The Prepositions And Pronouns Of Love

The little words we use in conversation — pronouns, articles, and the like — may seem inconsequential. But now a team of scientists say that analyzing these can determine a couple's compatibility.

According to the Times Well blog, the team analyzed the "function words" — prepositions, pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other "small words" — used by pairs of speed daters. Pairs who used these words similarly were three times more likely to want to see each other again than those who were mismatched. And little words turned out to be a better predictor of connection than daters themselves — if one person wanted another date, but the pair's language was out of sync, the other person was likely to turn him or her down. Says study author James W. Pennebaker,

It does better than humans themselves who are in the interaction. Some of the most revealing words we use are the shortest and most forgettable.

The technique, which Pennebaker calls language style matching (LSM) can also be used in non-speed-dating scenarios. When researchers used the technique on couples, they found they could predict who would be together after three months. And groups whose small words were in sync did a better job on projects. You can also test out your own LSM score with a partner, friend, or coworker using the researchers' online tool. It's a little cumbersome — you have to separate out each person's part of an IM or email exchange and paste them into boxes — but I tried it out on some IMs between me and Jessica. We got a score of 0.82, or slightly below average, which bummed me out a little. However, the study authors point out that a common cause of low scores is "too few words by one or both authors" — and since cutting up and pasting in an IM conversation took so much time, I chose a relatively short one.

Maybe someday businesses could use LSM to train employees to work better together, but I'm seeing a more immediate application. The writing samples in the online tool don't have to be part of a conversation. They can be poems, papers, or, I would assume, online dating profiles. Since dating sites love new-fangled compatibility tests, I think it's only a matter of time before one of them offers LSM as a way of predicting a successful relationship. Until then, you can always do the test yourself by pasting your profiles into the tool. You may want to keep the results to yourself, though — at least until it gains widespread acceptance, LSMing someone will probably seem a little creepier than googling.

Can Romance Be Reduced To Pronouns? [NYT Well Blog]

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