Pennebaker Conglomerates

The World of Words


The words we use reflect who we are. Word choice can serve as a key to people's personality and social situations. Since the mid-1990s, my students, colleagues, and I have been exploring the psychology of word use. 


What words are most important to track?

Very broadly, there are two types of words: content and style. Content words include nouns, regular verbs, and most adjectives and adverbs. Style words include pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and auxiliary verbs. The content words tell us what a person is saying; style words convey how they are saying it. Style words are powerful indicators of people’s psychological states. 

What can style words tell us about people?


For starters, style-related words can signal basic social and demographic categories, such as:

  • ​Sex. In general, women tend to use more pronouns and references to other people; men are more likely to use articles, prepositions, and big words.
  • Age. As people get older, they tend to refer to themselves less, use more positive emotion and fewer negative emotion words. Older people also use more future tense and fewer past tense verbs.
  • Social class. The higher the social class, the less likely one uses 1st person singular pronouns and the less one uses emotion words.


Style-related words can also reveal basic social and personality processes, including:


  • Lying vs telling the truth. When people tell the truth, they are more like to use 1st person singular pronouns. They also use more exclusive words like except, but, without, excluding. Words such as this indicate that a person is making a distinction between what they did do and what they didn’t do. Liars have a problem with such complex ideas.
  • Dominance in a conversation. Analyze the relative use of the word “I” between two speakers in an interaction. Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer “I” words.Social bonding after a trauma. In the days and weeks after a cultural upheaval, people become more self-less (less use of “I”) and more oriented towards others (increased use of “we”).
  • Depression and suicide-proneness. Public figures speaking in press conferences and published poets in their poetry use more 1st person singular when they are depressed or prone to suicide.
  • Basic self-reported personality dimensions. Multiple studies are now showing that style-related words do much better than chance at distinguishing people who are high or low in the Big Five dimensions of personality: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
  • Consumer patterns. By knowing people’s linguistic styles, we are able to predict (at reasonable rates), their music and radio station preference, liking for various consumer goods, car preferences, etc.
  • Social relations.  Language use in everyday conversation can reveal how two people are connecting with one another.  Through analysis of speed dates, we can predict who will later go on a date better than the participants themselves.

And much, much more.

What is the best way to measure words?


LIWC, of course. The computer program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC, has been in development in our lab since the mid-1990s. LIWC analyzes individual text files and computes the percentage of words in each text file fall into each of 70+ linguistic categories.  Some of the categories that are measured include:


  • Emotion-related words
  • ​General positive emotions
  • General negative emotions, including Sadness, Anger, and Anxiety
  • Cognitive process words, including Causation, Self-reflection (realize, understand), Self-discrepancies (would, should, could)
  • Social processes
  • Physical issues such as Body, Sex, Eating
  • Current concerns such as Work, Home, Leisure, Religion, Death
  • Linguistic style markersPronounsPrepositionsArticles


Is LIWC available for the general public?


Yes. You can purchase it online (www.liwc.net).


Where is there more information about LIWC and text analysis in general?

Read about LIWC from multiple sites. Feel free to browse or download several of our papers on language by clicking on one of the buttons below:

For those who would like a very good overview of LIWC and the meaning of words, check out: