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

PS: Language judgments and prejudices

A PS to the previous post:

We judge people by the way they speak, by which I mean we apply to them the generalizations we have gleaned from past associations with people who speak that way. I caution against being too hasty with these snap judgments. There are very good reasons why a non-stupid person would not be able to keep the homonyms straight. Maybe the writer is a bright, well-educated foreigner who is still learning English. Maybe there’s some kind of language disorder in an otherwise intelligent person. You can think of others – and you should, in order to avoid pre-judging people.

Linguist looks at 2nd Amendment

One thing I understand about New Hampshire, after eight years here, is that the state’s bold and famous motto, “live free or die,” refers mainly to the second half of the 2nd Amendment.

A few years ago, its (not my) Legislature was considering laws that will make concealed-carry easier and (this one really make me roll my eyes) allow guns at sporting events and other places where alcohol is available.

They recently passed a new concealed-carry law: now you don’t have to have a license with you.

Questions about the war on clickbait

“People tell us they don’t like stories that are misleading, sensational, or spammy. That includes clickbait headlines that are designed to get attention and lure visitors into clicking on a link.”

Facebook blog

So Facebook has declared war on clickbait.  The post defines three categories.

“Spammy” I can understand. But we already have protection built into our email services — and, hopefully, our minds.

What plagiarism is – and is not

I confidently predict that sometime in the next year, a public figure (or even someone you know) will be accused of plagiarism.  When that happens, read this first:

What plagiarism is — and is not

A brief definition: plagiarism is knowingly appropriating another’s original words and/or ideas and presenting them as one’s own.

As a student, scholar, and professional writer, I have long been familiar with the standards governing academic honesty and plagiarism. I applied these to many academic publications, including my master’s and doctoral theses. I dealt with student plagiarism at various times in my professorial career (1967-1980), and later, as a speechwriter and corporate communicator, I applied these standards to ensure that the content of my work products, including professional articles, was either original or properly attributed.

“Arrival” movie — an earnest but muddled attempt to render alien communication

Finally! A movie that makes an honest attempt to portray the way alien life-forms communicate — and actually stars a LINGUISTICS PROFESSOR who is tasked with figuring it out.
I was fascinated to see what they came up with. Previous efforts had the aliens either making unintelligible noises (as in “The Arrival,” a highly underrated movie with Charlie Sheen, Ron Silver, and Lindsay Crouse) or speaking perfect English, as has been the case as far back as the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and continuing through the original and all subsequent “Star Trek” movies and TV shows. (“Dune” used a simultaneous translating device, which at least shows an attempt.)
For some reason, the Klingons were given an actual language, while Vulcans, Romulans, and everybody else speaks English. Klingon has morphed into a full-fledged language, with literature, wedding vows, and – at least on “Big Bang Theory” – Klingon Boggle. But Klingon, Dothraki (language of “Game of Thrones” and subject of a course at Berkeley), and all other made-up languages are human languages, subject to the properties and limitations of our brains and vocal organs.
The film- and game-makers could have saved themselves the trouble: native languages all over the world are just as exotic and complex, with many features not found in the more familiar European tongues.
It’s all a cop-out, of course. And you can include “Star Wars” — in a far-off, long ago galaxy, everybody speaks English (except for the names of people and places, which sound like Lucas’ baby-talk). Seriously?
But “Arrival” does not cop out. It confronts the issue directly. I saw it twice, because at first I didn’t understand how the filmmakers were trying to conceptualize alien communication. I failed on both attempts, because the movie brought together a number of linguistic and sci-fi themes that added up to a muddled mess.
The linguist first figures out that although she can make no sense of the aliens’ sounds, the aliens are also communicating in visual images that look like circles with different shapes and strings attached to the periphery.
Every one of the circular images is different, suggesting that they mean different things. She and her team go to work, isolating the different pieces of all the circles in the conversations between earthlings and visitors.
This is quite different from doing linguistic fieldwork on Earth, because all humans, no matter how exotic their language, will match up pieces of language with the world outside language, thereby creating meaning. After collecting large numbers of these correspondences, the field linguist can begin to put together a vocabulary and a grammar. But since we know nothing of the aliens’ world and they know nothing of ours, we don’t know how to get at whatever meaning they’re creating with their symbols.
This unbridgeable gap is blithely crossed, and pretty soon, the linguist and her crew are getting English words out of the circle patterns. In a further leap. they determine that the aliens are giving them “power” or “tools” (or maybe power tools) by which they can shape their world.
The script mentions the Whorf Hypothesis — i.e.,that our language and thought shape our perceptions of the words…but turns it strangely sideways and seems to be saying that language gives us the power to shape and change our world, as “magic words” like “shazam” are supposed to do.
By the end of the movie, linguist and aliens are communicating in simple pidgin-English-sounding sentences (a cop-out, since this is how human cultures talk when they first encounter each other). So now alien languages create meanings and utterances in the same way we do — and it’s a small world after all!
The movie contains pieces of several other sci-fi, fantasy, and time-travel themes, some following the premise that language enables us to reshape the past (I think). At some point, it eluded me completely.
Once again I realized that our images of extraterrestrials are limited by our perceptions of our world and ourselves. Beyond this, we cannot go. I’m reminded of a remark by a physicist that the universe is not only weirder than we imagine — it is weirder than we CAN imagine.

Push-words, Part II: The power of Push

Part II — The Power of Push

From long years of observation, I’ve concluded that most people are not aware of the persuasive power of push-words – or of how blithely and frequently we call upon them. Most people believe that that their (portrayals of the) facts are THE facts.

But serious observers of the language know that when it comes to the matchup of words with reality, there’s very little in the external world, other than the totally mundane, that we can agree on. And many people experience a subjective reality – e.g., religion — that is completely inaccessible to others.

The most persuasive words in the language

How much would you pay for the most persuasive words in the language? And what do you think they would be? Are there really words that can get people to do anything you want?

Reality check: there are no magic words, and we cannot always get people to do what we want with words alone (though some persuaders are much more successful than others). But there are words that make it more likely.

At an early age, we are taught social forms – please, thank you – that lubricate the mechanisms of getting things done. But the persuasive words I’m about to show you go way beyond politeness. They subtly influence the way the audience sees reality.

Alan Perlman reviews Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”

I just finished “The Kingdom of Speech,” by Tom Wolfe (2016, Little, Brown), author of “The Right Stuff” (about the first astronauts), “Bonfire of the Vanities” (a shot at NY’s elites), “A Man in Full,” (about the vulgar wealth of the New South), and many others I enjoyed immensely.  Apart from his stylistic peculiarities, Wolfe brings the informed layman’s perspective, which he fills in with rich detail and tells you things you weren’t aware you didn’t know, e.g., in “Right Stuff,” that ”burned beyond recognition” is often a sanitized way of saying “barbecued into a human turkey,” which Wolfe describes in detail. Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain

“We cannot get grace from gadgets.”
J.B. Priestly

The website of cheerily proclaims that “Turnitin helps educators evaluate student work and provide great feedback to improve student learning. The cloud-based service is available at an annual subscription for schools, colleges, and universities.”

Like all tools, this one can be turned to malevolent use. I am a practitioner of forensic linguistics ( ) and every year I get more plagiarism cases. The accused include high school and college students and even law professors, and more often than not, turnitin is the weapon of choice.

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.”

On the Quasi-plagiarism of Rand Paul

All of a sudden, Plagiarism Rand Paul gets over 40 MILLION Google hits. But the charge is somewhat bogus.

Plagiarism, in my experience, is one of those charges that is meant to question someone’s basic integrity. Whether true or not (and it’s hard to decide; see below), the mere accusation brings stigma. I have more than once been consulted about a plagiarism charge, groundless upon investigation but meant to be part of a general moral attack. Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

Memo to National Pork Board Lawyers

By Alan M. Perlman.

A geek site, as an April Fools prank, launches a new product — unicorn meat – which it calls “the new white meat,” and lawyers for the National Pork Board issue a cease-and-desist order, because they’ve gone to great lengths to copyright “the other white meat” as a synonym for “pork,” and the new product might cause consumer confusion (or “trademark dilution,” as they sometimes call it).

When a Lawyer Needs a Linguist…

By Alan M. Perlman.

When does a lawyer need a linguist? As Roger Shuy, one of the most pre-eminent forensic linguists, has observed, the interpretation and application of the law are overwhelmingly about language. Thus, there are many situations in which the expertise of a linguist – someone trained in the precise description and analysis of language (but not necessarily a person who knows many languages) – can make substantial contributions to a case, providing evidence one way or the other or simply clarifying the linguistic principles, problems, and processes that the case involves.

Alan is quoted in the Washington Post.

June 13, 2004, Sunday



By Amy Joyce

Susannah Rast got a letter from her employer at the beginning of the year that said the company was “implementing a reduction in force to your position.”Not only did her boss not say she was being let go, but it was additionally laughable because this “reduction in force” was in an office of just 12 people. And she was the only one let go.

The Language of “The Passion”

If we can set aside, just for a moment, our passions about “The Passion,” we can view it as a movie with some really good linguistic special effects.

Below is the full text version of an article entitled “The Jesuit scholar who translated ‘The Passion'” (by Nathan Bierma, Special to the Tribune. Chicago Tribune, Mar 4, 2004). The footnote numbers refer to my comments at the end.

Obscured by the furor surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is one relatively mundane bit of trivia: Last week’s debut marked the widest release ever of a subtitled film in North America.