Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Nation & World

Word detectives: Close look at word choice could ID New York Times op-ed writer

WASHINGTON — Language detectives say the key clues to who wrote the anonymous New York Times opinion piece slamming President Donald Trump may not be the odd and glimmering "lodestar," but the itty-bitty words that people usually read right over: "I," "of" and "but."

And lodestar? That could be a red herring meant to throw sleuths off track, some experts say.

Experts use a combination of language use, statistics and computer science to help figure out who wrote documents that are anonymous or possibly plagiarized. They’ve even solved crimes and historical mysteries that way. Some call the field forensic linguistics, others call it stylometry or simply doing "author attribution."

The field is suddenly at center stage after an unidentified "senior administration official" wrote in the Times that he or she was part of a "resistance" movement working from within the administration to curb Trump’s most dangerous impulses.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook with requests to do that analysis and I just don’t have the time," says Duquesne University computer and language scientist Patrick Juola.

Robert Leonard, a Hofstra University linguistics professor who has helped solve murders by examining language, says if experts could get the right number of writing samples from officials whose identities are known, "an analysis could certainly be done."

One political scientist figures there are about 50 people in the Trump administration who fit the Times’ description as a senior administration official and could be the author. The key would be to look at how they write, the words they use, what words they put next to each other, spelling, punctuation and even tenses, experts say.

"Language is a set of choices. What to say, how to say and when to say it," Juola says. "And there’s a lot of different options."

One of the favorite techniques of Juola and other experts is to look at what’s called "function words." These are words people use all the time but that are hard to define because they more provide function than meaning. Some examples are "of," "with," "the," "a," "over" and "and."

"We all use them but we don’t use them in the same way," Juola says. "We don’t use them in the same frequency." Same goes with apostrophes and other punctuation.

For example, do you say "different from" or "different than?" asks computer science and data expert Shlomo Argamon of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Women tend to use first- and second-person pronouns more — "I," "me" and "you" — and more present tense, Argamon says.

Men use "the," "of," "this" and "that" more often, he says.

"You look for clues and you try to assess the usefulness of those clues," Argamon says. But he is less optimistic that the Trump opinion piece case will be cracked for various reasons, including the New York Times’ editing for style and possible efforts to fool language detectives with words that someone else likes to use such as "lodestar." Mostly, he’s pessimistic because to do a proper comparison, samples from all suspects have to be gathered and have to be similar, such as all opinion columns as opposed to novels, speeches or magazine stories.

Rachel Greenstadt at Drexel University studies when people try to throw off investigators with words they don’t normally use or purposeful bad spellings. She says her first instinct is that the word "lodestar" — one Vice President Mike Pence has used several times — is "a red herring." It seems too deliberate.

"Most people are still looking for sound bite-sized features like lodestar instead of trying to get a handle on the whole picture," says Hofstra’s Leonard.

Greenstadt says language analysis "could kind of contribute to the picture" of who wrote the Times’ opinion pieces, but she adds "by itself, I’d be concerned to use it."

Still, with the right conditions words matter.

Juola testified in about 15 trials and handled even more cases that never made it to court. His biggest case was in 2013, when a British newspaper got a tip that the book The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith was really written by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. In about an hour, Juola fed two Rowling books, The Cuckoo’s Calling and six other novels into his computer, analyzed the language patterns with four different systems and concluded that Rowling did it.

A couple of days later, Rowling confessed.

It was far from the first time that language use fingered the real culprit. The Unabomber’s brother identified him because of his distinctive writing style. Field pioneers helped find a kidnapper who used the unique term "devil strip" for the grassy area between the sidewalk and road. The phrase is only used in parts of Ohio.

Even in politics, words are poker tells. In 1996, the novel Primary Colors about a Clintonesque presidential candidate set Washington abuzz trying to figure out who was the anonymous author. An analysis by a Vassar professor and other work pointed to Newsweek’s Joe Klein and he finally admitted it.

But the literary sleuthing goes back to the founding of the republic. Historians had a hard time figuring out which specific Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton and which were by James Madison. A 1963 statistical analysis figured it out: One of the many clues came down to usage of the words "while" and "whilst." Madison used "whilst"; Hamilton preferred "while."

Juola says experts in the field can generally tell introverts from extroverts, men from women, education level, age, location, almost everything but astrological sign.

"The science is very good," Juola said. "It’s not quite DNA. It’s actually considered by some scientists to be considered the second-most accurate form of forensic identification we have because it is so good."

Comments

Carlton: On mug shots, Hillsborough sheriff tries to strike balance on public records that should be public

Does your babysitter have an arrest record? Hillsborough's sheriff is making online access to records a step harder, but not for the reasons you might think. A story of government and compromise.
Updated: 12 hours ago
Mars getting first U.S. visitor in years, a 3-legged geologist

Mars getting first U.S. visitor in years, a 3-legged geologist

CAPE CANAVERAL — Mars is about to get its first U.S. visitor in years.NASA's three-legged, one-armed geologist known as InSight makes its grand entrance through the rose-tinted Martian skies on Monday.It will be the first American spacecraft t...
Published: 11/20/18
Ivanka Trump used a personal email account to send hundreds of emails about government business last year

Ivanka Trump used a personal email account to send hundreds of emails about government business last year

That review revealed that throughout much of 2017, she often discussed or relayed official White House business using a private email account with a domain that she shares with her husband, Jared Kush
Published: 11/20/18
Judge bars U.S. from enforcing Trump asylum ban

Judge bars U.S. from enforcing Trump asylum ban

A federal judge barred the Trump administration from refusing asylum to immigrants who cross the southern border illegally.
Published: 11/20/18
Woman who died after plunging off Royal Princess cruise ship identified as American as mystery deepens

Woman who died after plunging off Royal Princess cruise ship identified as American as mystery deepens

The FBI and prosecutors in Aruba are investigating the death of a 52-year-old woman who fell 14 stories from the cruise ship. One news site said a man had been seen choking her before she went over.
Published: 11/19/18
Updated: 11/20/18
Woman who underwent botched nose job in hospice care; fate 'is in the hands of God'

Woman who underwent botched nose job in hospice care; fate 'is in the hands of God'

The woman who went into a coma last month after undergoing a nose job in Mexico is now in hospice care, and her fate "is in the hands of God." Laura Avila, of Dallas, has been on life support since Oct. 30, when she traveled from Texas to Mexico to ...
Published: 11/19/18
Updated: 11/20/18
White House permanently restores CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass

White House permanently restores CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Bill Shine made the announcement in a letter to Acosta, but warned him his credentials could again be in jeopardy if he violates a fr
Published: 11/19/18
Chicago officer, multiple others shot in attack at hospital

Chicago officer, multiple others shot in attack at hospital

A Chicago police officer and multiple other people, including an apparent shooter, were wounded Monday afternoon in an “active shooter” attack at Mercy Hospital on the city’s Near South Side.
Published: 11/19/18
Colorado man gets life for killing pregnant wife, 2 girls

Colorado man gets life for killing pregnant wife, 2 girls

A Colorado man was sentenced Monday to life in prison for killing his pregnant wife and their two young daughters and dumping their bodies on an oil work site.
Published: 11/19/18
Why a salmonella outbreak shouldn't ruin your Thanksgiving

Why a salmonella outbreak shouldn't ruin your Thanksgiving

There's no reason to skip Thanksgiving dinner because of a salmonella outbreak linked to raw turkey.
Published: 11/18/18