A brilliant investigator cracks crimes by analysing the crook’s prose style. Shame about his own...
How can you tell if this review is written by me, or by someone pretending to be me? Your first step should be to look for telltale words and phrases, or even peculiarities of punctuation that I have used in previous articles.
For instance, I use the word ‘even’ rather more frequently than most writers, not to mention the word ‘rather’, and, as it happens, the phrase ‘not to mention’. Oddly enough, I also have a slightly irritating habit of using the phrase ‘oddly enough’ to begin sentences.
But if someone clever were pretending to be me, they would already have noticed these particular traits, and would deliberately ape them, to make their impersonation all the more convincing. So, for a more thorough investigation, you would probably have to contact a forensic linguistics expert such as John Olsson, Adjunct Professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and Visiting Professor of Forensic Linguistics at the International University of Novi Pazar, Serbia, no less.
Prof Olsson specialises in working out who wrote what, based purely on their writing style, and its associated tropes, such as where they place commas or dashes. It is his contention – and I’m sure he is right – that no two people write the same, and that, subjected to careful study, even the most diligent impersonator can be detected. As Shakespeare noted, ‘every word doth almost tell my name’.
Prof Olsson starts More Wordcrime by saying what he does not do. He does not analyse handwriting or perform a psychological evaluation of any given writer. He does not try to work out whether a writer is lying or telling the truth. He simply scrutinises different documents – not just letters but texts and emails and so on – and tries to work out if they were written by the same hand.
A fairly typical case involved threatening letters sent anonymously to a businesswoman. The first letter began: ‘Just thought Id tell you I’m going to pay you a visit cos that’s the job I do. Visit people. It’s a bit sad for me that they don’t seem to like me visiting them. Well, not much anyway.’ The writer then added, nastily, that he was writing on behalf of someone who was ‘capable of hurting people beyond their wildest dreams’.
The woman suspected the writer might be a middle-aged businessman whose sexual advances she had rebuffed a few years before, and who now wished to frighten her. Luckily, she had kept a number of business emails he had written to her before the rebuff, so Olsson 24 was then able to compare the business emails with the threatening letters. Were they written by the same man?
Close examination showed the two had much in common: both used the abbreviation ‘cos’ instead of ‘because’, and began sentences with ‘Well’, followed by a comma. More tellingly, both writers wrote ‘D’you know’ rather than ‘Do you know’, a habit that is, Olsson observes, ‘extremely rare’.
For these and other reasons, Olsson concluded that this businessman was also the anonymous letter-writer. The victim sent Olsson’s report to the police, the police confronted the businessman, and the businessman immediately confessed. Hey presto! A triumph for forensic linguistics!
An infinitely more chilling case involved the murder of a teenage girl, Ashleigh Hall, who, in October 2009, had been due to meet a young man called Pete whom she had been chatting to on Facebook. As he couldn’t drive, Pete texted that his father would pick her up from her home in Durham:
‘My dad’s on his way babe he said excuse the state of him lol He’s been at work lol he doesn’t have to come in and meet your mum does he lol he’ll be a mess probably lol x’
A little later Ashleigh received a text from the father:
‘Hi hun it’s pete’s dad are you sure you dont mind me picking you up? Pete is really looking foreward to seeing you and yes its ok for you to stay’
Sure enough, Ashleigh got into the car. She then exchanged reassuringly chatty texts with her best friend about The X Factor. An early one from Ashleigh read: ‘I liked that ollie he was realli gd i thought, his dancin was mint haha x x’ And a later one read: ‘Haha thts great tht programme all the time haha’
The next day, a 33-year-old convicted rapist i watch it