re: the number of "function words" English has
Lights flickering here, so I'm getting this up. HBR: Why are function words so important?
James Pennebaker: In English there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. Content words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs—convey the guts of communication. They’re how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language. People require social skills to use and understand function words, and they’re processed in the brain di fferently. They are the key to understanding relationships between speakers, objects, and other people. When we analyze people’s use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class.
Function words sound like two-by-fours: They’re important but not meaningful in creating the overall architecture.
You might even think of function words as the nails. It seems natural to pay them little regard. If you type a sentence into Google, its algorithms disregard function words, because it’s interested in content. But these words convey important subtleties—“a ring” versus “that ring.” In foreign languages, function words often convey people’s status relative to one another.
If you listened to a job interview, what would the use of function words tell you?
It’s almost impossible to hear the differences naturally, which is why we use transcripts and computer analysis. Take a person who’s depressed. “I” might make up 6.5% of his words, versus 4% for a nondepressed person. That’s a huge difference statistically, but our ears can’t pick it up. But hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as “we” or “they”? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says “It’s hot” rather than “I think it’s hot” may be a better fit.
Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality | Harvard Business Review | December 2011 | p 32-33