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Men and women not only speak but also write uniquely

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

"I am from Mars," he e-mailed his friend.

"I am from Venus," she replied.

"You can say that again," their computers interjected.

Gender-bent prose

Scientists armed with computer programs that scan text for sex-specific grammar, sentence structure, word preference and other features have discovered distinct differences between the writing of men and women. For instance, women tend to personalize their writing more than men, using more personal pronouns to identify things, such as "I," "you," "she," "her," "their," "myself," "yourself" and "herself." Males favor impersonal and generic pronouns, such as "it," "this," "that," "these," "those" and "they."

Examples cited from fiction

"By 1925, present-day Vietnam was divided into three parts under French colonial rule. The southern region embracing Saigon and the Mekong delta was the colony of Cochin-China; the central area with its imperial capital at Hue was the protectorate of Annam, and the northern region, Tongking, was also a separate protectorate with its capital at Hanoi."

-- Anthony Grey, "Saigon"

"Clara never failed to be astonished by the extraordinary felicity of her own name. She found it hard to trust herself to the mercy of fate, which had managed over the years to convert her greatest shame into one of her greatest assets, and even after years of comparative security she was still prepared for, still half expecting the old gibes to be revived."

-- Margaret Drabble, "Jerusalem the Golden"

Examples cited from formal technical writing

"The main aim of this article is to propose an exercise in stylistic analysis which can be employed in the teaching of English language. It details the design and results of a workshop activity on narrative carried out with the undergraduates in a university department of English.

-- Paul Simpson, "Language and Literature," Volume 1 (1992)

"My aim in this article is to show that given a relevant theoretic approach to utterance interpretation, it is possible to develop a better understanding of what some of these so-called apposition markers indicate. It will be argued that the decision to put something in other words is essentially a decision about style, a point which is, perhaps, anticipated by Burton-Roberts when he describes loose apposition as a rhetorical device."

-- Diane Blakemore, "Language and Literature," Volume 2 (1993)


Women and men don't just talk past each other like planets in different orbits. They write differently, too.

Leave it to the sexless computers to figure this out.

Scientists in recent years have documented the fabled male-female communications gap -- source of age-old conflict and confusion between the sexes -- when it comes to spoken language. Now, employing a computer program that can scan text for sex-specific grammar, sentence structure, word preference and other features, they have discovered distinct differences between the writing of men and women, as well.

The findings might eventually have far-reaching practical applications for improving commercial and workplace communication, making textbooks more effective, or even helping police identify the authors of ransom notes or otherwise solve crimes.

"We have shown convincingly that gender differences in language use do exist," said Shlomo Argamon, of the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose research team developed the computer program, aptly named Winnow, that they say can pinpoint the sex of an anonymous author with more than 80 percent accuracy. The program uses text categorization technology similar to that of Internet search engines.

U.S. and Israeli researchers using Winnow have started publishing their findings in obscure technical publications such as "Literary and Linguistic Computing." The latest report appears in the current edition of the journal "Text."

"We think these differences are surprising and significant," Argamon said.

Women write more 'personally'

Argamon and co-workers at Bar-Ilahn University and the Jerusalem College of Technology in Israel looked for differences in writing style precisely where experts least-expected to find them -- in formal written texts such as books and scientific reports.

From the standpoint of linguistics, letters and e-mail are similar to conversation. They involve a lot of "social interaction," with the writer essentially "talking" to a specific individual.

"Formal written texts such as books and articles, on the other hand, are intended for a broad unseen audience," Argamon said.

Exceptions do exist, such as romance and other genre books intentionally written for a specific audience. Researchers, however, expected that the differences found in oral communication style and informal writing would disappear in formal writing.

That, however, was not the case.

In one study, for instance, they analyzed more than 600 documents in the British National Corpus (, a 100-million word collection of books and other documents written since 1960 which represents a cross-section of current British English.

Winnow checked for certain linguistic patterns or "determiners," such as word use and sentence structure, which it had developed from extensive "reading" and analysis of documents known to be written by men or women.

Women, for instance, are more likely to use the word "she" and words indicating relationships such as "for," "and," "in," "with" and "not." Men heavily favor words like "one," "two," "some," "more," "a," "that," "its" and "the," which specify the number or properties of objects.

Women personalize their writing more than men, using more personal pronouns that identify the gender of things. They favor pronouns like "I," "you," "she," "her," "their," "myself," "yourself" and "herself." Males favor impersonal and generic pronouns, such as "it," "this," "that," "these," "those" and "they."

The books and other documents in the British collection include nonfiction, science, business, art, science, politics, and other topics. The average document in the study contained 42,000 words, and the full set of data encompassed about 25 million words. Winnow scanned for more than 1,000 male/female determiners and then predicted the gender of each author of each document.

In one group of 264 novels, the program misidentified six authors.

A.S. Byatt, the author of "Possession," was the only woman who wrote like a man. Male authors of five books wrote like women, including Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote "The Remains of the Day."

Argamon and his associates found that gender-related differences occurred even in technical scientific documents, which are written in an exceedingly formal, impersonal style. Winnow correctly identified the authors' sex in 73 percent of scientific documents it scanned.

Among the questions not addressed by researchers is the impact that text loaded with phrasing from one gender might have on the other. Do men subconsciously consider documents with "female" determiners "soft" and take them less seriously? Are those containing heavy male content deemed more authoritative by men but emotionally distant and off-putting by women? Might some writing be so laden with gender-loaded characteristics that one sex or the other would need translation to understand it?

Closing the communication gap

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who wrote the 1990 book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," was among the first to stir awareness about differences in spoken communication styles between men and women.

Women, Tannen found, use conversation to connect with other people, to forge friendships and draw closer emotionally. They discuss problems with close female friends, for instance, and attempt to do so with male intimates in order to become closer friends, not to solicit solutions.

Men use conversation to negotiate their status and keep people from pushing them around. They hear "troubles talk" from women as a request for advice and respond with well-crafted solutions. That's not what women want, so they think the man is trying to cut them off or make their problems seem trivial.

And so the stereotypes emerge.

Men supposedly view women as constant talkers always ready to complain but rarely willing to do anything about it. Women bristle at the silent, insensitive male with head buried in the newspaper, or glued to the TV screen, tuning her out.

Tannen, who was not involved in the new research, said it might help in closing the communication gap between the sexes, particularly in the workplace.

E-mail, letters and reports can potentially lead to more miscommunication than conversation, she said, because the writer is not present to immediately answer questions or provide clarification. Also lacking are conversational clues like tone of voice, facial expressions and other body language.

Argamon said learning more about the differences in how men and women write and understand written language might also "have potentially great implications for our society in education." One possibility is gender-specific textbooks. Books aimed at girls or boys could be tweaked to suit their respective learning styles.

Argamon and his co-workers are trying to extend the automated gender-ID technique so that documents could be scanned to detect an anonymous author's age, educational level or ethnic background. Early results are promising, he said.

Such techniques could help criminal investigators quickly compose a basic profile of the author of a ransom note, threat or other communique.

They could also be used to authenticate authorship. Speculation about who wrote the Clinton-era novel "Primary Colors" lingered for months until a Vassar University expert manually compared the styles of various writers, eventually identifying the author as Joe Klein.

Raul Valdes-Perez, currently on leave from Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department, foresees other applications. He is co-developer of Vivismo, software that categorizes Web search results, and president of Vivismo Inc.

"Suppose that sales/service inquiries come in by e-mail," he said. "Assume people like to be served by someone of the same sex, such as patients consulting doctors, or the opposite sex. The program could automatically assign a person of the same inferred sex to handle the inquiry."

Michael Woods can be reached at or 1-202-662-7072.

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