Digital Humanities Abstracts

“New Directions in Statistical Stylistics and Authorship Attribution”
David Hoover New York University

This presentation will describe an investigation that compares the relative effectiveness and accuracy of multivariate analysis (cluster analysis) of the frequencies of very frequent words and the frequencies of very frequent word sequences in correctly attributing texts to authors. Cluster analyses based on the most frequent words are fairly accurate for corpora of texts by known authors, whether the texts are 30,000- or 10,000-word sections of modern British and American novels, or 4,000-word sections of contemporary literary critical texts. They are, however, only rarely completely accurate; furthermore, when small groups of problematic texts taken from the corpora are used in simulated authorship studies, analyses based on frequent words rather consistently fail to cluster them correctly. But when frequent word sequences are used rather than frequent words or in addition to them, the analyses often improve in accuracy, sometimes quite significantly, suggesting that analyses based on frequent word sequences constitute improved tools for authorship attribution and statistical stylistic studies. One of the most popular places to search for a "wordprint" that can characterize the style of an author has been among the frequencies of the most frequent words of the language. In his seminal work on Jane Austen (1987), John F. Burrows demonstrated fairly convincingly that the frequencies of extremely frequent words like the, and, of, a, and to, can often be used to distinguish different authors, novels, and even different characters within a single novel. In spite of their intuitively insignificant nature, such words can even have interesting and potentially significant stylistic effects. This seems surprising when we remember that the five words above normally constitute roughly 20% of the word tokens in a novel. Yet their high frequency and the extreme unlikelihood that authors can or even wish to consciously control them suggests habitual or routinized use that may reflect an author's style across all his or her texts, in spite of differing subjects, themes, and points of view. Because of this, and because their frequencies often vary significantly among different authors, texts, and characters, in spite of their uniformly high frequencies (see Burrows, 1987: 3-4), frequent words have been popular targets for various kinds of multivariate analysis (see also, Burrows and Hassall, 1988, and Burrows, 1992). Much recent work with multivariate analysis of the frequencies of frequent words has produced interesting and significant results, especially in the field of authorship attribution (see Holmes, 1992, Holmes and Forsyth, 1995; Tweedie, Holmes, and Corns, 1998). As I have shown in a recent study (Hoover, 2001), however, cluster analysis of the frequencies of the most frequent words is very often not completely accurate in attributing texts to their authors when performed on a corpus of texts by known authors. As interesting as authorship attribution is, multivariate analysis is, I would argue, of potentially more interest in statistical stylistics and corpus stylistics. If techniques can be found that can accurately distinguish authors from each other, those techniques should be able to tell us something significant about the styles of those authors. To further the search for more accurate analytic methods, I have been evaluating cluster analyses based on frequent word sequences (defined simply as groups of contiguous words) rather than or combined with frequent words. (The idea for this project came out of a discussion with Gary Shawver of the Humanities Computing group at New York University about the possibility of looking at frequent collocations.) One reason that sequences are attractive is that the order of words within them provides information that cannot be retrieved from the frequencies of the constitutive elements alone. My investigation has shown that analyses involving frequent word sequences are often superior to analyses of the frequencies of frequent words in attributing known texts to known author. Some analyses using frequent sequences produce results that are completely accurate where frequent words alone fail, and some analyses using combinations of frequent sequences and frequent words are more effective than either by themselves, again sometimes producing completely accurate attributions in relatively intractable cases. I begin with an initial corpus of twenty-nine 30,000-word sections of Modern British and American novels by fourteen authors. I go on to analyze a subset of this corpus, consisting of twenty of novels by eight authors, limit the analysis still further to a corpus consisting of the sixteen third-person novels extracted from among the twenty novels, and then to the pure narrative of the same sixteen novels. I turn next to a very different kind of corpus, analyzing twenty-five contemporary articles of literary criticism, to test whether frequent collocations produce improved results for other genres. Finally, extracting the texts of two problematic authors from the sixteen pure narratives and two more from among the literary criticism analysis, I test the effectiveness of the analysis of frequent sequences under circumstances that more closely resemble traditional authorship problems. Although analyses based on frequent sequences or combinations of frequent sequences and frequent words are not universally more effective than those based on frequent words alone, and still fail to achieve completely correct results in some cases, they do seem promising as an additional tool in authorship attribution, and, potentially, in stylistic studies as well. Figures 1 and 2 show the improvement in two analyses when frequent sequences are used instead of, or in combination with, frequent words. Figure 3 shows that, in some cases, frequent sequences give correct results, even when frequent words uniformly fail.


J. F. Burrows. Computation into Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
J. F. Burrows. “Computers and the Study of Literature.” Computers and Written Texts. Ed. Christopher S. Butler. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 167-204.
J. F. Burrows A. J. Hassall. “Anna Boleyn and the Authenticity of Fielding's Feminine Narratives.” Eighteenth Century Studies. 1988. 21: 427-453.
Computers and Written Texts. Ed. Christopher S. Butler. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
D. I. Holmes. “A Stylometric Analysis of Mormon Scripture and Related Texts.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (A). 1992. 155: 91-120.
D. I. Holmes R. S. Forsyth. “The Federalist Revisited: New Directions in Authorship Attribution.” Literary & Linguistic Computing. 1995. 10: 111-127.
D. L. Hoover. “Making Use of Statistical Measures of Style.” MLA Convention, San Francisco, December 28, 1998. : , 1998.
D. L. Hoover. Language and Style in The Inheritors. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999.
D. L. Hoover. “Statistical Stylistics and Authorship Attribution: an Empirical Investigation.” Literary & Linguistic Computing. 2001. 16: 421-44.
F. J. Tweedie D. I. Holmes Thomas N. Corns. “The Provenance of De Doctrina Christiana, Attributed to John Milton: A Statistical Investigation.” Literary & Linguistic Computing. 1998. 13: 77-87.