Famous forensic linguist cases

The publication of an anonymously written op-ed piece in The New York Times in early September brought to mind the idea of a “forensic linguist” or word detective. The term “forensic linguist” was coined in the late 1960s, though the work of word detectives goes back many years.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.In the US, the first crime solved by forensic linguists happened in 1927.   A girl was kidnapped in upstate New York.  Her family, the McClure family, received a ransom note addressed to the girl’s uncle, Duncan McLure, the only member of the family to spell his name McLure.  Yet the ransom note was addressed to Duncan McLure.  Police thought it odd that the kidnapper would know that the uncle spelled his name differently from the rest of the family.  They figured he was in on the kidnapping.  Sure enough, the uncle eventually confessed.

The case of the Unabomber was solved in 1995 with the help of a forensic linguist.  A man dubbed the “Unabomber” was wanted by the FBI for a series of bombings which killed three people and injured more than a dozen over many years.  This unidentified terrorist wrote a “manifesto” explaining his beliefs and promised to stop the killings if the manifesto were published.  It was.  One reader thought he recognized the writing style in the manifesto as the same style as of his reclusive brother.  An FBI profiler, James Fitzgerald, studied the manifesto, comparing the words and writing style with other known writings by the man’s brother.  The FBI brought the linguistic findings to a federal court which granted a search warrant for the recluse’s cabin.  Information in the cabin corroborated the suspicion that the recluse was the Unabomber.   Theodore Kaczinski was arrested and imprisoned, ending a 17-year hunt.

1996 was an election year with President Bill Clinton running for a second term as President.  A new novel told the inside story of a southern Presidential contender from the perspective of a campaign insider.  Its author, “Anonymous,” rocketed to the top of the best seller list.   The hunt was on for the author’s identity.  A Vassar College English professor, Donald Foster, used the skills of a forensic linguist to narrow down the possible writers.  Foster tallied word frequency in the controversial novel.  By comparing the result with word frequency in the writings of likely authors, Foster correctly identified the anonymous author as Joe Klein, a news magazine columnist.  At first Klein denied it, but later comparisons of portions of the hand-written manuscript with other handwritten work by Klein proved him to be the author, and he eventually admitted authorship.

Another example of forensic linguistics was in finding the author of a 2013 critically acclaimed novel, The Cuckoo’s CallingThe Sunday Times of London’s art editor suspected that Robert Gilbraith, listed as the author, might be a pen name of J. K. Rowling.  The Times hired a forensic linguist, Patrick Juola, to investigate.  Juola searched by computer for data related to adjacent words, to the most commonly used words, and to the use of long and short words, among other searches.   This gave him a “fingerprint” of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.   He did the same kind of search of The Casual Vacancy, a known book by Rowling, and of the final Harry Potter book.  Then he compared that data with similar searches of books by three other female novelists.  The results showed that Rowling was highly likely to be the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  With all this evidence, Rowling confessed that she was indeed the author.

Will the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer be known soon?  If the original writing wasn’t edited much, then most likely the author will become known. The computer analysis of J. K. Rowling’s writing took only a half hour.  Plug in the right information, and a match will show.

But if the writer purposely disguised his or her usual style, the task becomes harder.  And if that disguised style was heavily edited, the task becomes harder still.  And if the author denies authorship (and many of those suspected to be the author already have),  then the author may go unknown for years, even decades, as did Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.

For forensic linguists, it’s easier to eliminate suspects than it is to prove authorship.

 

 

 

Forensic linguists, a new kind of Sherlock Holmes

An anonymously written New York Times op-ed piece critical of the Trump White House was published on Wednesday. The author claims to be a senior official in the Trump White House.

Since then, a slew of senior officials have denied authorship. This raises the question: Can the identity of the anonymous writer be learned from an examination of his or her writing?

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.According to some forensic linguists—highly trained writing detectives—yes, the writer will eventually be outed.

What will forensic linguists be studying to identify the author? Some details might include:

  • The frequency with which particular words are used.
  • The average word and sentence length.
  • The average number of syllables per word.
  • The frequency with which articles (a, an, and the) are used.
  • The number of unique words.
  • Repetition of unusual words or variations on well-known sayings.
  • Regional or generational use of certain words.
  • Repeated errors such as in spelling, in use of apostrophes, or in grammar.
  • Sentence patterns.

Many crimes have been solved using the analysis of forensic linguists. But these specialists have erred too. They say it is easier to eliminate a suspected writer than to identify one.

No doubt forensic linguists are already busy comparing the anonymously written op-ed piece to known writings by senior White House officials.

Next: Some we’ll-known situations in which forensic linguists have proven authorship.

Citing evidence, paraphrasing and quoting

When students are expected to cite evidence from readings, beginning in late elementary grades, the problem of when and how to use paraphrasing and direct quotes arises, as well as how to combine the two seamlessly.

Let’s start with a story everyone knows, “The Three Little Pigs.”  Suppose the version of the story being analyzed says,

The wolf walked up to the door of the first little pig.  The wolf saw that the house was made of straw.  Silly little pig, thought the wolf.  I’ll have you for my dinner today.  So the wolf knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” 

Now suppose the student has taken the position that the wolf is a polite creature.  The student needs to cite information from the article proving this point.

What I have observed is that most students equate the word “cite” with “use direct quotes.”  To do that, students might quote the whole paragraph as their citation.  (I see this all the time.)  But that is not a good way to cite.

One good way is to cite by paraphrasing without ever using direct quotes.  For example, to prove the wolf is polite, the student could write,

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in.  In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

But suppose the student wants to quote the words, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” because they are so identified with the classic wording of the story.  The student could have written most of the same citation as above, changing it this way.

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in, saying, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

This too is a citation.

However, what I see is that students directly quote two or three sentences or a whole paragraph without connecting the quote to their own grammar.  Both the students’ ideas and the direct quote stand alone in a paragraph with no transition from one to the other, and no attempt to shorten the quote to only a few key words.  If there is a transition from their own words to the direct quote it is stilted or confusing.

Students need much practice paraphrasing without using direct quotes, and paraphrasing plus using direct quotes.  This can be done using single paragraphs from fairy tales, songs, or news stories until students are comfortable with this kind of writing.

How to write literary criticism

Many high school students will start off the school year needing to write literary criticism of a book they read over the summer.  And many of those students don’t know what is expected of them.  Here is a quick explanation.

Literary criticism is a written analysis, evaluation or interpretation of a piece of literature.  Usually students focus on one small aspect of the book, play, poem or speech, such as the use of metaphor in a particular dialog or how repetition of phrases strengthens an argument.

Usually literary criticism is presented in persuasive essays.

What must the writer do?

  • Break the subject down into smaller elements.
  • Choose one element to analyze.
  • Focus on that single idea, and from it, develop a thesis.
  • Break that idea into several subtopics all of which support the thesis. Back up those subtopics with evidence.
  • Organize before writing sentences. Eliminate any subtopic or any evidence which does not support the thesis.
  • Explain to readers why your evidence—and therefore your thesis—is convincing.

Where do you begin?

  • Write your thesis first. Every other word in the essay depends on the thesis.  If you start with your introduction, you are wasting time.  It might have nothing to do with the thesis you decide on.
  • Find supporting evidence for your thesis in the literature you are analyzing. Explicitly explain why each bit of evidence supports your thesis.  Write subtopic sentences which group various examples of evidence.
  • Write the body of your essay. Make sure every subtopic sentence supports the thesis and every bit of evidence supports its subtopic sentence.  Make sure everything taken from the original source is cited, using one of the standard citation methods.
  • Now think of a hook or opening for your essay which leads to your thesis. The hook might be part of the introduction or it might precede it, but there must be a connection between the hook and the thesis topic.  Good hooks might include quotations, anecdotes, a riddle, questions requiring a thoughtful response, or humor.
  • If your hook is separate from your introduction, write your introduction next. If you have a separate hook, make sure you transition to your introduction.  Many introductions start with general information about a topic and then funnel toward the thesis.  Usually the thesis is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
  • Lastly, write a conclusion. You can repeat your thesis or not, but you must show that your essay is ending.  Good conclusions might look to the future of your topic or pick up an idea from the hook.  Humorous endings are good.  Make sure you do not introduce a new topic in your conclusion.

By the way, if this kind of essay sounds like the kind students need to write for the SAT, you are right.  And it’s a lot like the kind of essay students will need to write in college, too.

How to teach students to overcome run-ons

One of the most common writing mistakes students make is run-on sentences.

There are several types of run-on sentences.

  • A run-on can be two independent clauses connected by a comma (sometimes called a comma splice) such as “I ate an ice cream cone, it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be two independent clauses with no punctuation separating them such as “I ate an ice cream cone it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be one independent clause and one fragment usually connected without punctuation such as “I ate an ice cream cone was good.”

The problem is not how to correct run-ons.  When I point out run-ons in students’ writing, almost always students can identify where the error is and insert the correct punctuation or needed words.

The problem is that students don’t recognize run-ons within their own writing until someone points them out.  How can students be trained to recognize run-ons?

When I work with a student who tends to write  run-ons, I write “R-O” in the margins of papers we are revising.  At the end of our lesson, when we go over what needs improvement, again I write “R-O” in that list. On later dates, before we revise any student writing, I ask the student what kinds of errors he often makes.  Almost always he will say, “run-ons.”  I direct him to check each sentence for run-ons and to correct them before we revise together.

My hope is that when a student knows he makes a particular writing mistake, such as run-ons, he will look for those mistakes before submitting his writing to a teacher or to me.  This takes practice.

I have found certain kinds of run-ons are common.  One is an independent thought followed by a second independent thought which begins with a pronoun.  For example, “John ate the pie it was delicious.”  Or “Mary fell off the swing she hurt her elbow.”  Sometimes this type run-on uses a comma between the two clauses and sometimes not.

If I know a particular student tends to make these mistakes, I remind him to circle pronouns in the middle of sentences and to see if those pronouns start independent thoughts.  If so, a period, semicolon or comma-conjunction pair is needed to correct the error.

When I give students worksheets on run-ons, they spot and correct them with ease.  But when they write, they are unaware they have written run-ons until someone points this out or until they have become so accustomed to searching for them after-the-fact that they question themselves about a run-on while they are composing.

The key to solving run-ons is practice in recognizing them.  This can take years.

How to write “for example” properly

Many students don’t know how to incorporate the phrases “for example,” “for instance,” and “such as” into their writing.

“For example” and “for instance” are prepositional phrases, so they cannot start a “sentence” unless what follows is truly a sentence with a subject and a predicate.

Good:  I love to eat in August.  For example, corn-on-the-cob is sweet and berries are juicy.

Bad:  I love to eat fresh produce in August.  For instance, corn-on-the-cob and juicy berries.

Good:  In August, I love to eat fresh produce, for example, corn-on-the-cob and juicy berries.

“For example” and “for instance” are synonyms.  They are always followed by a comma (unless they come at the end of a sentence), and if they appear within a sentence, they are always preceded by a comma, much like appositives.

“Such as” has a similar meaning, but is not followed by a comma.

Good:  In August, I love to eat fruit such as juicy berries.

Bad:  In August, I love to eat fruit, such as juicy berries.

Many students are surprised to see “e.g.,” used to replace the words “for example.”  They think the correct abbreviation is “ex.”  But “e.g.,” is the proper way to write “for example.”  The comma is needed after the abbreviation just as it is needed after the words.  Unlike “for example” and “for instance,” “e.g., cannot start a sentence.

Good:  The restaurant offers many seafood meals, e.g., scallops, crab and lobster.

Bad:  E.g., scallops, crab and lobsters are seafood offered by the restaurant.

Want to try your hand?  From the following ten sentences, find the mistakes and fix them.  Not every sentence has a mistake.

  1. Mike prefers mystery writers from the mid-20th century, for example, Raymond Chandler.
  2. Winnie has visited many European countries such as Italy, France, and the UK.
  3. Grandpa collects old silver coins for example, Kennedy half dollars.
  4. We have two school holidays this semester e.g., Labor Day and Thanksgiving week.
  5. The next time I visit Boston, I want to see some historical sites, for instance the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s home.
  6. She writes two blogs. For example, comicphonics.com and EnglishWritingTeacher.com.
  7. Mom uses colored paper clips such as pink, purple and blue, for example.
  8. I love portrait stamps. For instance, the JFK stamp, the Sinatra stamp, and of course, the Elvis stamp.
  9. Evelyn wants a small, stylish car, such as a Mini-Cooper.
  10. Malia can’t decide which necklace to bring, for instance, her pearls or her turquoise choker.

 

 

How to encourage students to write more details

Among the most common writing mistakes students make is the failure to use enough details.  Here is one way to coax more details from students.

First, make sure students know what we mean by details.  Details include

  • Proper nouns
  • Numbers
  • Dates, days, months, years, seasons
  • Direct quotes
  • The thoughts of a person or character
  • Figures of speech
  • Sensory information—sights, sounds, and tastes
  • Facts
  • Examples—maybe the most important detail

Next, rewrite a sentence the student has already written, such as, “I was late for the bus.”  You can use any sentence, but if you use one of the student’s own sentences, the changes you make have more impact.

Now, you add a detail to the sentence, such as, “Yesterday, I was late for the bus.”

Now it is the student’s turn to add a detail to the same sentence.  She writes, “Yesterday, I was late for the school bus.”

Now it is your turn again.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was late for the school bus.”

Student’s turn.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was five minutes late tardy for the school bus.”

At this point, you might like to choose another sentence and repeat the exercise.

This kind of work can increase vocabulary too.  “My docile cat became aggressive when a stealthy bat flew out from the lofty peak of the municipal building.”