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Language Analysis: The Smallest Words May Matter Most

January 26, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - While jobs, the economy, the budget, healthcare, and the military were some of the topics touched on in President Obama's State of the Union address and the subsequent rebuttals, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin says it's the invisible words in the speeches that may mean the most to people - even though they don't realize it.

Psychology Chair James Pennebaker is the co-author of newly-published research that demonstrates that the way prepositions, pronouns and linking words (such as "and") are used can either rub people the wrong way – or make a person feel connected to the speaker. He calls them "function words."

"By analyzing the way people use pronouns and prepositions, and so forth, we can get a sense of their emotional state, their status, if they're telling the truth versus lying."

His findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Pennebaker explains the ways that people speak or write can be more telling than the content, and each person's perception of the use of those words is different. He says that has implications for politics, business and personal relationships. Because there are a lot of "little words" in language, he relies on computer programs to sort out the meanings.

Pennebaker's most recent project predicted the success, or failure, of dating relationships based on the use of function words. He claims the research made those predictions more accurately than the people involved. He also says function word choice is not a conscious decision.

"These words are really diagnostic of people's social connections with others, and also how they are thinking, and thinking about themselves."

Another use for the research? Pennebaker says he's been contacted by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - TX