This writ­ing’s

A bril­liant in­ves­ti­ga­tor cracks crimes by analysing the crook’s prose style. Shame about his own...

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - ART -

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

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