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.

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