Friday, June 08, 2012

50% fewer pronouns in Beatles songs from early to later years: Words that matter

As I conclude my week of blogs about words – words that matter – I want to share a book entitled, The Secret Life of Pronouns.

James W. Pennebaker’s book makes it hard to stop thinking about pronouns and the other little “function words” that he sees as “the keys to the soul.”

Pennebaker is admirably omnivorous when it comes to looking for material that will show how these stealthy words — which include articles, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs — reflect our social psyche. One of his more unexpected sources is the lyrical canon of the Beatles.

He crunches the numbers on Beatles songs using text analysis programs and arrives at some fascinating conclusions. As the band aged their lyrics grew “more complex, more psychologically distant and far less positive.” The increasing complexity of the lyrics is manifested in “bigger words and more prepositions, articles and conjunctions.”

There was also a big drop in the use of first-person singular pronouns, from 14 percent in the group’s early years to 7 percent in the final years. Self-absorption, it seems, gave way to more socially involved perspectives.

Read more in the New York Times review at

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