23 May 2012


During a recent episode of NPR's Morning Edition, Alix Spiegel spotlighted a common use of language which I'd never before considered.  The piece parses out how ~ if we pay attention to function words (articles, conjunctions, and pronouns, among others) ~ we can tease out a significant layer of meaning more subtle, yet just as important, as content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs).

Function words "express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker".  Content words are the anchor words which "carry the content or meaning of a sentence".  Function words are the filler words which tie content words together, forming a cohesive thought.  But they do much more.  Not only do they organize language, they convey status in relationships, hint at the speaker's gender and relative social status, predict who will recover from trauma, and even provide clues to whether the speaker is lying or telling the truth.

Psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas has been studying function words for twenty years.  He and his students devised a computer program to "peer into massive data sets and discern patterns that no human could hope to match".  Based on the degree to which two people do (or do not) adjust their use of function words (especially pronouns) to each other, Pennebaker can tell which person is senior in a power relationship, and can predict whether people meeting each other for the first time in a speed dating event will hit it off.

By paying attention, one can not only discern the intent of a person in conversation, but influence that intent.  You can read the transcript, or listen to the story, here.

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