August 14, 2006

Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting

Last week, I tried without success to locate some empirical support for the widely-reported difference in daily word usage betwen men and women ("Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006). I started with Louann Brizendine's claim that "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000". I soon found a stunning array of other claimed numerical comparisons -- 50,000 vs. 25,000; 30,000 vs. 15,000; 30,000 vs. 12,000; 25,000 vs. 12,000; 20,000 to 24,000 vs. 7,000 to 10,000; 8,000 to 9,000 vs. 2,000 to 4,000; 7,000 vs. 2,000; 6,000 to 8,000 vs. 2,000 to 4,000 -- but no evidence that any of the numbers were not simply pulled out of the air (or perhaps out of some less salubrious place).

Today, Peter Seibel wrote in with another sighting, this time all the way from New Zealand. According to a "national news story" headlined "When young girls go bad", an Australian "psychologist and media pundit" named Michael Carr-Gregg has written a book (The Princess Bitchface Syndrome: Surviving Adolescent Girls) with yet another pair of numbers:

Brain differences make girls trickier to manage than boys in another way: they're cleverer. "Girls speak 5000 words a day whereas boys, with a good wind behind them, will speak maybe 2500," says Carr-Gregg. "Girls are much more manipulative and they use language more cleverly, so you have to be so much more aware of the techniques they use."

Peter writes:

I don't know if he says anything about this in his book and/or if he has any evidence to back up his claim.

I'm not willing to order a copy from Australia in order to find out, but my guess is that Dr. Carr-Gregg's book either just asserts the claim with no evidence, or else frames it with an empty appeal to authority, like "research shows that ..." Can any readers in Austalia or New Zealand leaf through a copy in a bookstore, and let us know?

[Let me add this. It might well be true that women use more words per day than men do, on average. It might even be true that this is a direct result of chromosomal or hormonal effects on the brain, whether during development or in the mature state, rather than being a result of different life experiences and different social contexts. Then again, it might be true that men use more words per day than women do, on average. The problem is that none of the people making assertions about this actually seem to have bothered to collect any evidence at all, one way or the other. There's a technical term that philosophers use to describe the practice of asserting things without caring much about whether they're actually true or not: they call this bullshit.

Though I freely admit that I don't have any quantitative evidence either, I'll make a common-sense prediction about what the numbers will be like, if and when someone collects them. Whatever the average between-sex difference turns out to be, there will also be an enormous amount of within-sex variation in talkiness, and there will also also be big differences, for any given individual, in talkiness from one setting to another. And I'll bet that the within-individual and within-group variation will turn out to be large compared to whatever the between-sex average difference turns out to be.]

[Update -- David Nash writes from down under:

When I asked for the cited book in the lunchtime crowd just now, the bookshop person said it is quite popular at the moment and pointed to it immediately (and it was low down and not on display).

"... my guess is that Mr. Carr-Gregg's book either just asserts the claim with no evidence, or else frames it with an empty appeal to authority, like "research shows that ..."

I couldn't find the quote from the author's interview that you quote, and the book even has an index (of sorts). The closest I could see is pp.6-7 "their [girls'] general superior communication skills ... tend to make them more articulate than their male counterparts ..." (no numbers).

On p.8: "... [MRI] has shown that in girls the corpus callosum ... has approximately thirty percent more connections than is the case with boys" though not explicitly linked to language in this passage. The author indeed has the odd "research shows that ..." but does sometimes name the researcher or the institution.

Well I suppose we (well, you...) could ask the author (

It looks like I might owe Michael Carr-Gregg an apology -- the assertion in question was attributed to him as a direct quotation in a review of his book, but apparently it wasn't quoted from the book, but was either taken from the interview or made up by the journalist. So following David's advice, I'll write to the author directly and ask about it.]

(I'll pick up the MRI/corpus callosum issue another time.)]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 14, 2006 07:53 PM