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People Use Fewer First-Person Pronouns As They Get Older

Over 75,000 volunteers willingly turned over their Facebook status updates to scientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s World Well-Being Project (WWBP)—a research group including linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists—and created a virtual treasure trove of data, and the results are startling: For both men and women, use of first-person singular pronouns—“I,” “me,” “my,” “mine”—declines with age, while at the same time, use of first-person plural pronouns—“we,” “us,” “our,” “ours”—goes up. On the blog “Language Log,” linguist Mark Liberman has analyzed the WWBP data.  

Language Log/WWBP 
Language Log/WWBP
Mark Liberman/WWBP

Some psychologists attribute this trend to a decline in self-centeredness that we expect as an effect of aging. “‘We’ words reflect at least two processes—a looking outside of oneself at others and also a greater sense of connections with others,” says James Pennebaker, social psychologist and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. “When we are in new situations and are trying to establish an identity, we tend to be more self-focused, which comes out through higher rates of ‘I’-words. Almost by definition, younger people are more attentive to their not fitting in and are looking more closely at their own thoughts and feeling." But as people age, says Pennebaker, "we become less concerned with our own shortcomings and can sit back and watch the world a bit more objectively.”

The new Facebook data isn’t the first to reflect this pattern. In 2003, Pennebaker and co-author Lori Stone looked at a compendium of text samples culled from interviews with over 3,000 volunteers ranging in age from eight to 85. They also found a progressive decline in first-person singular pronouns, and a corresponding increase in first-person plural pronouns, over the course of the life-span. This trend wasn’t unique to the twenty-first century, either: Pennebaker and Stone also analyzed a corpus of writing from ten well-known authors from the past 500 years. Six of the ten—including Wordsworth, George Eliot, and Yeats—also exhibited a decrease in relative use of the first-person singular over their lives; only one—Shakespeare—displayed a pattern in the opposite direction.

It’s possible, though, that the pattern doesn’t just reflect life-cycle changes, but generational shifts. “In a study of people at one time, it is impossible to separate age and birth year,” observes Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me. In other words, the social and cultural factors related to the year in which someone is born may be more important than age in determining their outlook (and their speech). In an often-cited Google Books text analysis of over 760,000 American books, Twenge found that incidence of first-person plural pronouns declined by 10 percent between 1960 and 2008, while first-person singular pronouns rose by 42 percent over the same period. 

What explains the me-centered attitudes of the young? Experts warn against jumping to conclusions about the narcissism of the young. “Narcissism is a complex and contradictory term/concept/diagnosis that loses a lot in being extracted from specific contexts,” says Elizabeth Lunbeck, author of The Americanization of Narcissism. Linguist Ben Zimmer doesn’t see the new data as an indictment of millennials, either. For twenty-somethings, says Zimmer, “Their frames of reference have more to do with themselves as individuals, and later on those frames expand to include spouses and children." Life changes, as much or more than attitude changes, are likely to affect diction. "Starting a family also licenses a person to speak on behalf of the family unit. In a Facebook post of someone who is married, and especially of someone married with kids, the use of ‘we’ is implicitly understood to encompass the nuclear family in one shared ‘voice.’”

Another startling trend Liberman notes is that men write “he” more often than “she” (70 percent of the time), though women use masculine and feminine pronouns evenly.  

Mark Liberman/WWBP
Mark Liberman/WWBP

This “perhaps stems from the fact that men tend to have more male friends, while females tend to have a mix of both male and female friends,” says Lyle Ungar, one of the researchers at the World Well-Being Project. 

Again, this trend is borne out by other kinds of data, too. Based on Liberman’s analysis of the British National Corpus—a 100-million word index of published written samples from the late twentieth century—a shocking 92 percent of the animate third-person pronouns in the work of non-fiction male writers are masculine. Even female nonfiction writers in this sample used a disproportionate number of masculine pronouns—65 percent. The numbers were more even in fiction: 70 percent of the pronouns in the work of male fiction writers, and 41 percent of the pronouns in the work of female fiction writers, were masculine. And in transcripts of 11,699 phone conversations recorded in 2003, 66 percent of the third-person pronouns used by men, and 60 percent of those used by women, are masculine (“he”, “him”, “his”, “himself”).

“That the effects are so consistent over time suggests that there hasn't been a deep-seated cultural shift in genderized language over the last 40 years,” says Pennebaker. “One argument is that men simply write and perhaps think less about women.”