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Forensic linguistics and sticking to your style

Posted on 26th January 2015

I went to a meeting the other day about forensic linguistics and it was interesting to hear what the speaker, a professor at a UK university, said about how they look for patterns in writing to identify a person or connect a suspect with some text.

Examples included how someone tried to fake being the victim and knowing that the victim liked to use semicolons, the suspect used lots of them too. However, the victim had used them incorrectly in their texts but the suspect clearly took more notice in grammar lessons and always used them 'correctly'. This wasn't enough evidence on its own, but it added to the picture that the forensic linguists could create to connect the suspect to the crime.

This got me thinking... As a copy editor and proofreader, it's my job to help ensure text is free of errors, but what if an 'error' is a chosen style?

I'm currently working on a book for an author and it's the fifth in a series. I've not worked on his previous books and there's no formal style guide, so where I'm noticing nuances in his punctuation or formatting, I'm pointing out that it's not perhaps standard, but I don't want to alter the style as readers no doubt expect him to write a certain way. The forensic linguist talked about distinctiveness, and it's these sorts of idiosyncrasies that add to the particular style of someone's writing. After all, many readers buy books by their favourite authors expecting them to be similar to previous works by them. To change style or lose those distinctive features may work against the author (and their sales). This goes for non-fiction too, with marketing or web text often following a brand identity to make it clear that it's the same company across the board.

When working with fiction in particular, I often find myself commenting to clients that though x or y may not be technically correct, if they're happy to intentionally flout a supposed rule, it's their literary licence to do so. After all, if an editor or proofreader had checked Shakespeare's work and told him to amend some of his made-up words, the English language wouldn't be the rich and varied lexicon that it is.

So, unless you're trying to purposefully lose your trail, being consistent and distinctive is a good way forward.

Written by Kate Haigh.