The Devil is in the Details

The hit TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its spinoffs (“CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY”) are about how crime scene analysts scour to find key evidence at the place of the incident – such as hair, fiber and fingerprints – to lead investigators to the bad guys.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
(Credit: CBS Studios)

But there’s another way to identify a person and you might be surprised by the method. It’s by scouring through his or her writing. This month, our blog is focused on words and word choice as the building blocks of messaging and communication. It turns out that the way in which you choose and use words is unique to you. Your words and the way you use them not only communicate your thoughts, but also identify you.

Experts who determine identity of the writer from their words are forensic linguists. These experts study bodies of work looking for patterns. They find these patterns in how you use contractions, punctuation, grammar and spelling. They look to see if you like to use LOL or symbols such as :), too.

Alan M. Perlman, Ph.D.

One such expert, Alan Perlman, is a New Hampshire-based forensic linguist, who will be our guest interviewee tomorrow to complete this week’s two-part blog. As he noted in an email to us, “Forensic linguistics doesn’t get the publicity it deserves (why no CSI spinoff?).  It’s not gory or sexy like other forms of forensic work but just as important. Upside is that no one knows that he/she can be nailed on his/her writing style, which gives me a lot of room to operate.”

This field is growing in importance because just about everything we do – from buying a car to emailing a co-worker – involves words. And those words can be critically important.

Take the case of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. When he was being sued by his college buddy over a partnership deal for the social networking site, his legal team hired a forensic linguist to try to determine if damaging emails that were supposedly written by Zuckerberg were actually written by him.

Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg
(Credit: AP)

His legal team’s expert called into question their authenticity, arguing that they contradicted other known Zuckerberg emails. For instance, he capitalized the word, “Internet,” but in one of the damaging emails, it was written in lower case.

This New York Times story details the case and also offers experts who worry that such evidence may be too flimsy, particularly when it comes to email authorship. Other forensic linguists, however, maintain that they can indeed successfully pin down authorship in the majority of cases.

Regardless, forensic linguists do amazing work with words. They actually solve crimes. For instance, in a case involving the kidnapping of a girl, the only clue was a ransom note, saying: “Do you ever want to see your precious little girl again? Put $10,000 cash in a diaper bag. Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at corner 18th and Carlson. Don’t bring anybody along. No kops!! Come alone! I’ll be watching you all the time. Anyone with you, deal is off and dautter is dead!!!”

Credit: GOOD

The forensic linguist in this case, Roger Shuy, identified that that only place in the United States where the term “devil strip” is used is in Akron, Ohio. There, “devil strip” refers to the grass strip between the sidewalk and the road.

He also theorized the kidnapper was intelligent. Why? The kidnapper misspelled easy words, such as “kops,” but was able to spell more difficult words like “precious” correctly. His theory was that the kidnapper was trying to mask his education by creating writing errors. So Shuy told the police to look for an educated man living in Toledo. As it turned out, the police had a suspect that matched that description. When confronted, he confessed.

Another linguist, Dr. Robert Leonard, was able to help authorities convict a wife killer though his writings. He explains it in this video.

Forensic linguists don’t just focus on crime. They also try to determine authorship for copyright infringement and plagiarism cases. They also study documents, such as wills.

Our guest interviewee this week, Alan Perlman, does all such work. Friday, we will close the week with our interview with him and the many aspects of this fascinating field.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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