Basic forensic skills: How text-sensitive are you?

 

 

A forensic linguist who practices stylistic analysis 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 the word 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:

I was wrong: p.c. can go even lower

Just when I thought the absurdity of political correctness/perceived insult exemplified by the contrived controversy over the “lighter is better” beer commercial could not be topped, along comes p.c.’s most ludicrous artifact yet: new pronouns.

A couple of days ago, I watched in shock and awe as Tucker Carlson interviewed a woman who explained them:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrlIqGfHXrg

As a linguist, I am as liberal and objective as possible about language change.  (Even I have my own annoyances: I will continue to say home in on and not hone in on till my dying day, just as I will cringe when somebody says “proverbial” about something that is merely familiar, but not in an actual proverb, as in “It’s just another case of the proverbial sour grapes.”)

Trump, Trump, Trump: desperately seeking synonyms

Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities.  “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.

If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”

But we’re not talking about a literary character.  Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.

over-Trumpified

“Lighter is better”: Political correctness hits a new low

I have been bitching about political correctness for decades (e.g., “Why we love to hate p.c.,” Toastmaster magazine, June 1996; copies available on request) to no avail, and it keeps getting worse.  The list of offensive words has grown and grown.  New terms have appeared – “trigger words,” “hate speech,” “micro-aggressions” — as grievance groups continuously refine their exquisite sensitivities.

A recent example: you can’t refer to America as a “land of opportunity.”  Because not everybody has (or had) the same opportunities?

Forbidden words

For a quick — but accurate — summary of political rhetoric, read this

This is as good a summary of political rhetoric as I’ve seen:

“Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes—well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. This is what we observed in Washington on Wednesday, and it’s the scariest part of Trump’s big tax triumph.” (Masha Gessen, The New Yorker.)

Is Stephen Miller making policy decisions?  Who is Stephen Miller?

The answer to the second question is easier than the answer to the first.  Miller is from Santa Monica http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-trump-speechwriter-stephen-miller-pens-1495224315-htmlstory.html and, by whatever circuitous paths speechwriters’ careers take (and there are some weird ones), he is writing the President’s speeches.  At least, that’s the only source for Trump’s formal rhetoric that I could find.  Usually by this time, we know who’s writing the President’s speeches and where they come from.

At least, I do – I look for these things.

She judges you when you use poor grammar

Amazon just informed me of a book, by Sharon Eliza Nichols, entitled I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-Ups (Paperback – September 29, 2009).

In fact, there’s a whole series of books around the “More Badder Grammar” rubric. Of course, I’ll order the book and review it more extensively (if such extensiveness is merited; it may not be).

But I already have an idea of what it’s about. Here’s the blurb on the site https://www.amazon.com/…/0312533012/ref=pe_375410_246941470…

So, like, what’s up with this new use of “so”?

I like to watch language change the way many people like to see the seasons change – in fact, I like them both. Language change is the more unpredictable, yet, like the eternal revolution of heat and cold, it is inevitable and inexorable.
 
English existed as a language as early as the 5th century AD, with the arrival (make that “invasion”) of three dialect groups from the German mainland. But it sounded thoroughly Germanic, with lots of suffixes we lack, no pronoun “she,” and minus all the thousands of French and Latin words that came in during the Middle Ages.
 
Over the centuries, there were, for numerous reasons, profound changes in syntax and pronunciation. I would say that the earliest English we could understand would come from the late 17th century, and even then there would be a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary. Just remember that when you see a film set in the Middle Ages (or, even worse, in the time of King Arthur, when nobody spoke English), and they‘re all talking with modern British accents. It’s a copout! In fact, the English of the 1200s would be so different from Modern English that we would need subtitles.
 
Recent changes in English
The dawn of my consciousness as a linguist establishes sort of a baseline; it’s when I really started paying attention. Back then, “February and “library” had two “r”’s each, there as only one “u” in “nu-CLEE-ar” (not “nu-cu-lar”).
 
“Go” was reserved for animal sounds (“Pigs go ‘oink’”). Now people can go, as in “He arrived at ten, and I go, ‘You’re late!’” Other verbs of speech reporting have appeared, noted below.
 
“Like,” formerly a preposition and clause introducer (the latter usage was controversial: does anyone remember “Winston tastes good like [it should be AS] a cigarette should”?), is now a verbal hiccup which enables the speaker to distance himself from his/her/statement, e.g., “Like, I couldn’t tell him that, like, I’m like so bored.” “Like” in this usage is a syllable of non-commitment. It is the near-ubiquitous “as-if” signal of people unwilling to stand behind what they say or perhaps unable to find a more accurate word.
 
“They” has taken over, at least in colloquial speech and writing, as a pronoun for an indefinite antecedent (“A doctor might use the new drug on their patient.”). I see it in print.
 
We’ve acquired new syntactic speech mannerisms, e.g., postposed NOT to convey irony, as in ”I’ll be there tomorrow – NOT”…or postposed interrogatives, e.g., ”And you would be…?” or “”So you are here because…” as if the speaker is saving the hearer the trouble of deciphering the inverted English question syntax (”Why are you here?”) and providing an easy, fill-in-the blank way to respond.
 
“Home in on” – what a missile or homing pigeon does – is being replaced, rather quickly, by “hone in on,” with its connotations of sharpness and focus. I see that one in print, too.
 
With all of this as background, I consider a linguistic item brought to my attention by Steve, the friend of a friend.
 
“So” — what???
He asks: “Is anyone else annoyed by all the people answering every question with the adverb ‘so’? Example question: ‘How deep is the ocean?’ Example answer: ‘So, it depends where you measure.’ Is this new verbal cliché confined to academics and political analysts on NPR (where I just heard it in virtually every answer on Science Friday) or has it infected young people everywhere? Seems to be joining, ‘I was like…,’ she was all…’ and other verbal sludge in our language. Harrumph!
 
“I’ve noticed it and wondered. It’s not the traditional connective you might have expected meaning “therefore, as a result of.” It’s more of an enclitic, like “well,” a pause, a way to regroup and go on with an answer. [Not quite: an enclitic is a reduced word at the end of a word, like the “r” at the end of “yes’r,” a contracted form of “yes sir.” – AMP]”
 “Mistake” = change in progress?
As always, when we see a “mistake” or an innovation that pisses people off, it is evidence of change in the language system, and we gotta chill out and try to see what’s going on. Language is, in the title of John MacWhorter’s new book, always “on the move.”
 
People don’t know that until recently, “transpire” originally meant ‘to become known’ (trans + spire = “breathe across”), rather than ‘to happen.’ Happening vs. becoming known – important difference lost.
 
The verbal mannerism Steve notes is new to me but not unrelated to the other meanings of “so,” in this case continuative (“The store was closed, so we left.”). “So” apparently now means ‘thus, in order to continue the discussion.’ But it may mean nothing at all, beyond being a boundary marker, like sentence-initial “now” in many contexts (“Now, if we turn to the next topic…”). And of course, any innovation that spreads through a social group like NPR Nation can become definitive of group membership – “So, I’m so cool, I start sentences with ‘so.’”
 
One final example for Steve: In the last century, the progressive passive (“The house is being built”) was ridiculed as verbal sludge. But it moved in and is now fully accepted, even though we already had “the house is a-building.”
 
Of course Steve and I wouldn’t say “I’m all…” and “He goes…” — we’re over 15. We very consciously adopt age-appropriate expressions. But the word “cool,” in an area of language that changes very rapidly – terms of (dis)approbation – seems eternal and sounds fine, no matter who says it. And that’s cool.

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

What does the 2nd Amendment really say?

One thing I understand about New Hampshire, after ten 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.  (NH is the last state in New England to legalize cannabis.)

Analysis of 2nd Amendment

But when we try to read it as a whole, it makes the right to bear arms problematic and equivocal.

The text reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.

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.

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.

Turnitin.com: Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain

 

Turnitin.com: Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain

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

The website of turnitin.com 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 (www.language-expert.net ) 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.