Word-loving as science

I still remember my high-school English teacher telling me that good writers minimize the use of the, of, a and so forth. Those are fill words–in effect, noise. Turn nouns into verbs and get rid of them, so that the signal-to-noise ratio of your writing goes up. Don’t say: “A restructuring of our financial system and a recapitalization of our banks is an imperative for the avoidance of a depression.” Say: “We have to change our financial system and put capital into our banks to avoid a depression.”

I’ve also warned in a previous post about the treacherous first-person voice, which writers overuse, in my opinion, especially in America.

James Pennebaker

James Pennebaker

Well, James Pennebaker is now forcing me to think much more deeply about all this. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and he counts words. All sorts of words, especially the fill words that I thought existed only to be eliminated, and all those Is, mines and mes.

Why? Because how people use words, even and especially the ones we think don’t matter, says so much about them.

For instance, in analyzing the difference between Obama and McCain, Professor Pennebaker has this to say in on his blog:

Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories.  Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns.  Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women.  Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs.  Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs.  McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles.  These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category.  Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

In this post, Pennebaker actually counts how often the candidates use various categories of words.

It’s all about probabilities, of course. But I love how Pennebaker reminds me–not that I’m somebody who was likely to forget it–just how much words matter!


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2 thoughts on “Word-loving as science

  1. How many times can a politician say “my friends” without my permission? The more I hear it, the less friendly I become (bearing in mind that one can be friendly without being a friend). Friendish, maybe. Friendist? Is McCain a friendist?

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