Language, personality and choice

Over the last few weeks, at the British Council ELTons awards and at the BELTA Day, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people I had got to know through their written contributions and posts to online spaces – blogs, Twitter, forums, Facebook. Many of them I hadn’t seen – other than in photos – or heard, but I had an idea of what they’d be like and whether I’d enjoy spending time with them. When I finally met them face-to-face, I was struck by how accurate that idea seemed to be.

From people’s online writing and written interactions, it would seem that we are able to read and find out about not only ideas, opinions and experiences, but also their personalities.  Recent studies have also found that personality can be perceived through writing as Lin Qui et al write:

“Previous research has documented accurate zero-acquaintance personality judgments made on the basis of writing samples, and identified the relationships between personality and language use in various contexts. The current study extends the existing findings by examining associations between microblogs and personality traits. We demonstrated that personality traits are associated with linguistic cues in microblogs and can be accurately judged by unknown others.”(Qui et al, 2012: 716)

Much of the research seems to have looked only at word choice. For example, Yarkoni (2010) in an analysis of 100,000 words from almost 700 different blogs showed that word choice and personality were related. It is likely that other aspects of the language will contribute to the representation of who we are, but it is probably easier to focus on words through text analysis software such as the Language Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) and studies such as these do support the impression that our personality comes across in our writing through the linguistic choices we make.

Roz Ivanič, introducing her book Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing, suggests that “readers try to figure out who is speaking to them, even though they often have to do this by detective work: reading the texts around the text, and, less consciously, searching for the writer’s identity in the writing itself” (Ivanič, 1998: 2).  We will have all done this. We will have formed impressions of those we read online, making judgements about their expertise and understanding, their motivation, their personality. We can, I think, pick up on the small clues that indicate that someone might not be as friendly, helpful and open as they’d like us to think they are. Similarly, we can detect that someone is not as anti-social as they’d like to let on! We may think of a person as being fun, earnest, moody, intelligent, defensive, enthusiastic, dedicated, delusional, vulnerable or confident. We will decide if we like the person, if we are on the same wavelength, and if we’d enjoy spending time with them face-to-face – and all this from what they have written.

As we know, there is usually not just one way to communicate something. When we use language, in either its written or spoken form, we make choices. Those choices are significant in determining what is conveyed – about the topic, about our take on it, about our understanding of the world, about us. Michael Halliday’s work sees language as consisting of “a set of systems, each of which offers the speaker (or writer) a choice of ways of expressing meanings” (Bloor & Bloor, 1995: 2). We select – consciously or unconsciously – the word or phrase, the grammatical structure, the tone of voice, etc. best suited to our purposes in any situation. The more we understand the choices, the better we’ll be able to come across as we’d like and the better able we’ll be to help language learners find a voice – their voice – online in a second language.

Language learners and/or new writers can be very aware of not being able to express who they are accurately. Some of them aim for ‘perfection’, believing there to be one correct way to say something and that other options are sub-standard and to be avoided by proficient users of the language. Others may not know enough about the options available to them – grammatically or lexically. They might not yet be able to pick up on the implications of the choices they make or know how to create the nuances of meaning that they can in their existing languages. This awareness of the gap between who they are and what they can express can make them reticent to write (blog, tweet, or post) publicly if what they are currently able to produce does not allow them to present a version of themselves that they are happy with.

But everyone has something to say and share. We all have opinions, experiences, ideas and knowledge. All expression of meaning is an opportunity to move knowledge of a language forward, to show other ways of saying or writing something, to give choices. And, whether we are speakers of English as a first or a second language, we are always adding to the choices available to us. The more choices we have and the more we know and understand those choices, the more able we are to connect with and to influence those who read or listen to us, and the more power we have.


Bloor, T and Bloor, M. (1995). The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach. London: Arnold.

Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Qui, L., Lin H. Ramsay, J., and Yang, F. (2012). You are what you tweet: Personality expression and perception on Twitter, Journal of Research in Personality, 46(6), 710-18.

Yarkoni, T. (2010). Personality in 100,000 Words: A large-scale analysis of personality and word use among bloggers, Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 363-73.

10 Responses to Language, personality and choice

  1. Vicky Loras says:

    Hi Carol!

    I love this post – I really like how you connect the two, how people express themselves online, and how learners express themselves in another language and their own.

    As to online expression, I completely agree with you that we can learn a great deal about people’s personalities from how they interact online. As Mieke Kenis said in her talk on BELTA Day, people can try to pretend they are someone else online but they cannot keep it up for long. The true self comes through eventually!

    Thank you for the interesting bibliography at the end. I will explore it for sure!

    And I was so happy to finally meet you face to face last week! Hope to see you again soon.

    Best wishes,

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Many thanks, Vicky! It’s good to know that you’ve enjoyed the post and thanks for reminding me of what Mieke said. I knew I’d come across that recently but couldn’t remember where. Someone mentioned that point in our swap shop discussion.

      It was great to meet you too! And you are just as lovely and enthusiastic as you are online! 😀


  2. sueannan says:

    Carol. I shared your experience the first time I went to a conference where members of my PLN were taking part. It is amazing how accurately the personality comes through in writing, even short pieces, although blog posts give an even more in depth look at someone. I really enjoyed meeting you f2f last week.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sue. It can be difficult to explain that you know people but haven’t yet met face-to-face, or even spoken to. It’s good to know that we can get an accurate impression of someone through their online participation.

      It was lovely to meet you last week. I hope you and Malcolm enjoyed the rest of your time in Belgium.


  3. swisssirja says:

    I absolutely love this post as it touches upon topics I have such a personal relationship! Firstly, writing a blog and shining through as a person. I definitely agree with that. Before my teacher blog, I kept for years a more personal, daily life blog in Estonian. I got loads of followers and I myself read numerous blogs myself. And I was also struck by how simply by reading someone’s writings for months and months you knew if you really appreciated this person or not. Some people I actually stopped following because I felt that in the end they were not my kind of people. Whereas, I also made some amazing friends who I will certainly stay in touch with for years to come (even though I have stopped the personal blog by now)
    The same for the teacher blogs. I have been blogging for some months now and it is incredible how affinities start growing. So I am extremely impatient to meet the wonderful educators I have met via internet and I am pretty confident I won’t be disappointed 😉

    As for learning a foreign language and feeling reluctant to write because of the lack of ease, I know exactly how it feels! I arrived in Switzerland 13 years ago speaking no word of French. I more or less picked it up as I went along. But this language has never struck the same chord with me as English, for instance. As I learned it in a very casual way, my written French is quite poor. So yes, I am extremely reluctant to write in French. Not speak, though. When I speak my whole body language can contribute so I feel I can say what I want and express the feelings I’m feeling.

    Hugs from the Alps

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Many thanks for sharing your experience, Sirja, particularly because you were one of the people who kept coming to mind when I was thinking about this. Your personality, as you so nicely put it, shines through your posts and comments and it’s interesting to hear that you have so many years of experience writing, reading and getting to know people, deciding whether you like them or not, through blogging. I imagine that these two factors will be related.

      Hugs back! 😉

  4. Thank you for this post Carol, it is really very insightful. I particularly liked the last two paragraphs, as it is something I think about a lot when writing my blog on Creative writing. The idea of helping learners to find a way to express who they are in a language that is not their ‘own’ and the confidence to put their ideas out there. This is often why we need to think carefully about the feedback we give them, and also, I think about the messages we give when we provide them with model texts to read.
    Anyway, thanks for a thought provoking Sunday read!

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Thanks, Jo! I’m glad to know that this resonates with you. I like what you do on your blog and the structure and support that the creative writing can provide. I should try to do more of it with learners. And, yes the feedback and the models are very important. Unfortunately, it seems, we don’t all have freedom to allow creativity and choices with language. I heard recently that in some exams there are a very limited number of acceptable ‘correct’ answers where knowledge of alternatives may actually have a detrimental effect on a person’s grade.

  5. geoffjordan says:

    Great post, Carol. Very sensitive,very well-considered. And very good references!

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