According to Bill Zimmer of the New York Times:
James W. Pennebaker’s new book “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” which I reviewed in The Times Book Review on Sunday, makes it hard to stop thinking about pronouns and the other little “function words” that Mr. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, sees as “the keys to the soul.” Mr. Pennebaker is admirably omnivorous when it comes to looking for material that will show how these stealthy words — which include articles, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs — reflect our social psyche. One of his more unexpected sources is the lyrical canon of the Beatles.
Mr. Pennebaker crunches the numbers on Beatles songs using text analysis programs and arrives at some fascinating conclusions. As the band aged their lyrics grew “more complex, more psychologically distant and far less positive.” The increasing complexity of the lyrics is manifested in “bigger words and more prepositions, articles and conjunctions.” There was also a big drop in the use of first-person singular pronouns, from 14 percent in the group’s early years to 7 percent in the final years. Self-absorption, it seems, gave way to more socially involved perspectives.
As it happens, I’d been thinking about the Beatles and their pronouns because my 5-year-old son is currently working through a serious obsession with all things Fab Four. That includes repeated viewings of not just their films but also the “Anthology” DVD series about the group. At one point in the documentary Paul McCartney recalls collaborating with John Lennon on the song “She Loves You” in the summer of 1963. “All our early songs,” Mr. McCartney said, “had always had this very personal thing,” pointing to “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “Thank You Girl.” Then he said, “we hit on the idea of doing a kind of a reported conversation: ‘I saw her yesterday, she told me what to say, she said she loves you.’ It just gave us another little dimension really.”
Mr. McCartney was clearly attuned to how pronouns could provide different perspectives in songwriting (even if he goofed when he told the biographer Barry Miles that “She Loves You” was a “personal preposition song”). But Lennon was no slouch in the pronoun department. He could take a third-person song like “Nowhere Man” and use pronouns to forge a sense of identification: “Isn’t he a lot like you and me?”
Lennon’s play with pronouns reached absurd heights, of course, in the first line of “I Am the Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” And let’s not forget about George Harrison. Even if the Beatles’ use of I-words declined over the years, Harrison penned the ultimate ode to first-person singular pronouns as badges of egocentrism in “I Me Mine,” the last song the Beatles recorded together.
Mr. Pennebaker also explores the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney, comparing the songs they wrote mostly on their own to their true collaborations written “eyeball to eyeball,” as Lennon once put it. The songs on which they collaborated closely produced linguistic patterns strikingly different from those of either songwriter individually. The 15 songs that were true John-Paul partnerships, Mr. Pennebaker says, were “much more positive” in emotional tone and used “more I-words, fewer we-words and much shorter words than either artist normally used on his own.”
Mr. Pennebaker discerns that same synergy at work in a very different collection of texts: The Federalist Papers, three of which were written jointly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. John and Paul and Alexander and James: now that would be a supergroup.
(For more, see Pennebaker’s 2008 article in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, “Things We Said Today: A Linguistic Analysis of the Beatles,” authored with Keith J. Petrie and Borge Sivertsen.)