The World of Words

The words we use reflect who we are. Word choice can serve as a key to people's personality and social situations. Since the mid-1990s, my students, colleagues, and I have been exploring the psychology of word use. Before reading further, you might want to try one or more brief demonstrations that will give you an appreciation of language use, measurement, and personality.

Demonstration 1:  The basic text analysis using the LIWC computer program.  This asks you to respond to a traditional TAT picture.  The feedback is fairly broad.

Demonstration 2:  Using a new method that we call the meaning extraction method, we are able to get LIWC to analyze people’s personality along a completely new set of dimensions. 

Demonstration 3:  Using the meaning extraction strategy, the computer can give you feedback about the ways you see the world depending on how you describe something as simple as a bottle.

Demonstration 4: Applying both LIWC and the meaning extraction method, we have developed an interesting way to analyze people's Twitter feeds. If you have a twitter handle, just enter one and you get feedback about that particular person. If you don't have one, try BarackObama for a demonstration.


What words should we pay attention to?

Very broadly, there are two types of words: content and style. Content words include nouns, regular verbs, and most adjectives and adverbs. Style words include pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and auxiliary verbs. The content words tell us what a person is saying; style words convey how they are saying it.

Style words, then, can be powerful indicators of people’s psychological states. They require a certain social skill to both use and interpret. In a conversation, if one person refers to “her table”, both people must remember who the “her” is. Similarly, the difference between “a table” and “the table” conveys a subtle difference in the relationship between the speaker and the table in question.

What can the analysis of words tell us about people?

For starters, style-related words can signal basic social and demographic categories, such as:

Style-related words can also reveal basic social and personality processes, including:

What is the best way to measure words?

LIWC, of course. The computer program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, or LIWC, has been in development in our lab since the mid-1990s. LIWC analyzes individual text files and computes the percentage of words in each text file fall into each of 70+ linguistic categories.

Some of the categories that are measured include:

Is LIWC available for the general public?

Yes. You can either purchase it online ( or I would be happy to analyze your text files for free. All I ask in return is the right to keep a copy of your files to add to my growing text archive of over 500,000 files. Indeed, if you would like to analyze some of the archived text as part of another project, contact me.

To learn more about LIWC, you can read a detailed description online or download the manual which is in pdf format. Also, feel free to browse and/or download several of our recent papers on language use by clicking on one of the buttons below:

Check out the LIWC site online

Download the LIWC manual

Recent articles for reading or downloading

For those who would like a very good overview of LIWC and the meaning of words, check out:

Tausczik, Y., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2009, in press). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis methods.  Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in press.