Word choice tells much about people. James Pennebaker of The University of Texas explores this in his article, “Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality” (Harvard Business Review, December 2011 edition). He finds:
A person’s use of function words—the pronouns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs . . . offers deep insights into his or her honesty, stability, and sense of self.
For example, as Pennebaker indicates:
Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself.
His research shows that depressed people use “I” more often than emotionally stable people do. It also shows liar’s tend to use “we” more or leave out first-person pronouns altogether. Gender influences word choice too:
. . . we found that women use “I,” “me,” and “mine” more. Women are more self-attentive and aware of their internal state. Men use more articles: “a,” “an,” and “the.” That means men talk about objects and things more. . . . Women also use more third-person pronouns—“he,” “she,” and “they”—because women talk more about people and relationships.
These insights help us assess personalities in real time. They function as projective personality tests versus the more popular self-identifying ones that assume people consciously know how they might act, think or feel in a given situation. This is not necessarily true. How people are and think they are is often very different. We need insights into their unconscious behaviors and thoughts; word choice help here.
Of course, there are no ironclad rules regarding these choices. We need many observations to draw a practical personality line, remembering that they won’t line up perfectly. But then again, nothing ever does with people.
Note: Harvard Business Review issued a correction for this article. Originally, it stated that people who are lying use exclusive words like “but” and “without” and negations such as “no” and “never” much more frequently than others. The research actually suggests that people who are honest do this.