Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pronouns and Word Choice Reveal Gender, Rank, and Intelligence

One reads posts analyzing how to write a male character, or how to write a female character. I often find myself irritated -- women have to have lots of friends, they have to be emotional, they have to care about dressing up, and they have to think men are uncommunicative. Men have to be taciturn, talk about football, have only one or two close friends (to whom they speak in occasional grunts), and they have to think women are irrational.

In reality, some women are sports-mad and some like fluffy little dogs. Some men are sharp dressers and some like fishing alone for hours.

But this article from Scientific American has real advice on writing relationships. Chose your pronouns carefully, writers. They can reflect gender, social rank, and intelligence.

Although we never notice it, when analyzed our speech patterns and writing show that women are far more likely than men to use cognitive words (e.g., because, reason, think, believe); social words (e.g., he, she, friend, cousin); and 1st person singular (I, me, my).

Men use articles more than women: (a, an, the).

According to Psychologist James Pennebaker, "men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles."

Also, people of lower rank use "I" words in communications, whereas higher rank people avoid them.

These offer new ways to look at characterization. Although in reality we are unaware of these cues, if we write them into our characters, mightn't it make the reader's perception of their roles more vivid?

It's not just gender. This fascinated me:
"Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.
To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?"

As I growled about a few posts back, writers can be seen by more analytic minds as being of inferior intelligence -- something that also plagues women in the eyes of some men. Emotional, social, story-telling minds are less valued than analytic, concrete minds.


I would argue both are important, and are equally essential to our human existence. Without the story tellers and the emotion-givers, we are robots. Without analysis and concrete reality, we are adrift without reason.

I am intrigued, and anxious to try gender-pronouns and concrete versus emotional in my stories.

How do you write? How do you tell a story that reflects the concrete? Do you have special cues you use for gender and rank? I'd love to read about them.

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