Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

Beowulf Was Written By One Person, According to Computer Analysis

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The poem has been read in classrooms around the world and has influenced countless works of literature, but the identity of the author of Beowulf remains unknown. Scholars can't agree on when exactly the anonymous poet wrote Beowulf, or on whether it was even a single person. Now, a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour may finally put one part of that debate to rest. After analyzing the text of the Old English epic, researchers have concluded that Beowulf is the work of one author, the Boston Globe reports.

Written a millennium ago, Beowulf follows a brave hero, the title character, as he slays beasts in Scandinavia, including a monster named Grendel and Grendel's mother. The oldest surviving manuscript dates back to roughly 1000 CE, and there are many competing theories as to its origins.

For their study, researchers from Harvard and other universities used computer algorithms to find patterns in the poem. A type of literary statistic analysis called stylometry was able to break down Beowulf by a number of factors, including meter, breaks, word choice, and the prevalence of certain letter combinations.

The team found that many of the distinguishing style elements of Beowulf are consistent throughout the poem, suggesting that every line came from the same source. But who that one author might have been is still unknown.

Scholars love to speculate on the true authorship of great works—even when there are famous names attached to them. Some experts think that as many as nine writers are really responsible for William Shakespeare's body of work.

[h/t Boston Globe]

25 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

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iStock.com/asadykov

National Library Week is a time to celebrate the most influential books in literary history. But not every novel that's considered a classic today received instant praise. Many beloved titles had to overcome years of censorship before securing spots on required reading lists and library shelves.

The American Library Association has shared a list of books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century that have been challenged or banned. Of the 100 books, nearly half have received pushback from institutions in the past. Some have been criticized for featuring violence (Beloved), profanity (To Kill a Mockingbird), or controversial political messages (Animal Farm). Even seemingly inoffensive novels have been targeted by censors. (The Lord of the Rings was burned outside a New Mexico church in 2001 for being "satanic.")

Below are 25 of the most popular works of literature from the last century that have been banned from schools, libraries, and, in some cases, entire countries. For even more great books that have been banned, including picture books like Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, check out this list.

  1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison

  1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell

  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

  1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

  1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

  1. Native Son by Richard Wright

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

  1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

  1. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

  1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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