Holmes & Watson Amid the Apostrophes

This past week’s New Yorker featured an article by Jack Hitt on the accomplishments of forensic linguists like Robert Leonard of Hofstra University, whose expertise about language use has brought convictions for accused killers and settlements in tangled cases about libel and copyright. I found the article fascinating, particularly in its report of a “schism” in the world of forensic linguistics. Who doesn’t love a good internecine quarrel? But I was caught off-guard by my own response to the careful discussion of how Leonard and others arrive at their conclusions.

I spend, after all, a good chunk of my day at the keyboard. Like most writers, I take some pride in what we variously call style or voice. I like to think that I know what elements constitute my style—a fondness for parataxis; a hunger for the periodic sentence; a desire to vary sentence length in any given paragraph; a continued allegiance to Mrs. Gieselmann’s diktat, from sixth grade, that we should avoid repetitive sentence structure and overuse of the verb “to be”; and so on. I also like to think that, when I so choose, I can morph like a chameleon. For instance, I could render the first sentence of this blog post several ways:

  • Did you catch The New Yorker this week? Jack Hitt zeroes in on forensic linguistics. Take Prof. Robert Leonard, for instance. Ensconced at Hofstra University, he’s been tackling murder cases, winning convictions on the basis of spelling patterns.
  • Hofstra University’s Rob Leonard may be “a little bit show biz,” according to Jack Hitt in his latest New Yorker piece, but his showmanship in forensic linguistics clinches convictions for accused murderers and settlements in copyright feuds.
  •  A dark night in a city that knows no secrets, but one academic is still trying to find the answers to language’s persistent peccadilloes. Rob Leonard, forensic linguist. Or so writes Jack Hitt in the July 23 New Yorker.

OK, so that last attempt involved a little plagiarism, but you catch my drift. We have no control over our DNA or our fingerprints. We may have no control over our respiration on a polygraph test. But we like to think we have control over our use of language, however strong our preferences. So long as we haven’t committed mayhem or character assassination, we have nothing to fear from the investigations of Prof. Leonard and his ilk, but it makes me nervous nonetheless. That some in the business, like Carole Chaski of Alias Technology in Delaware, believe the work of human forensic linguists can be topped by a well-designed software program does not allay the fear one whit.

One does hope, at least, that the forensic linguists will keep up with trends. The case Hitt focuses on in his article, for instance, involves a set of e-mails in which the guilty party uses “U” for “you,” a custom that’s apparently prevalent in text messages but not in e-mails. Already, before my eyes and in my own writing, I find that little quirk changing. So many of my casual correspondents have iPhones that the difference between these two forms of casual communication has vanished. When I write to them from my computer, knowing that they’ll pick up my note on their phones, I might type “C u later,” whereas six months ago I’d have written “See you later.” But I’m innocent, right? I have nothing to fear from the Sherlock Holmeses of the messaging era.


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