Category: stylistic analysis

This is what “forensic linguistics” mean in popular parlance.  The comparison of texts and the interpretation of their differences/similarities began with the question of Biblical authorship, was used in legal cases in the 18th century, and is now used to identify the authors of ransom notes, manifestos, and abusive or libelous emails or other electronic communications.  Also called “stylometrics.”

The forensic linguist and the Artful Dodger: Can people deliberately fake their writing style?

Perhaps 25% of the cases I handle involve the authorship of anonymous, disputed, or forged documents.  The client wants to know who’s writing those nasty, threatening emails or letters.  I typically ask the client for writing samples from the suspected author.  Sometimes there’s more than one suspect, and I have to decide which of them may be the author of the anonymous document(s).

I don’t use computers or statistics (what do they give you but numbers and probabilities, which still require interpretation?).  I analyze the text in the traditional manner, which involves the tools and techniques of the discipline known as “stylistics.”

Stylistic analysis/stylometrics – a concise statement

The following description is taken from an affidavit by Gerald R. McMenamin, one of the leading scholars in the field; the affidavit – from Case 1:10-cv-00569-RJA -LGF Document 50 Filed 06/02/11

As part of his expert witness statement, McMenamin describes the theoretical and practical foundation of the method by which he examined documents and determined that they were not written by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24gray.html, :

These are the principles I apply to my authorship analyses

Principles of stylistic analysis

Basis forensic skills: How text-sensitive are you?

A forensic linguist must be exquisitely sensitive to nuances of text.  Where a synonym exists, the very choice of each word represents a decision on the part of the author.  Superimposed upon that is the way toward is spelled, abbreviated or capitalized. Truly, a text is a tangle of choices.

The following are intended to test your potential as a forensic linguist. There are two exercises from Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law, by John Olsson (New York: Continuum, 2004).

(1) From page 193:

Note ALL peculiarities in the following text.

Reply to student: suggested authorship project

This rarest of all things — a legitimate letter from Nigeria (at least, I think — it didn’t ask for money) landed in my in-box:
 
Hello Dr. Alan. I am N__________from Nigeria. I am a student of Stylistics at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. My professor requested for a term paper on ‘Forensic Stylistics’ and I happened to stumble on your website while searching for useful materials.
 
Sir, I must confess that I am at a dead end and I would appreciate whatever help you can render.
 
[In fairness to the professor, he/she might well have assigned reading materials, but getting from there to a paper is another matter. You can’t just recycle what your sources say. And original insights about new, sophisticated material are very hard for a beginner. So how about a project, an application, a demonstration that you know the methods and that they work? My reply:].
 
Dear N_______
 
For this project, you will need six classmates, to provide enough data. Ask each of them for 5-6 emails, preferably of several paragraphs in length. No text messages. All writing in English. The emails don’t have to be identified by writer, just by number or letter. Or you can use their names. Then ask one (you won’t know which one) of the six to give you another sample, unsigned. (Variation: provide a seventh sample, from a completely different person.)
 
Your task is to use stylistic analysis to determine who wrote the anonymous email. Your term paper will explain all of the above, plus an assessment of the success/failure your analysis — hopefully, you guessed the mystery writer. This is very similar to many of the authorship cases I do.
 
Best regards and best of luck,
 
Alan Perlman

FAQ’s about forensic linguistics

(from Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics, by Gerald R. McMenamin, CRC Press, 2002).

Q: What is the role of the analyst’s intuition?

A: Intuition is the analyst’s use of his or her own judgment to discover linguistic variation and suggest initial hypotheses to investigate. As a speaker or writer of the language and as a linguist, the analyst uses introspection to start the process of analysis. Lakoff comments, on the use of introspection and informal observation that, “… any procedure is at some point introspective…” (Lakoff, 19705:5). A good discussion of the methodological role of intuition in linguistic research can be found in B. Johnstone, Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

A Note on the Origins of Forensic Linguistics

Although it employs the methods and concepts of modern linguistics (and sometimes makes use of statistical analysis and computer databases), forensic linguistics is at least 200 years old.

According to Gerald R. McMenamin (Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics), “hundreds of studies — in the form of journal articles and books — have been done on style, stylistics, and questioned authorship. German studies of Old Testament authorship date back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In addition, evidence has been presented in multiple court cases, and numerous judicial opinions have been documented based on evidence of forensic stylistics.

Whole lotta shruggin’ goin’ on: Observations on a most peculiar literary quirk

“Epithets, like pepper / Give zest to what you write; / And if you strew them sparely, / They whet the appetite: / But if you lay them on too thick, / You spoil the matter quite!”

Lewis Carroll, “Poeta fit, non Nascitur,” 1869

“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.”

W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up,” 1938

Leave it to a linguist to obsess over the use of a single word…but, well, that’s what we do. I could write an entire article on the appearance and evolution of interjections like Duh! and meh, or new conversation-stoppers like what-ever (pronounced with falling intonation).