Friday, 8 January 2016

Function Words and Pronouns

Function Words Word Cloud (Tagxedo, 2015)
I have been reading a book by James Pennebaker about how use of pronouns changes how we see ourselves and how well we are. James's early research was on high stress, where participants "who reported having a terrible traumatic experience and who kept the experience a secret had far more health problems than people who openly talked about their traumas. Why would keeping a secret be so toxic? More importantly, if you asked people to disclose emotionally powerful secrets, would their health improve? The answer, my students and I soon discovered, was yes" (2011).

James ran an experiment to see whether those people who were ill AND kept secrets would recover more quickly if they wrote about their experiences. So he got them to write for three to five consecutive days, for 15 or 20 minutes on each of those days. And the participants' health improved (2011).

Later James did some work exploring how well students reconciled emotional trauma through analysing a series of sequential essays. The students showed reconciliation through use of personal pronouns, context, and other parts of grammar. "The results [...] were striking. The more that people changed in their writing styles, the more their health improved" (Campbell & Pennebaker, 2003, p. 62).

James's research looks at pronouns, and more widely than that, at 'function' words, a concept that I was not familiar with. Function words are "a word whose purpose is to contribute to the syntax rather than the meaning of a sentence, for example, the 'do' in 'we do not live here'" (Google, 19 December 2015). Function words make up 30% of our speech, containing pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles and auxiliary verbs, such as 'I', 'a', 'is', 'to', 'have', 'but'. James says "Function words require social skills to use properly. The speaker assumes that the listener knows who everyone is [and their place in relationships, time and physical location]. The listener must be paying attention and know the speaker to follow the conversation. So the mere ability to understand a simple conversation chock-full of function words demands social knowledge" (Pennebaker, 2011).

Additionally, James has explored the use of power dynamics in language, clearly illustrating who has power and status in any relationship. As James said, "It's amazingly simple. Listen to the relative use of the word 'I'." The person who uses 'I' has lower power and status. The person with high power has higher power and status. Simple (Spiegel, 1 September 2014). I am shocked how much that use of pronouns shows our power relationships and reveals how well we are.I would never have thought that what we say could be quite so clear.

It was gratifying to find such unexpected evidence for how useful reflective writing is for reconciling trauma. I will use this in my teaching next year.