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What Pronoun Usage In Books Says About Cultural Shifts

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The pronouns "he/she," "him/her" and "you/me" are among the smallest words in the English language. But in the hands of researchers they can apparently reveal a large amount of information.

A recent study, co-authored by San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge, examined pronoun usage in books published in the U.S. between 1900 and 2008, using the Google Books database, which houses five million scanned books published since the 1800s.

Twenge and her University of Georgia co-authors wanted to find out if the use of gendered pronouns like "he/she" or "him/her" correlated with shifting trends in gender status. They learned that it did — and quite closely.

When women’s social status was less prominent, like after World War II, fewer female pronouns were used in books. Twenge, who was recently interviewed by KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone, says pronoun usage then changed during the late '60s. "Many more female pronouns compared to male pronouns are being used in that time when women are gaining status through participating in the workforce, earning university degrees, and marrying at a later age," she says.

Twenge adds, however, that there are still twice as many male pronouns compared to female pronouns used in American books.

A second study conducted concurrently by the same researchers revealed that the use of first-person pronouns like "I" and "me" has increased 42 percent since 1960. The use of second-person pronouns like "you" and "your" quadrupled and has steadily climbed in usage since the '60s.

Twenge says this discovery was surprising at first but then it made a lot of sense. "Writers tend to write toward the individual person, and have a very individualistic way of speaking," says Twenge. "They want to talk directly to the reader." She adds that this trend is open to interpretation, though she is convinced the increasing use of "you" can be linked to the rise of the self-help genre.

Twenge, who has written a number of books on the growth of narcissism and entitlement in the U.S., also believes the increase of first- and second-person pronouns seem to point to a culture more focused on the self and personal concerns.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Twenge and Brittany Gentile, study co-author and Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, about their research and how pronoun usage in books reflects cultural shifts throughout the last century.


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