I am an agent

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Wordcount is a fascinating site. It presents a searchable corpus of 88 odd thousand words in English ranked with respect to frequency. The data is based on the British National Corpus whch is made from both written and spoken texts of all types. Wordcount includes all words that appear there twice. Being obsessed with pronouns, I had a look through their stats:

Subject Object/prep possessor
I 11 me 72 my 69
you + you 14 your 73
he 15 him 60 his 27
she 30 her + her 36
it + it 9 its 62
We 34 us 119 our 98
they 28 them 57 their 42

Of course it is not so easy to compare these forms. The leftmost column contains subject forms, but of course, the form you is an extreme multitasker. Without context it can be singular or plural, it can be subject or object, or be governed by a preposition. Likewise, the second column is largely those that are object/oblique forms (i.e. follow a pronoun), but her does all that and takes care of possession too.

We also have to remember that when writing or speaking about ourselves, we really have little other choice than selecting the appropriate first person pronoun, as it is not deemed appropriate to speak of ourselves in the first person, and only restricted genres such as academic text types to select a commoun noun as our reference ….. the author of this study, their also limited ways of avoiding second person pronouns. This would account for the high rank of you especially given its polysemy. We can only exchange this pronoun for proper nouns when managing reference. Third person pronouns are more likely to be used interchangeably with full noun phrases, so the ranking of he as 15 masks the fact that the proportion of subjects which are third person is probably much higher than first and second. It is interesting to note though that when pronouns are used as subjects in the the third person, such subjects tend to be masculine. Women being talked about seem far less likely to be in subject position! (And are perhaps talked about as objects of both verbs and prepositions and perhaps possessors by the looks of it.) The opposite appears to be true for first person in that the subject form far outweighs the non-subject form me. Our preference for talking about ourselves as subjects suggests that we see ourselves as agents and experiencers (of cognitive verbs) more than objects worked upon by others.

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