Ten years ago in LLOG

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From 3/28/2004, a post that asks a question for which I still don't have a good answer:

How many times does a word or phrase need to be repeated in order to seem characteristic of a speaker or author? I think that the answer is "not very many times, maybe only once or twice, if the use in context is salient enough".

Ruminations on related issues can be found in "Strange Bookfellows" and "Captain Crunch among the Literati".  And since this question tells us as much about the reader or listener as it does about the writer or speaker, we should also consider the curious case of the president's pronouns.


  1. Toby said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    Can't help you there, but this reminds me, many years ago there was an episode of Simon & Simon where the bad guy communicates with the detectives over the phone with a device that masks the sound of his voice, but he gives away his identity by the way he drops a characteristic phrase into his sentences. If memory serves, the phrase was ", so to speak,". One of the characters in the episode who hadn't really even been a suspect to that point was a habitual user of this phrase.

  2. leoboiko said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    I agree that the lower bound is zero; Conan Doyle never actually wrote "Elementary, my dear Watson", and Carl Sagan became famous for "billions and billions" without ever writing or saying it (he found this funny and titled his final book Billions and Billions).

  3. Paige said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    "Maybe only once or twice": Yes, especially if the speaker or author uses the word incorrectly. One author used the word "shimmy" twice in one novel, once in another, and once in a news article. Four uses in hundreds of pages, but I noticed them all, and will forever associate that word with that author (and vice versa), because I thought that the first three uses were off the mark (I thought she should have used "shinny"). Was I right? I guess the answer to that question is the part that tells us as much about the reader as about the writer.

  4. Alon Lischinsky said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    How many times does a word or phrase need to be repeated in order to seem characteristic of a speaker or author?

    That is an answerable question only if we can determine what counts as a valid judgement of whether a phrase seems characteristic of a speaker. Obscurum per obscurius, if you ask me; “seems” to whom?

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