me of my very good friend, who does this same thing, but included with entire clauses. He's always leading up to the big idea, but thinking and changing his mind along the way. So sentences will go, "The thing I discovered is, but I guess 'discovered' wouldn't be the right word, it's more like how when something comes to you, like yesterday when [our mutual friend] said that she found her secret escape hatch in watching The Wire a little bit each day...that's how I felt about it too. Such a great show. It totally changed me...going back to what we were talking about, once I found that, it changed me in the same way." And I'm sitting there, exploding, going "WHAT DID YOU DISCOVER?????"
posted by iamkimiam at 1:16 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


One would not write to me a letter any more than they would throw to me a hat.

"He wrote me" is the same as "he called me" or "he washed me". We do not need to know about the letter, telephone or soap, because it is implied.
posted by gjc at 1:17 AM on August 25, 2011


The pronoun use w/r/t status in the FPP...just wanted to point out that the status between two individuals also correlates with the roles that each of those communicators has, as well as the topics discussed and who tends to initiate them.

This is important because then you can much more easily attribute the difference in quantity or quality of the pronoun use to this entire bundle of features that travel together (status/role/topic/initiation, etc.). It's much easier to see and explain the patterns and tendencies that way, rather than just saying 'status'. I sort of wish they'd expanded on that more, because as it is written, it reads to me as kind of of buying into the whole mythical (and binary) "men talk like this - women talk like that", but now a bit abstracted by being mapped onto "stronger/higher-status/powerful people talk like this - weaker/lower-status/ineffectual people talk like that." Which can very subtly contain or confirm a whole lot of presumptions or biases people have about class, education, age and maturity. I don't think that's what's intended. Research like this can be very tricky in that way. There are these great models and algorithms to find the counts and statistically significant stuff across a mass of data, but it's often quantitative and not qualitative, not accounting for what people are doing with language in an instance-by-instance use. To be creative or construct an identity a certain way (theirs or someone else's) or make a polite request or take a position on something or any other thing we do with language to get us by in the world.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:33 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"When undergraduates wrote me"

He's a bot.
posted by Segundus at 1:42 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Golly, is it possible that I was … wrong?! and that this construction really is an Americanism

It is very much possible and in fact is. In UK and Australian/NZ English, we say "he wrote to me"; reading "he wrote me" is a clear indicator that the author is American. (Or hearing it, obviously, but then there are other clues.) But Britons and Australasians wouldn't say "he wrote to me a letter"; we say "he wrote me a letter".
posted by rory at 3:40 AM on August 25, 2011


I love how he realizes that, in student-professor or professor-dean interactions, high pronoun usage is a sign of lower social status, but when women use more pronouns, it's because they're more interested in their feelings about Sally's affair than manly things like carburetors.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:48 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


"My ex business partner has Aspberger's. It was weird the way he would use pronouns, often in place of names. He would start a conversation with "She [whatever it was she did]".

Aspergers comes with its own pronoun issues, probably due to different concepts of self and other, so people with Aspergers tend to construct their own rules in attempts to blend in, with varying success.
posted by fraac at 4:14 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hrm. The correct link.
posted by fraac at 4:15 AM on August 25, 2011


Nerds
posted by nathancaswell at 4:19 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd be more convinced about the status connection of higher pronoun use if the relationships used as examples weren't all (both?) of the one-of-many communicating to the one who is overseeing the many. It seems that in a student to professor communication, you as the student realize that you are singling yourself out of the horde for special attention – usually a request of some sort. It seems natural that you would use more self referential pronouns here to make your individual case and try to establish your discrete identity.

Likewise, as a professor reporting to the dean you are again presenting your personal evaluation/request/suggestion to someone who is receiving the substantially the same item from a lot of other people just like you. An employee to a supervisor would be a similar example... and in all cases the higher status person is quite likely to respond in terms of policy and procedure rather than what they personally feel about the matter.

But what about someone higher in social status only? In communication with a lower-social-status friend or acquaintance in which there is no "reporting" taking place (for example, if the higher status person were the head of a charitable effort or other social committee) or special request or favor being asked – when it's just ordinary interpersonal communication... does the paradigm still hold, I wonder?
posted by taz at 5:43 AM on August 25, 2011


Yeah, it's about directionality and maybe status. When you're writing to someone for a purpose, especially if they're in a position of power above you, you're going to explain yourself by saying "I" a lot. They, in turn, will simply address your issues and concerns and don't have to bring themselves into the letter as much as you did.
posted by inturnaround at 6:20 AM on August 25, 2011


One of the things I liked least at The Times was they never let me use the editorial Wii.
posted by Eideteker at 6:35 AM on August 25, 2011


Oh, and kenko, arguing for descriptivism by attacking someone's right to hold an opinion about the euphony of a grammatical construct just makes you look silly.

What in the world are you talking about?

I denied it was an Americanism (on inadequate grounds, since all the OED examples have direct as well as indirect objects) but at no point do I "attack" anyone's right to hold an opinion. I just wanted to figure out the bounds of the opinion—does it hold here? here? what do you think about this?
posted by kenko at 8:01 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


The undergraduates wrote me as well, but I am in fact a fictional character concocted by them for a social science experiment.

I would be more apologetic about this, but the undergraduates wrote me this way.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:58 AM on August 25, 2011


The undergrads told to me they we writing that letter. I said "Hold on, give to me a second!" while I composed myself to them, then I preceded to warn to them the dangers of using the word 'I' too much, and recommended to them to avoid to putting it the letter. Needless say, they didn't listen me.
posted by BurnChao at 10:08 AM on August 25, 2011


One should modify one's grammar and diction to match the intended audience.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:43 AM on August 25, 2011


About the student/professor thing: when I was updating my syllabi this year, I noticed that my old syllabi said things like "We will not accept late homework" even in classes where I didn't have a TA, so there is no "we". I changed it to "I will not accept late homework" this time around, because it feels less authoritarian.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:31 PM on August 25, 2011


I wonder about the distinction he makes at the end between "categorizers" and "storytellers" and how categorizers do better in college.

When I think about the work of sorting thing into types, I feel there's something mathematical going on. When I do that sort of thing the end result is often this abstract set of related structures: trees, tables, lists, labels, and connections. I require a calm, quiet setting and state of mind to categorize.

When I think about making and telling stories it seems like I should find it a similar exercise, at least abstractly. But I find actually doing the work of making and telling stories much more interesting and engaging. The work of inventing characters, and figuring out how they make decisions, and figuring out their setting and context and consequences, creating a personal change in them and their world seems like juggling while treading water in a pool with no bottom and no edge to rest on and the balls you juggle simply must not get wet. The act of telling about those people, their place and time, what happened, what they did, and why, to others in a way that might move, entertain, or at least hold their interest seems like desperate high-wire courtship dance for any token of affection from the most fickle and distant of beloveds. Stories require everything I've got.
posted by wobh at 6:30 PM on August 25, 2011


The verbs / nouns thing I find particularly interesting. I'd have thought that people using more verbs than nouns were saying more complex things, but if the nouners do better at university that may (or may not) be false. But I guess admissions essays are a very specific type of writing so the noun / verb use in them may be peculiar to that format.

I've several times tried writing stories without using pronouns, wch is quite an interesting exercise.
posted by paduasoy at 2:12 PM on August 26, 2011


Follow-up article by Ben Zimmer in the NY Times: The Power of Pronouns.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:37 PM on August 26, 2011


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