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With Pronouns, Our Brains Don't Always Know What They're Talking About

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: Pronouns and why they're harder for your brain to understand than you might think. Pronouns are words like he, she, it, we, you, they … and lots more.

RS: They act as shortcuts so we don't have to repeat what we're talking about over and over again. Our guest published an essay about her self-declared obsession with pronouns.

With Pronouns, Our Brains Don't Always Know What They're Talking About
With Pronouns, Our Brains Don't Always Know What They're Talking About

JESSICA LOVE: "My name is Jessica Love. I'm a fourth-year graduate student in cognitive psychology at Ohio State and I study psycholinguistics, which is basically the study of how the mind is able to learn and use language."

AA: "I learned two new terms -- at least two new terms -- from your article, which [were] unheralded pronouns and dummy pronouns."

RS: "What are those?"

AA: "Yeah, what are those?"

JESSICA LOVE: "'Unheralded pronouns' is basically a fancy way of saying you're using a pronoun where the referent isn't immediately in the discourse environment. So the example I give in my essay is someone coming up to me and saying 'They should be illegal' and I haven't talked to this person all day. But it just so happens that I know exactly what they're talking about because a few evenings earlier I'd set my cat on fire with a catnip candle."

RS: "Is this a true story?"

AA: "You talk about that in your essay."

JESSICA LOVE: "It is a true story. My cat's fine now, thank you, but it was a slightly traumatic evening. I thought that catnip candles would be a good idea. I thought that I would set them up in a corner of the room and the catnip would waft through the air and my cat would roll around delightfully and a good time would be had by all. But instead he actually tried to consume the candle, and he's a big Maine coon and his belly fur is about four inches long. So he landed with all fours around the candle and his belly caught on fire.

"It's the sort of story you tell your co-workers and then they shake their heads, and two days later when they say 'They should be illegal' you know exactly what they're talking about."

AA: "So that's an unheralded pronoun, a pronoun that comes at you from nowhere but you figure it out. So what's a dummy pronoun?"

JESSICA LOVE: "So a dummy pronoun is basically just a pronoun that we shove into English sentences because we have to have a subject. So we have to say 'It is raining.' We can't just say 'Raining.' So even though 'it' arguably doesn't mean anything -- you could argue that it means the weather or something like, but really we're just sticking it in there because we have to make the sentence grammatical."

AA: "That's so true."

RS: "Never thought about that, but yeah."

AA: "And then lastly why don't you tell us a little bit about what happens when -- you did, I guess, some experiments with getting people to use pronouns while thinking of something else?"

JESSICA LOVE: "So if you ask someone -- and this experiment was actually done by Jennifer Arnold at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I think she actually gave participants numbers that they had to keep track of while telling a story, I think it was. And she found that they used fewer pronouns. They just kept repeating the proper name over and over again.

"So I give an example of someone engaged in this task and they would really be using pronouns very inappropriately. They would just say 'Corey's doing great today. Corey's had a lovely breakfast, and Corey's going to be exercising pretty soon.' Just basically repeating Corey over and over again because they couldn't keep track of how salient Corey was to the listener."

AA: "Because they are thinking at the same time of this multi-digit number -- "

JESSICA LOVE: "Exactly."

AA: " -- in their head."

JESSICA LOVE: "Exactly."

AA: "That was really interesting."

RS: "Well, why would we care?"

JESSICA LOVE: "Well, we end up talking while we do a lot of other things, so it's always interesting to see what happens to our language when we're very distracted. Or when we're very stressed out. If you're expending a lot of your resources freaking out because you're giving a speech, probably your pronoun use is going to suffer.

"And what's really interesting, I think, is there's evidence that kind of the opposite thing happens if you suffer from memory impairment. You see this sometimes in older adults, where they will just stop using proper nouns altogether because they can't access them. So they'll just stick solely to pronouns. It's kind of interesting that memory burdens in different ways can do drastically different things to our pronoun use."

AA: Jessica Love is working on a doctorate in cognitive psychology at Ohio State University. Her essay in the American Scholar magazine can be found online.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Visit us at or on Facebook at VOA Learning English. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this page misidentified Jessica Love as Jennifer Love at several points in the transcript.