FAQ’s about forensic linguistics

(from Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics, by Gerald R. McMenamin, CRC Press, 2002).

Q: What is the role of the analyst’s intuition?

A: Intuition is the analyst’s use of his or her own judgment to discover linguistic variation and suggest initial hypotheses to investigate. As a speaker or writer of the language and as a linguist, the analyst uses introspection to start the process of analysis. Lakoff comments, on the use of introspection and informal observation that, “… any procedure is at some point introspective…” (Lakoff, 19705:5). A good discussion of the methodological role of intuition in linguistic research can be found in B. Johnstone, Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

Q: Are [the linguist’s] qualitative statements impressionistic?

A: This [question] is also asked in other ways: Is not qualitative analysis objective and quantitative [i.e., statistical] analysis objective?…[S]tylistic analyses are both qualitative and quantitative, but the description of written language is the first and most important means for discovering style variation [and identifying the writer of a document]. The focus of a qualitative study of writing is a systematic linguistic description of what forms are used by a writer and how and why they may be used.

Q: What is the process of argumentation?

A: The scientific basis of the argument is that of any empirical study: observation, description, measurement, and conclusion. In the specific case of authorship studies, the argument is as follows:

  • Notice these style-markers in the corpus of writing. . . .
  • Each of these markers has x probability of occurring in the writing of the speech community.
  • Taken as an aggregate set, they have y probability of occurring together in one writer.
  • The author-specific markers and their joint probability of occurrence are either the same as or the same as or different from those of comparison corpus of writing.

Q: Does the [linguist] look for exculpatory characteristics?

A: Whether certain evidence is incriminating or exculpatory is the concern of the client and the trier of fact, not the expert witness. The linguist analyzes the writings presented for both similarities and differences vis-a-vis the comparison writings, then states his or her findings, conclusions, and opinions. The linguist’s participation usually stops there if the evidence is not consistent with the expectations of the client. The linguist may testify at deposition or in court if it is the case that his or her evidence supports the client’s position.