He Said, She Said: How Pronouns Predict Match-Making


Because I work as an editor, I’m always interested in the words people choose, both in conversation and in writing. The style and tone of a person’s writing often can reveal some element of his or her personality. In the world of Internet dating, words become especially important, as they can influence a potential partner’s first impression.

It doesn’t take much: If a guy’s e-mail starts out with a witty, complete sentence, I’ll keep reading. And if he’s replaced the letter “s” with a “z,” well, I may not dismiss him completely, but he’s definitely working his way out of a deficit.

However, according to a study featured in the New York Times Wellness blog, I might do well to pay attention to some of the words we often overlook. James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted an experiment in which he observed 187 men and women on 4-minute speed dates as they discussed topics such as their hometowns and majors. Pennebaker tracked their speech patterns:

“His focus was on the barely noticed personal pronouns (I, you, me), articles (the, a), prepositions (for, of, on), conjunctions (but, and) and other small words. These commonly used so-called function words, about 180 in all, Pennebaker says, are processed rapidly and subconsciously. And our use of them can reveal, among other things, whether a romance will work out or how well two people work together.

In the speed-dating study, Pennebaker and his colleague Molly Ireland found that couples who used similar levels of personal pronouns, prepositions and even articles were three times as likely to want to date each other compared with those whose language styles didn’t match.

The metric, called language style matching (L.S.M.), was also better at predicting who didn’t make a love connection than the individuals themselves, several of whom showed interest in a partner who did not reciprocate.”

It seems that L.S.M. also can be used to analyze the written word, such as text messages and e-mails. You can try it here.

Of course, as the article points out, “Synchrony, however, does not always mean that two people like each other.” Nor does a lack of synchronicity in Pennebaker’s system mean that you should abandon your correspondence with fellow CatholicMatchers.

On one hand, I find this fascinating and fun. It’s the kind of thing I’d enjoy if it happened to confirm my compatibility with someone. But I’d dismiss it in a second if it determined that I wasn’t compatible with a person with whom I was friends or felt a real connection. I tried it with e-mails from a few friends, and the results showed high synchronicity. My (admittedly totally unscientific) guess as to why this works is that individuals who use similar grammar and language likely have similar levels of education or hail from similar regions or backgrounds, both of which could be significant factors in determining whether or not two people are compatible.

In the end, while devices such as this might be significant to scientists, I’d bet that paying attention to a person’s values, beliefs and sense of humor – rather than his or her use of pronouns – is likely a more useful way for most of us to spend our time.




Further reading

CatholicMatch member Jessica Zimanske asks, “Is Bad Grammar A Turn-Off?


1 Comment »

  1. Albert-146514 January 18, 2012 Reply

    I am definitely not a English language grammar savant , but I would be reluctant to wed a bride who would could not distinguish between “Me” an “I” in her answer when asked ” Do you take this man —-”

    Groom to Bride after wedding ceremony– ” I didn’t know what ‘plight thee my troth’ meant either , but I didn’t laugh!!”

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